The Life of John Cabot

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John Cabot, Canada's First Modern Explorer

John Cabot, Canada's First Modern Explorer

Born Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot was an Italian explorer and navigator, who is traditionally believed to be the first modern European to see what, is now called Canada.

John Cabot’s name and birth place are matters of conjecture among historians. In modern Italian he is Giovanni Caboto, or John Cabot in English. Only one set of documents has ever been found with his signature on it, which he signed Zuan Chabotto.

Cabot’s birth place is also the subject of speculation. He is believed to have been born either in Central Italy, or in Northern Italy’s Castigilione region. The fact that his son, Sebastiano, believed that his father was born in Northern Italy suggests that there may be some truth to these speculations.

John Cabot’s Early Life

Little is known of John Cabot’s life before the year 1470. He is first mentioned in Venetian city records when he joined the confraternity of St. John the Evangelist. In 1476, Cabot was granted Venetian citizenship. At the time, foreigners intending to become citizens of Venice could only do so after 15 years of residency in the city, which suggests that Cabot must have moved there sometime in the early 1460s.

Following this, Cabot became a merchant, sailing all over the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1484, Cabot married a woman recorded only as Mattea, eventually giving birth to three sons. In the late 1480s, Cabot experienced financial difficulties and left Venice almost broke. He first went to Valencia, then Seville, where he tried to secure funding for an Atlantic expedition. John Cabot eventually moved to England in 1495.

John Cabot in England

In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas drew an imaginary line down the world, dividing it between Portugal and Spain. Many of the countries in Northern Europe saw this as an act of insolence, believing that the Spanish wanted the New World for themselves. As a result, King Henry VII may have been eager to claim land in the New World for England while he had the opportunity to do so, and gave Cabot royal consent for an expedition to the New World.

Like Christopher Columbus, Cabot planned on sailing due west until he made land fall in the New World. However, Cabot believed that by sailing a more northerly route, he could make the same voyage in less time.

John Cabot’s Expeditions to the New WorldJohn Cabot’s First Expedition

 

Cabot spent the rest of 1495 making preparations for his expedition, departing from Bristol in 1496. Cabot’s first expedition was aborted shortly after leaving port however, due to disputes with the crew.

John Cabot’s Second Expedition

In 1497, Cabot prepared a second expedition, which sailed from Bristol some time in May. However, not all of the details of the voyage are known for sure. Cabot’s ship is known to have been the Matthew, and he is thought to have taken a crew of 18 to 20 sailors. At fifty tons, the Matthew would have required a crew of eight to ten, however, given the nature of the voyage, additional manpower may have seemed to be a reasonable precaution. In addition to Cabot there was also an unnamed Burgundian and a Genoese barber, who also doubled as the ship’s surgeon.

The Matthew eventually arrived somewhere off the northeast coast of North America on June 24, 1497, .Newfoundland is traditionally believed to have been Cabot’s first land fall in North America, however, Halifax, Cape Breton Island and Maine have all been proposed as alternate initial landing sites at one time or another.

Cabot is only believed to have set foot on land once during this expedition and he did not advance “beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow.” Even though he did not have any direct contact with the First Nations, Cabot did find signs of human habitation, including the remains of a fire, footprints, tools, and fishing nets. After taking on fresh water and raising the banners of the King of England and the Pope, and claiming this “new found land” for England, Cabot then re-boarded the Matthew and returned to Bristol.

When he returned to England, Cabot went immediately to see the King at Woodstock Palace where he was given 10 pounds, which was equivalent to two years pay. In December of that year, Cabot received a pension of 20 pounds, and in February, 1498 royal consent was given for a return to the New World.

John Cabot’s Third Expedition

According to the Great Chronicle of London, Cabot sailed from Bristol with a fleet of five ships in May, 1498. Some of Cabot’s ships were reported to be carrying merchandise, which may have been intended for trade.

Cabot’s third expedition also carried a group of monks who were intent on converting the First Nations to Christianity. Like the Vikings, it is believed they established a colony in what is now Newfoundland. British researchers are currently studying the historical record in an attempt to determine a possible location for this settlement, which is believed to contain the only medieval church built in Canada.

John Cabot’s Death

John Cabot is believed to have died either during or shortly after completing this voyage, sometime in 1500.

Sources

R. A. Skelton, ‘CABOT (Caboto), JOHN (Giovanni)’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (1966)

O. Hartig, ‘John and Sebastian Cabot’, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)J.A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII (Hakluyt Society, Second Series, No. 120, CUP, 1962)

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