John Cabot

From Academic Kids

Giovanni Caboto (c. 14501499), known as John Cabot in English, was an Italian navigator and explorer who is popularly credited as the modern discoverer of Canada, or at least the region that would become that nation.

He was born Giovanni Caboto, but later made England his base of operations and is best known as John Cabot for his explorations made under the English flag. Most notably, in 1497, he set sail from Bristol on his ship the Matthew looking for a sea route to Asia. He ended up in the North American mainland, he and his men being the first Europeans since the Vikings verifiably known to have done so.

Cabot's birthplace is uncertain; some references give Genoa, others Gaeta. The date was around 1451, but he moved to Venice in his youth, and later became a Venetian citizen.

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John Cabot in Bonavista, Newfoundland

It was probably on hearing of Columbus's discovery of 'the Indies' that he decided to find a route to the west for himself. He went with his plans to England, because he incorrectly thought spices were coming from northern Asia; and a degree of longitude is shorter the further one is from the equator, so the voyage from western Europe to eastern Asia would be shorter at higher latitudes.

King Henry VII of England gave him a grant "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 ships ... and as many mariners or men as they will have in saide ships, upon their own proper costes and charges, to seeke out, discover, and finde, whatsoever iles, countreyes, regions or provinces of the heathen and infidelles, whatsoever they bee, and in what part of the world soever they be, whiche before this time have beene unknowen to all Christians."

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Cabot Tower in St. John's Newfoundland.

Cabot went to Bristol to make the preparations for his voyage. Bristol by then 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 that would lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean according to Celtic legends. Some people think Newfoundland may have been found on (one of) these voyages.

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A replica of the Matthew in Bristol Floating Harbour, August 2004

Cabot left with only one vessel, the Matthew, a small ship (50 tons), but fast and able. The crew consisted of only 18 people. He departed on either May 2 or May 20, 1497 (he had also made a voyage in 1496, but got no further than Iceland). He sailed to Dursey Head, Ireland, from where he sailed due west to Asia - or so he thought. He landed on the coast of Newfoundland on June 24, 1497. His precise landing-place is a matter of much controversy, either Bonavista or St. John's. He went ashore to take possession of the land, and explored the coast for some time, probably departing on July 20. On the homeward voyage his sailors thought they were going too far north, so Cabot sailed a more southerly course, reaching Brittany instead of England. On August 6 he arrived back in Bristol.

The exact location of Cabot's first landfall is still unknown, because of lack of evidence. Many experts think it was on Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, but others look for it in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Labrador or Maine. We might never know the truth. His men may have been the first Europeans on either American continent since the Vikings: Christopher Columbus did not find the mainland until his third voyage, in 1498, and letters referring to a voyage by Amerigo Vespucci in 1497 are generally believed to have been forgeries or fabrications.

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The Cabot Tower in the centre of Bristol, England.

Back in England, Cabot was rewarded with �10, and a patent was written for a new voyage. Later, a pension of �20 a year was granted him. The next year, 1498, he departed again, with 5 ships this time. The expedition made for an Irish port, because of distress. Except for one ship, John Cabot and his expedition were never heard from again.

John's son Sebastian Cabot later made a voyage to North America, looking for the Northwest Passage (1508), and one to repeat Magellan's voyage around the world, which ended up looking for silver along the River Plate (1525-8).

John Cabot Stamp
John Cabot Stamp

In 1498-1500 a few Portuguese travelers, Miguel and Gaspar Corte-Real being the most famous participants, visited Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland. In 1501-1505 an English syndicate, consisting of 3 Azoreans and 2 English traders, made voyages to Newfoundland. From 1504, if not before, Breton, Basque, Portuguese and English fishermen crossed the ocean to catch fish on the Newfoundland banks.

Cabot is remembered in Bristol by the Cabot Tower, a 30m 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 harbourside.

Further reading

  • Gibbons, Henry K. 1997. The Myth and Mystery of John Cabot: The Discoverer of North America. Marten Cat Publishers, Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland.

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