Bust of John Cabot

Bust of John Cabot

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John Cabot Sails for North America

John Cabot set sail from Bristol, England, looking for a route to the west on May 20th 1497.

While Christopher Columbus' monumentally bad sense of direction in 1492, which led to his discovery of the Americas, has been celebrated down the centuries as the pinnacle of the Age of Discovery, the equally confused meanderings of his countryman, John Cabot, have perhaps received less attention than they deserve.

Cabot was not the first man to set foot in North America – millions of Native Americans had seen to that. Nor was he the first European on the continent (the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada lays to rest once and for all the argument as to who got there first). Worse, he was not even the first Englishman to stride out confidently into God's own country. Yet when Cabot's ship, the Matthew, landed in what today is eastern Canada in June 1497, he began Britain's long and eventful association with the New World that continues to this day.

With a neat – and typical – sense of symmetry Columbus claimed the sultry southern half of the New World for Spain, while Cabot secured the windswept and frozen north for Henry Vll. Thus began a fierce rivalry between imperial Spain and Tudor and Stuart Britain over spheres of influence in the area that in time threw up characters as colourful as Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain Henry Morgan and 'Blackbeard', Edward Teach It was a rivalry, however, that may have claimed Cabot himself as its first victim.

Born Giovanni Caboto in Italy in 1450, after plying his trade as a sailor across the Mediterranean, Cabot moved to England in 1484 to try his luck there. When Christopher Columbus, a fellow Genoese sailor, discovered America in 1492, he sparked off a rush of westward voyages by sailors, explorers and adventurers looking for the elusive western route to the Indies. Already mindful that. the Spanish had a head start on him in opening up the New World, Henry Vll in England took up Cabot's proposal that he set sail to find a westward route to Japan. With the merchants of Bristol, Henry raised the funds to set Cabot on his way, and the Matthew was built, crewed and supplied to set sail in June 1497.

When Cabot landed not in Japan but on the North American mainland he remained unfazed and simply claimed the 'New Founde Lands' for the crown For establishing this foothold in Britain's new overseas empire Cabot was showered with riches to the tune of £10 and encouraged to undertake a second expedition as soon as possible. But unlike later pioneers of Britain's overseas expansion – his £10 reward notwithstanding – Cabot was not to profit from his labours. On his second voyage in 1498 he mysteriously disappeared, never to return.

It was not long before the rumours began that the Spanish had murdered Cabot in order to steal his valuable maps and charts of the north-eastern American coastline. While, and perhaps because, this has never been proved, it is a rumour that persists today. Certainly, many more deaths followed as the Spanish and the British struggled to carve out their own areas of interest on the mainland and in the islands of the Americas, or as the region became an area for Britain and Spain to carry on the European conflicts by proxy, such as during the War of the Spanish Succession where the American battlefields were almost as important as those in Europe.

Ultimately, of course, Britain came to dominate the continent, at least until George III managed to mislay it during a small dispute over tea and taxes 300 years later. By that time Britain's imprint on the Americas, initiated by an Italian serving under a Welsh monarch and ended by a German king of England, had left an indelible mark, shaping many of America's customs and institutions and prefiguring the polyglot society that America is today.

Bust of John Cabot - History

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Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1400s

A decade when the men who discovered the New World began the exploration and colonization of the Americas, even if they weren't the firsts they thought they were.

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Above: Explorer John Cabot. Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Right: Painting Christopher Columbus taking possession of San Salvador, Watling Island by L Prang and Co., 1893. Images courtesy Library of Congress.

Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1400s

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1497 - Detail

May 2, 1497 - On his second voyage for England from the port of Bristol, John Cabot (aka Giovanni, a Genoese native sailing under the English flag) rediscovers the North American continent on June 24, 1497, the first European exploration of the continent since Norse explorers in the 11th century. He explores the northeast coast, landing first at Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland. They made landfall for a short period of time to raise the English flag, then explored the coast. His ship was known as the Matthew of Bristol.

Although the first voyage in 1496 had been a failure, England still wanted John Cabot, the Italian explorer, to sail under their flag and make discoveries for their nation. Another voyage was planned. He would set sail again to find a north passage to Asia as Columbus had most likely thought, at the time, he had found the southern route in his voyages of 1492 and 1493. Like other explorers before and after Columbus and Cabot, that did not work out as planned. They had found America, the Caribbean islands and North America instead.

Cabot, with nearly twenty shipmates on the ship Matthew of Bristol, left Bristol on May 2, 1497. One of his shipmates was likely William Weston, a merchant from Bristol who may have returned to Newfoundland two years later under Cabot's patent. The Matthew of Bristol headed due west, passing the tip of Dursey Head in southern Ireland, before shifting slightly north in a parabola before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. After over a month at sea, John Cabot arrived on June 24, 1497 near Avalon Peninsula on the southern end of Newfoundland. He would explore that eastern coast of Newfoundland, but did not explore deep inland, returning to England thereafter.

The exact location of Cabot's landfall has been disputed with claims by localities in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, St. John's Bay and Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, and Maine that they were the true destination of Cabot's landing. Most historians seem to think that the location is either on Cape Breton Island or Newfoundland.

John Day Letter, 1497, Cabot's Second Voyage

The letter below from John Day, a Bristol merchant in the Spanish trade who knew of Cabot's second voyage, was thought sent to Christopher Columbus, the Lord Grand Admiral. It speaks, in as much detail as is known, about the voyage.

Your Lordship's servant brought me your letter. I have seen its contents and I would be most desirous and most happy to serve you. I do not find the book Inventio Fortunata, and I thought that I (or he) find it because I wanted very much to serve you. I am sending the other book of Marco Polo and a copy of the land which has been found [by John Cabot]. I do not send the map because I am not satisfied with it, for my many occupations forced me to make it in a hurry at the time of my departure but from the said copy your Lordship will learn what you wish to know, for in it are named the capes of the maindland and the islands, and thus you will see where land was first sighted, since most of the land was discovered after turning back. Thus your Lordship will know that the cape nearest to Ireland is 1800 miles west of Dursey Head which is in Ireland, and the southernmost part of the Island of the Seven Cities is west of Bordeaux River, and your Lordship will know that he landed at only one spot of the mainland, near the place where land was first sighted, and they disembarked there with a crucifix and raised banners with the arms of the Holy Father and those of the King of England, my master and they found tall trees of the kind masts are made, and other smaller trees, and the country is very rich in grass. In that particular spot, as I told your Lordship, they found a trail that went inland, they saw a site where a fire had been made, they saw manure of animals which they thought to be farm animals, and they saw a stick half a yard long pierced at both ends, carved and painted with brazil, and by such signs they believe the land to be inhabited. Since he was with just a few people, he did not dare advance inland beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow, and after taking in fresh water he returned to his ship. All along the coast they found many fish like those which in Iceland are dried in the open and sold in England and other countries, and these fish are called in England 'stockfish' and thus following the shore they saw two forms running on land one after the other, but they could not tell if they were human beings or animals and it seemed to them that there were fields where they thought might also be villages, and they saw a forest whose foliage looked beautiful. They left England toward the end of May, and must have been on the way 35 days before sighting land the wind was east-north-east and the sea calm going and coming back, except for one day when he ran into a storm two or three days before finding land and going so far out, his compass needle failed to point north and marked two rhumbs below. They spent about one month discovering the coast and from the above mentioned cape of the mainland which is nearest to Ireland, they returned to the coast of Europe in fifteen days. They had the wind behind them, and he reached Brittany because the sailors confused him, saying that he was heading too far north. From there he came to Bristol, and he went to see the King to report to him all the above mentioned and the King granted him an annual pension of twenty pounds sterling to sustain himself until the time comes when more will be known of this business, since with God's help it is hoped to push through plans for exploring the said land more thoroughly next year with ten or twelve vessels - because in his voyage he had only one ship of fifty toneles and twenty men and food for seven or eight months -- and they want to carry out this new project. It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found 'Brasil' as your Lordship well knows. It was called the Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found.

Since your Lordship wants information relating to the first voyage, here is what happened: he went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.

Magnificent Lord, as to other things pertaining to the case, I would like to serve your Lordship if I were not prevented in doing so by occupations of great importance relating to shipments and deeds for England which must be attended to at once and which keep me from serving you: but rest assured, Magnificent Lord, of my desire and natural intention to serve you, and when I find myself in other circumstances and more at leisure, I will take pains to do so and when I get news from England about the matters referred to above - for I am sure that everything has to come to my knowledge - I will inform your Lordship of all that would not be prejudicial to the King my master. In payment for some services which I hope to render you, I beg your Lordship to kindly write me about such matters, because the favour you will thus do me will greatly stimulate my memory to serve you in all the things that may come to my knowledge. May God keep prospering your Lordship's magnificent state according to your merits. Whenever your Lordship should find it convenient, please remit the book or order it to be given to Master George.

I kiss your Lordship's hands,

So word was spreading throughout Europe of the race to discover the New World, or passages to Asia, no matter what side of the topic, in this case England versus Spain, that you were on. It was likely Christopher Columbus had the wish to stay informed about the competition and whether that competition was breaching the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, of which England was not really part of, or at least stretching it to their advantage. Columbus, essentially, wanted to protect his monopoly.

John Cabot would take a third voyage for England, beginning May 1498.

Bust of John Cabot - History

John Cabot was born around 1450, most likely in Genoa, Italy. His Father was Guilo Caboto, a spice merchant. Cabot was known in his youth as Giovani Caboto. By 1471 Cabot moved to Venice, where he became a member of the religious fraternity of St. John the Evangelist. He later became engaged in trade. In 1484 he married a Venetian woman named Mattea. They had three children.

Cabot moved from Venice in 1488, probably after getting into financial difficulties. He found his way to Seville. There he tried to gain support for a voyage across the North Atlantic. When he failed to get support he needed, Cabot moved to England in 1495. Cabot received some financial backing from Italians living in England. That support translated into a commission from King Henry VII to explore.

Cabot’s first voyage ended in failure. He ran in to bad weather and was forced to return to England. His second voyage was more successful. He left England on the “Mathew”, a small ship. Over the course of his second journey Cabot explored the Northern Coast of North America– between Maine and New Foundland.

The exact locations of Cabot’s exploration remain in doubt. After exploring the area and landing once, Cabot claimed the land for England. Then he returned to England. He returned to England as a minor hero, receiving a modest prize from the King.

Two years later, in February 1498, the King commissioned him to explore once again. This time Cabot left with a fleet of five ships in May 1498. One of the ships was forced to return to Ireland, but the other four ships continued on their way. Nothing was ever heard from the fleet again. The fate of Cabot and his shipmates remains one of the mysteries of history.

Like਌olumbus, Cabot believed that sailing west from Europe was the shorter route to Asia. Hearing of opportunities in England, Cabot traveled there and met with King Henry VII, who gave him a grant to "seeke out, discover, and finde" new lands for England. In early May of 1497, Cabot left Bristol, England, on the Matthew, a fast and able ship weighing 50 tons, with a crew of 18 men. Cabot and his crew sailed west and north, under Cabot&aposs belief that the route to Asia would be shorter from northern Europe than Columbus&aposs voyage along the trade winds. On June 24, 1497, 50 days into the voyage, Cabot landed on the east coast of North America.

The precise location of Cabot’s landing is subject to controversy. Some historians believe that Cabot landed at Cape Breton Island or mainland Nova Scotia. Others believe he may have landed at Newfoundland, Labrador or even Maine. Though the Matthew&aposs logs are incomplete, it is believed that Cabot went ashore with a small party and claimed the land for the King of England.

In July 1497, the ship sailed for England and arrived in Bristol on August 6, 1497. Cabot was soon rewarded with a pension of ꌠ and the gratitude of King Henry VII.

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Historic Figures

It seems that Bristolians are so proud of explorer John Cabot that the city's revamped shopping centre has been renamed in his honour.

But who was the Italian-born adventurer who got lost on the way to Asia and discovered North America, and what is his connection with Bristol?

John Cabot - or Giovanni Caboto in Italian, meaning either coastal seaman, or, according to some 'big head' - was probably born in Genoa in 1450, but may have been from a Venetian family.

In 1476 he married a young woman called Mattea (the female version of the name Matthew) and after travelling widely as a merchant, moved to England around 1490, settling in the port of Bristol.

In May 1497, with the support of the Tudor king Henry VII and some hard-headed Bristol merchants, Cabot sailed west from Bristol on the 70-feet long Matthew with a crew of 18, hoping to find a route to Asia.

One of his main backers was the Sheriff of Bristol, Richard Amarke, who sought reward for his patronage by asking that any new-found lands should be named after him.

It's believed by some that Amarke's family coat of arms, which can be seen in the Lord Mayor's Chapel on College Green in Bristol, as part of the Poyntz crest, later became the USA's stars and stripes flag.

Journey's end

On 24 June, 34 days after leaving England, Cabot sighted land and called it New-found-land. He believed it was Asia and claimed it for England.

A full-scale replica of The Matthew

He and his crew went ashore in three places and brought back several pieces of evidence of their voyage, including a needle for making nets, a snare for catching animals and the jawbone of a whale.

Cabot returned to England, presented his finds to King Henry and with more funding began to plan a second expedition.

In May 1498, he set out on a further voyage, again from Bristol, with a fleet of four or five ships, aiming to discover Japan.

The fate of the expedition is uncertain - one, storm-damaged ship returned to Ireland, the others were never heard of again. It is thought that Cabot eventually reached North America but never managed to make the return voyage across the Atlantic.

One of Cabot's three sons, Sebastian, was to become almost as famous as his father. He sailed to St Petersburg, was the first Governor of the Muscovy Company of Merchant Venturers, and led an expedition that discovered the coast of Brazil.

But he could never beat his father's achievement, the discovery of a continent that Europeans did not know existed.

last updated: 11/03/2008 at 11:40
created: 06/12/2006

Bust of John Cabot - History

England was attempting to keep up with the Spaniards who had sent their own expedition west under Christopher Columbus years earlier. Columbus' journey had been a probe to find a new route to the markets of the Orient but he got it wrong.

He left Spain, boldly crossed the Atlantic and mistakenly declared that the islands he found there were the Atlantic shores of Asia: the West Indies.

"Signor Christopher Columbus of Genoa had discovered the coast of India and it was spoken of grandly. It was more divine than human to have found that way never before known, to get to the Orient, from where the spices originate."

Imaginary Medallion portrait of John Cabot, from a memoir published in Venice in 1881.

It was 1492 and his discovery was received in Europe with fanfare, and envy. Not to be outdone by the Spanish, King Henry VII selected Caboto, who was living with his family in the English port of Bristol, to cross the Atlantic and plant a flag for England.

Cabot sailed from Bristol on May 2, 1497 on a single ship, christened the Matthew after his wife, Matea. Cabot set a more northerly route then Columbus, settling into higher Atlantic currents.

Four and a half weeks later he sighted land. On St. John's Day -- June 24, 1497 Cabot set into a bay and named the area 'Terra Nova' or "New Found Land."

The events of discovery were recorded by two foreign agents from England Raimondo Soncino and Lorenzo Pasqualigo and by a Bristol merchant, John Day.

Day's letter, written in the winter of 1497-98, describes a single landing on the same day Cabot spotted land. When Cabot and a few men went ashore they raised a cross and the banner of England, claiming the territory for Christianity and for the King, Cabot's commercial backer.

Following a trail inland, Cabot and his men came to a clearing with a dead campfire and a short stick that had been carved and painted. The abandoned site may have belonged to the Beothuk and it was a fitting introduction to a tribe that would prove so elusive.

Cabot retrieved fresh water, then got nervous and returned to his ship, which he sailed along the coast for another month.

Returning to the place where he made landfall, Cabot set out again for England on July 20, 1497. On August 6, 1497 the crowd at the docks back in Bristol received Cabot as a hero.

Not only had he claimed new land for England, but he had also found a seemingly bottomless supply of codfish, what the English called stockfish.

Cabot immediately reported his discoveries to the king, telling him that there were so many fish in the waters of the Atlantic that they could be caught with a basket lowered over the side of a boat.

Henry VII duly rewarded Cabot for his successful voyage, congratulating the explorer with a cash bonus, an annual pension, and royal permission to follow up with a larger expedition.

Bust of John Cabot - History

As early as the reign of Edward III, sailors from Genoa and other foreign ports had served in the English navy. The increasing confusions of Italy after the French invasion naturally tempted her seamen to transfer their skill to the rising powers of western Europe. Among such emigrants was John Cabot, a Venetian, who settled in Bristol, and then, after a return to his own country, again revisited his adopted city. Of his earlier history and personal character we know nothing. Our own records furnish nothing but the scanty outlines of his career, and the one glimpse of light which is thrown upon the living man is due to a lately discovered letter from his countryman, the Venetian ambassador. Of hisson, Sebastian, we know more. He was born in Bristol, returned with his parents to Venice when three years old, and revisited England as a boy or very young man. His features, marked with the lines of thought and hardship, still live on the canvas of Holbein and one at least of the naval chroniclers of the day writes of him in the language of warm personal affection.

In 1496 a patent was granted to John Cabot and his sons, Lewis, Sebastian, and Sancius. This patent is interesting as the earliest surviving document which connects England with the New World. It gave the patentees full authority to sail with five ships under the royal ensign, and to set up the royal banner on any newly found land, as the vassals and lieutenants of the king. They were bound on their return to sail to Bristol and to pay a royalty of one-fifth upon all clear gain. The direction of the voyage, the cargo and size of the ships, and the mode of dealing with the natives, are all left to the discretion of the commander.

Of the details of the voyage itself, so full of interest for every Englishman, we have but the scantiest knowledge. In this respect the fame of Sebastian Cabot has fared far worse than that of the great discoverer with whom alone he may be compared. We can trace Columbus through every stage of his enterprise. We seem to stand by the side of the great admiral in his difficulties, his fears, his hopes, his victory. We can almost fancy that we are sharing in his triumph when at last he sails on that mission whose end he saw but in a glass darkly, victorious over the intrigues of courtiers, the avarice of princes, and the blindness of mere worldly wisdom. Our hearts once more sink as the cowardice of his followers threatens to undo all, and the prize that had seemed won is again in danger. We feel all the intensity of suspense as night after night land is promised and the morning brings it not. When at length the goal is reached, we can almost trick ourselves with the belief that we have a part in that glory, and are of that generation by whom and for whom that mighty work was wrought.

No such halo of romantic splendor surrounds the first voyage of Sebastian Cabot. A meager extract from an old Bristol record: "In the year 1497, June 24, on St. John's Day, was Newfoundland found by Bristol men in a ship called the Matthew"

a few dry statements such as might be found in the note-book of any intelligent seacaptain? these are all the traces of the first English voyage which reached the New World. We read in an account, probably published under the eye of Cabot himself, that on June 24, at five o'clock in the morning, he discovered that land which no man before that time had attempted, and named it Prima Vista. An adjacent island was called St. John, in commemoration of the day. A few statements about the habits of the natives and the character of the soil and the fisheries make up the whole story. We may, perhaps, infer that Cabot meant this as a report on the fitness of the place for trade and fishing, knowing that these were the points which would excite most interest in England. One entry from the privy purse expenses of Henry VII, " 10? to hym that found the new isle," is the only other record that remains to us. Columbus was received in solemn state by the sovereigns of Aragon and Castile, and was welcomed by a crowd greater than the streets of Barcelona could hold. Cabot was paid? 10. The dramatic splendor of the one reception, the prosaic mercantile character of the other, represent the different tempers in which Spain and England approached the task of American discovery.

But tho our own annals give us so scanty an account of the reception of the two Cabots, the want is to some extent supplied from a foreign source. Letters are extant from the Venetian ambassador, in which he describes with just pride the enthusiasm with which his countryman was received by the people when he walked along the streets.

The next year saw Cabot again sailing with a fresh patent. Several points in it are worthy of notice. John Cabot is alone mentioned by name. From this it might be, and, indeed, has been inferred that the part played by Sebastian Cabot in the first voyage was merely secondary, and that John was the principal conductor of the first voyage, as he was by the patent designed to be of the second. He is authorized in person or by deputy to take six English ships of not more than 200 tons burden each, and to lead them to the land which he had lately discovered. There is to limitation, either of departure or return, to Bristol, and no mention is made of royalties. Probably the original provisions were still regarded as binding, except so far as rescinded or modified by the second patent.

In 1498 Sebastian Cabot sailed from Bristol wish one vessel manned and victualed at the king's expense, accompanied by three ships of London, and probably some of Bristol itself. His cargo consisted of "grosse and sleighte wares," for trafficking with the natives. So scanty are the records of Cabot 's two expeditions, that altho we know the geographical extent of his discoveries, yet it is impossible to assign to each voyage its proper share. We know that in one or other of them he reached 67l/2 degrees of north latitude, and persuaded himself that he had found the passage to Cathay. The fears, however, of his sailors, justified, perhaps, by the dangers of the north seas, withheld him from following up the enterprise. He then turned southward and coasted till he came into the latitude of 38. Of the result of the second voyage and of Sebastian Cabot 's reception in England we hear nothing. He disappears for a while from English history, carrying with him the unfulfilled hope of a northwest passage, destined to revive at a later day, and then to give birth to some of the most daring exploits that have ever ennobled the names of Englishmen.

A tale of Tudor travel: John Cabot’s voyage to America

In March 1496, King Henry VII tasked John Cabot with finding a new trade route to China and Japan. Rhiannon Davies what happened to the Tudor explorer on the journey that made him famous.

This competition is now closed

Published: March 26, 2021 at 10:37 pm

The Italian explorer John Cabot made history when he crossed the Atlantic and planted the English flag upon North American shores. He had sailed to a distant place where tall trees burst from rich, loamy soil, its waters so full of fish that the sailors hunted them by the barrel. But when Henry VII heard of Cabot’s rich discoveries, the monarch felt a pang of disappointment: why were there no spices?

Henry had backed Cabot’s venture in the hopes of securing a fast new trade route to China and Japan – both Cabot and the famous explorer Christopher Columbus believed sailing west from Europe would quickly take them to Asia, as Europeans did not yet know about America. At the time, Asia was thought to be overflowing with all manner of treasures, including precious stones, gold and spices.

And, as England was still reeling from the ill-effects of the Wars of the Roses and outbreaks of plague, securing such a profitable route into the heart of Asia would see the country’s prospects skyrocket.

Who was John Cabot?

Conversely, Cabot was not driven solely by the desire to fill his pockets with gold, but by his fervent ambition to travel the world and discover new lands. Born in the Italian city of Genoa in around 1450, Cabot upped sticks to Venice and became an official Venetian citizen in 1476. But he was determined to travel much further afield, and eventually found a job with a mercantile firm, where he learned how to navigate the sea with ease, and travelled as far as the Ottoman city of Mecca, an impressive trading hub where the eastern and western worlds collided.

Cabot’s determination to sail to far- flung regions had also been stoked by reading Marco Polo’s heady accounts of bustling Chinese cities. Cabot was desperate to see these places for himself, and he believed he could travel to them by charting a course west from Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, Cabot lacked the money to finance such an extravagant operation, and at first, he failed to share his dream with those who had the funds to back him. Trying his luck at the European royal courts, Cabot eventually took himself and his family to England, to try and prise open the purse strings of merchants in London and Bristol. Before leaving for England, the aspiring adventurer learned that fellow Italian Christopher Columbus had travelled across the Atlantic and found land – land that everyone was convinced was the ‘Spice Islands’, or Indies.

Cabot reached England without incident, and by the end of 1495 he and his family were settled in Bristol. Talk of Columbus’s far-flung travels as an ambassador for Spain caught the attention of the English, and Cabot capitalised on this to access the coffers of some of Bristol’s merchants. Yet a few months later, the Italian had the backing of a much greater patron.

In late 1495 or early 1496, Cabot visited London and met with Henry VII’s advisors to explain his grand plans for charting a swift trade route to the far east. After persuading them of his idea, he proceeded to petition the king himself. Cabot won over Henry, too, and on 5 March 1496 the king sent letters patent to Cabot and his sons – Lewis, Sebastian and Sancio – which gave them permission to cross the seas in search of new lands.

In this document, Henry VII granted to Cabot and his offspring “full and free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns”. The Tudor king also granted the explorer the right “to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians”. In other words, Cabot was not allowed to encroach upon land that had already been claimed by the Spanish or Portuguese – both Christian countries – as these nations had already sent explorers out in search of fresh territory.

The missive continued, giving Cabot and his descendants permission to “conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered that they may be able to conquer, occupy and possess… acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same towns, castles, cities, islands and mainlands discovered”.

Through giving the Italian explorer this right, England would be able to acquire power over new settlements and perhaps start to seed its empire across the globe.

Where did John Cabot explore?

Ever the shrewd ruler, Henry made sure that as well as growing England’s power abroad, he would benefit personally from Cabot’s exploits too. The letter also stated: “As often as [Cabot and his sons] shall arrive at our port of Bristol… [they shall] pay to us, either in goods or money, the fifth part of the whole capital gained.”

So, although Henry himself had not put forward so much as a single gold crown to finance the venture, he would receive one-fifth of the treasures they brought back to England.

To sweeten the deal, the king stipulated that Cabot and his family would be “free and exempt from all payment of customs” on all the goods they brought home from their travels. Moreover, “all mainlands, islands, towns, cities, castles and other places whatsoever discovered by them, however numerous they may happen to be, may not be frequented or visited by any other subjects of ours whatsoever without the licence of the aforesaid John [Cabot] and his sons”.

And finally, the king commanded that all English subjects “shall render good assistance to the aforesaid John [Cabot] and his sons and deputies, and that they shall give them all their favour and help as well in fitting out the ships or vessels as in buying stores and provisions with their money and in providing the other things which they must take with them on the said voyage”.

Buoyed by Henry’s support, in 1496 Cabot chartered a ship that would take him and his crew from Bristol across the Atlantic to – or so they hoped – Asia’s shores. However, it was not to be, and the first crossing ended in disaster. The Bristol merchant John Day revealed why this initial attempt failed, recording in a later letter: “Here is what happened: [Cabot] went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.”

Cabot was not dissuaded, though, and the following year he set out from Bristol once more in search of the far east and adventure. He recruited a crew of 18 men, most of whom were from Bristol – although a Burgundian man and a barber from Castiglione, near Genoa (who was hired to shave the crew’s chins so that they kept up with the fashions of the time), seem to have also been onboard.

In May 1497 the adventurers left Bristol on a vessel named the Matthew, travelling across the Irish Sea and circumnavigating Ireland’s southern coast, before sailing into the great unknown.

Happily, this second journey proved to be the opposite of the first. The ship was well-provisioned and the weather was largely kind. In June, some storms did set in, but once these squalls had passed Cabot heard the cries of birds in the air and saw bits of wood bobbing up and down with the waves. Land was drawing near.

On 24 June, the Matthew reached these unknown shores. Cabot’s spirits couldn’t have been higher: he thought he’d succeeded in discovering an island off the coast of Asia, believing that he had successfully plotted a fast trade route from England to the far east. But although he had reached land, it was not the coast he thought it to be – Cabot was actually standing on North American soil.

It’s not known for certain exactly where the Matthew landed – Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, and even Maine have all been suggested – but wherever it was, Cabot claimed it for Henry VII and called it the “New Founde Land”. John Day wrote: “He [Cabot] landed at only one spot of the mainland, near the place where land was first sighted, and they disembarked there with a crucifix and raised banners with the arms of the Holy Father [Pope Alexander VI] and those of the King of England, my master [Henry VII].”

The land that Cabot had proclaimed belonged to Henry VII was lovely indeed. The Milanese envoy Raimondo de Soncino recorded that “the land is excellent and temperate, and they [the crew] believe that brazil-wood and silk are native there. [The crew] assert that the sea is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.” And Day wrote: “[The crew] found tall trees of the kind masts are made, and other smaller trees, and the country is very rich in grass.”

What did John Cabot discover?

But Cabot and his men didn’t only find evidence of plentiful plants and creatures. According to Day, Cabot and his men spotted a trail that led further inland and “saw a site where a fire had been made, they saw manure of animals which they thought to be farm animals, and they saw a stick half a yard long pierced at both ends, carved and painted with brazil”. Who, they wondered, had occupied this fair land already?

Taking snares that had been left out to catch animals as well as a needle for stitching nets – as evidence of the mysterious people that could be presented to the king on their return – Cabot and the others left the trail, topped up their water supplies and returned to the safety of the Matthew. Cabot mapped more of the coastline from the confines of the ship, naming a variety of landmarks, before turning the Matthew around and beginning the journey home.

The Matthew docked in Bristol on 6 August 1497, and Cabot hurried to meet the city’s merchants who had financed his ventures and tell them of his success before rushing off to London where Henry was eagerly awaiting confirmation that the mission had borne fruit.

On 10 August, Cabot was granted an audience with Henry VII. He triumphantly announced that he’d sailed to north-eastern Asia and found an island there, describing the temperate weather and abundant waters. Although he’d brought back no riches this time, Cabot acknowledged, he would certainly find them on his next trip – and bring one- fifth back to Henry, whose coffers would soon be stuffed with gold.

The king gave Cabot a £10 reward for his efforts and vowed to give him a yearly income. He’d likely have offered the explorer far more money if he had indeed returned laden with spices. But Cabot’s mind was already on his next voyage across the Atlantic.

What happened to John Cabot?

By the end of the month, Cabot was back in Bristol and plans for his third journey were well underway. This time, he reasoned, he would sail back to “New Founde Land” before continuing westwards, where he would, he was certain, reach Japan. There, he would establish a trading post and start sending precious items from the far east back home to England.

In 1498, Cabot headed for the Atlantic once more, this time the leader of five ships – one financed by the king himself, and the other four courtesy of Bristol’s merchants – and commanding between 200 and 300 men. But the journey was soon marred by tragedy. At some point during the early stages of the voyage, one of the ships was seemingly caught in a storm and left unfit to cross the Atlantic, so it had to sail back to Ireland.

The other four ships continued on their journey – but what actually happened to them, and to their leader Cabot, is a mystery. Some believe the fleet sank beneath the waves in a savage storm others have argued that Cabot was shipwrecked near to Newfoundland. There are also those who claim a freezing and starving crew mutinied somewhere across the Atlantic.

Whatever Cabot’s fate, though, his exploits had huge ramifications – although not in the way he had hoped. Rather than making England the premier European trading partner with the far east, thanks to a high-speed ocean highway, Cabot had, in fact, proved that rapid Atlantic travel was possible – but to a different destination entirely. The British colonies that were subsequently set up in what is now the United States and Canada owed a great debt to Cabot, for forging the way across the seas.

Rhiannon Davies is sub-editor for BBC History Magazine

Watch the video: John Cabots Discovery of America