John Cabot (c. 1450 – c. 1498) was an Italian navigator and explorer
commonly credited as the first European to discover the mainland of North
America, in 1497, apart from Norseman Leif Ericson's landing (c. 1003). The
Canadian and United Kingdom government's official position is that he landed on
the island of Newfoundland, i.e., not the mainland, but virtually everything
"known" about Cabot's voyage is speculation.
Cabot's birthplace is a matter of much controversy with Gaeta or Castiglione Chiavarese having been proposed as birthplaces. He moved to Venice in 1461, at the age of eleven, and became a Venetian citizen in 1476.
Like other Italian explorers, including Christopher Columbus, he was commissioned by another country. Once Henry the Navigator began searching for a route around Africa, Italy began losing its place at the center of the merchant seafaring world. The Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain) became the place for Italian navigational talent, especially after Columbus's discovery of "the Indies" (as all Asia was called at the time) by sailing west. After that voyage, countless explorers headed in that direction; John had a simple plan, to start from a northerly latitude where the longitudes are much closer together, and where, as a result, the voyage would be much shorter.
John Cabot was looking for a North West Passage to the East Indies. Most countries were uninterested in him, but still he looked for sponsors. At first, John asked both Spain and Portugal, but they knew there was no Northwest passage. John sought funding from England and so his explorations were made under the English flag.
King Henry VII of England gave him letters patent with the following charge:
... full and free authoritie, leave, and Power, to sayle to all Partes, Countreys, and Seas, of the East, of the West, and of the North, under our banners and ensignes, with five shippes, ... and as many mariners or men as they will have with them in the saide shippes, upon their owne proper costes and charges, to seeke out, discover, and finde, whatsoever Iles, Countreyes, Regions, or Provinces, of the Heathennes and Infidelles, whatsoever they bee, and in what part of the worlde soever they bee, whiche before this time have been unknowen to all Christians..
(Like his contemporary, King Francis I of France, who would send Giovanni da
Verrazzano to reconnoiter even more of the Atlantic coastline, Henry VII was in
part motivated by the perceived insolence of the division of the world into two
halves by Pope Alexander VI in the Bull Inter Caetera following the success of
Columbus's first voyage. One half of the globe was for Portugal and the other
half for Spain.)
John went to Bristol to make the preparations for his voyage. Bristol was the second-largest seaport in England, and during the years from 1480 onwards several expeditions had been sent out to look for Hy-Brazil, an island said to lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean according to Celtic legends. In 1496 John set out from Bristol with one ship. But he got no further than Iceland and was forced to return because of disputes with the crew.
On a second voyage John again used only one ship with 18 crew, the Matthew, (50 tons). He departed on either May 2 or May 20, 1497 and sailed to Dursey Head (latitude 51°36N), Ireland. His men were frightened by ice, but he forged on, landing somewhere, possibly on the coast of Newfoundland, possibly on the coast of Cape Breton Island, on June 24, 1497. As so little is known about this voyage, which landing-place to celebrate is a matter for politicians, with Bonavista or St. John's in Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Labrador, or Maine all being possibilities. Cape Bonavista, however, is the location recognised by the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom as being Cabot's official landing. His men may have been the first Europeans to set foot on the North American mainland since the Vikings, whose voyages half a millenium earlier were unknown in the age of discovery. On the homeward voyage his sailors incorrectly thought they were going too far north, so John sailed a more southerly course, reaching Brittany instead of England, and on August 6 arrived back in Bristol.
A replica of the Matthew in Bristol. Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Giovanni Caboto
Back in England, John was made an Admiral, rewarded with £10 and a patent was written for a new voyage. Later, a pension of £20 a year was granted to him. The next year, 1498, he departed again, with 5 ships this time. One of the ships returned to an Irish port because of damage taken on in a storm. Upon repair the ship again headed West. John and his expedition were never heard from again and are presumed to have been lost at sea.
John's son, Sebastian Cabot, later made a voyage to North America, looking for the hoped for Northwest Passage (1508), and another to repeat Magellan's voyage around the world, but which instead ended up looking for silver along the Río de la Plata (1525-8).
Along with John Tower in St. John's, Newfoundland, John is remembered in Bristol, England by the John Tower, a 30-metre tall red sandstone tower of 1897 (the 400th anniversary of the landing) on Brandon Hill near the city centre, by a replica of the Matthew built in the city and by a statue of the explorer on the harbour side.
John is also the namesake of John Cabot University, an American university established in 1972 in Rome, Italy.
The Scenic John Trail in the Highlands of Cape Breton is also named after the explorer.
In 2008 a new shopping mall in Bristol was named John Circus.
This John Cabot Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub