1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cabot, John

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CABOT, JOHN [Giovanni Caboto] (1450–1498), Italian navigator and discoverer of North America, was born in Genoa, but in 1461 went to live in Venice, of which he became a naturalized citizen in 1476. During one of his trading voyages to the eastern Mediterranean, Cabot paid a visit to Mecca, then the greatest mart in the world for the exchange of the goods of the East for those of the West. On inquiring whence came the spices, perfumes, silks and precious stones bartered there in great quantities, Cabot learned that they were brought by caravan from the north-eastern parts of farther Asia. Being versed in a knowledge of the sphere, it occurred to him that it would be shorter and quicker to bring these goods to Europe straight across the western ocean. First of all, however, a way would have to be found across this ocean from Europe to Asia. Full of this idea, Cabot, about the year 1484, removed with his family to London. His plans were in course of time made known to the leading merchants of Bristol, from which port an extensive trade was carried on already with Iceland. It was decided that an attempt should be made to reach the island of Brazil or that of the Seven Cities, placed on medieval maps to the west of Ireland, and that these should form the first halting-places on the route to Asia by the west.

To find these islands vessels were despatched from Bristol during several years, but all in vain. No land of any sort could be seen. Affairs were in this state when in the summer of 1493 news reached England that another Genoese, Christopher Columbus, had set sail westward from Spain and had reached the Indies. Cabot and his friends at once determined to forgo further search for the islands and to push straight on to Asia. With this end in view application was made to the king for formal letters patent, which were not issued until March 5, 1496. By these Henry VII. granted to his “well-beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice, to Lewis, Sebastian and Santius,[1] sonnes of the said John, full and free authority, leave and power upon theyr own proper costs and charges, to seeke out, discover and finde whatsoever isles, countries, regions or provinces of the heathen and infidels, which before this time have been unknown to all Christians”. Merchandise from the countries visited was to be entered at Bristol free of duty, but one-fifth of the net gains was to go to the king.

Armed with these powers Cabot set sail from Bristol on Tuesday the 2nd of May 1497, on board a ship called the “Mathew” manned by eighteen men. Rounding Ireland they headed first north and then west. During several weeks they were forced by variable winds to keep an irregular course, although steadily towards the west. At length, after being fifty-two days at sea, at five o’clock on Saturday morning, June 24, they reached the northern extremity of Cape Breton Island. The royal banner was unfurled, and in solemn form Cabot took possession of the country in the name of King Henry VII. The soil being found fertile and the climate temperate, Cabot was convinced he had reached the north-eastern coast of Asia, whence came the silks and precious stones he had seen at Mecca. Cape North was named Cape Discovery, and as the day was the festival of St John the Baptist, St Paul Island, which lies opposite, was called the island of St John.

Having taken on board wood and water, preparations were made to return home as quickly as possible. Sailing north, Cabot named Cape Ray, St George’s Cape, and christened St Pierre and Miquelon, which then with Langley formed three separate islands, the Trinity group. Hereabout they met great schools of cod, quantities of which were caught by the sailors merely by lowering baskets into the water. Cape Race, the last land seen, was named England’s Cape.

The return voyage was made without difficulty, since the prevailing winds in the North Atlantic are westerly, and on Sunday, the 6th of August, the “Mathew” dropped anchor once more in Bristol harbour. Cabot hastened to Court, and on Thursday the 10th of August received from the king £10 for having “found the new isle”. Cabot reported that 700 leagues beyond Ireland he had reached the country of the Grand Khan. Although both silk and brazil-wood could be obtained there, he intended on his next voyage to follow the coast southward as far as Cipangu or Japan, then placed near the equator. Once Cipangu had been reached London would become a greater centre for spices than Alexandria. Henry VII. was delighted, and besides granting Cabot a pension of £20 promised him in the spring a fleet of ten ships with which to sail to Cipangu.

On the 3rd of February 1498, fresh letters patent were issued, whereby Cabot was empowered to “take at his pleasure VI. englisshe shippes and theym convey and lede to the londe and iles of late founde by the seid John”. Henry VII. himself also advanced considerable sums of money to various members of the expedition. As success seemed assured, it was expected the returns would be high.

In the spring Cabot visited Lisbon and Seville, to secure the services of men who had sailed along the African coast with Cam and Diaz or to the Indies with Columbus. At Lisbon he met a certain João Fernandes, called Llavrador, who about the year 1492 appears to have made his way from Iceland to Greenland. Cabot, on learning from Fernandes that part of Asia, as they supposed Greenland to be, lay so near Iceland, determined to return by way of this country. On reaching Bristol he laid his plans accordingly. Early in May the expedition, which consisted of two ships and 300 men, left Bristol. Several vessels in the habit of trading to Iceland accompanied them. Off Ireland a storm forced one of these to return, but the rest of the fleet proceeded on its way along the parallel of 58°. Each day the ships were carried northward by the Gulf Stream. Early in June Cabot reached the east coast of Greenland, and as Fernandes was the first who had told him of this country he named it the Labrador’s Land.

In the hope of finding a passage Cabot proceeded northward along the coast. As he advanced, the cold became more intense and the icebergs thicker and larger. It was also noticed that the land trended eastward. As a result on the 11th of June in latitude 67° 30′ the crews mutinied and refused to proceed farther in that direction. Cabot had no alternative but to put his ships about and look for a passage towards the south. Rounding Cape Farewell he explored the southern coast of Greenland and then made his way a certain distance up the west coast. Here again his progress was checked by icebergs, whereupon a course was set towards the west. Crossing Davis Strait Cabot reached our modern Baffin Land in 66°. Judging this to be the Asiatic mainland, he set off southward in search of Cipangu. South of Hudson Strait a little bartering was done with the Indians, but these could offer nothing in exchange but furs. Our strait of Belle Isle was mistaken for an ordinary bay, and Newfoundland was regarded by Cabot as the main shore itself. Rounding Cape Race he visited once more the region explored in the previous summer, and then proceeded to follow the coast of our Nova Scotia and New England in search of Cipangu. He made his way as far south as the thirty-eighth parallel, when the absence of all signs of eastern civilization and the low state of his stores forced him to abandon all hope of reaching Cipangu on this voyage. Accordingly the ships were put about and a course set for England, where they arrived safely late in the autumn of 1498. Not long after his return John Cabot died.

His son, Sebastian Cabot (1476–1557),[2] is not independently heard of until May 1512, when he was paid twenty shillings “for making a carde of Gascoigne and Guyenne”, whither he accompanied the English army sent that year by Henry VIII. to aid his father-in-law Ferdinand of Aragon against the French. Since Ferdinand and his daughter Joanna were contemplating the dispatch of an expedition from Santander to explore Newfoundland, Sebastian was questioned about this coast by the king’s councillors. As a result Ferdinand summoned him in September 1512 to Logroño, and on the 30th of October appointed him a captain in the navy at a salary of 50,000 maravedis a year. A letter was also written to the Spanish ambassador in England to help Cabot and his family to return to Spain, with the result that in March 1514 he was again back at Court discussing with Ferdinand the proposed expedition to Newfoundland. Preparations were made for him to set sail in March 1516; but the death of the king in January of that year put an end to the undertaking. His services were retained by Charles V., and on the 5th of February 1518 Cabot was named Pilot Major and official examiner of pilots.

In the winter of 1520–1521 Sebastian Cabot returned to England and while there was offered by Wolsey the command of five vessels which Henry VIII. intended to despatch to Newfoundland. Being reproached by a fellow Venetian with having done nothing for his own country, Cabot refused, and on reaching Spain entered into secret negotiations with the Council of Ten at Venice. It was agreed that as soon as an opportunity offered Cabot should come to Venice and lay his plans before the Signiory. The conference of Badajoz took up his time in 1524, and on the 4th of March 1525 he was appointed commander of an expedition fitted out at Seville “to discover the Moluccas, Tarsis, Ophir, Cipango and Cathay.”

The three vessels set sail in April, and by June were off the coast of Brazil and on their way to the Straits of Magellan. Near the La Plata river Cabot found three Spaniards who had formed part of De Solis’s expedition of 1515. These men gave such glowing accounts of the riches of the country watered by this river that Cabot was at length induced, partly by their descriptions and in part by the casting away of his flag-ship, to forgo the search for Tarsis and Ophir and to enter the La Plata, which was reached in February 1527. All the way up the Parana Cabot found the Indians friendly, but those on the Paraguay proved so hostile that the attempt to reach the mountains, where the gold and silver were procured, had to be given up. On reaching Seville in August 1530, Cabot was condemned to four years’ banishment to Oran in Africa, but in June 1533 he was once more reinstated in his former post of Pilot Major, which he continued to fill until he again removed to England.

As early as 1538 Cabot tried to obtain employment under Henry VIII., and it is possible he was the Sevillian pilot who was brought to London by the king in 1541. Soon after the accession of Edward VI., however, his friends induced the Privy Council to advance money for his removal to England, and on the 5th of January 1549 the king granted him a pension of £166, 13s. 4d. On Charles V. objecting to this proceeding, the Privy Council, on the 21st of April 1550, made answer that since “Cabot of himself refused to go either into Spayne or to the emperour, no reason or equitie wolde that he shulde be forced or compelled to go against his will.” A fresh application to Queen Mary on the 9th of September 1553 likewise proved of no avail.

On the 26th of June 1550 Cabot received £200 “by waie of the kinges Majesties rewarde,” but it is not clear whether this was for his services in putting down the privileges of the German Merchants of the Steelyard or for founding the company of Merchant Adventurers incorporated on the 18th of December 1551. Of this company Cabot was made governor for life. Three ships were sent out in May 1553 to search for a passage to the East by the north-east. Two of the vessels were caught in the ice near Arzina and the crews frozen to death. Chancellor’s vessel alone reached the White Sea, whence her captain made his way overland to Moscow. He returned to England in the summer of 1554 and was the means of opening up a very considerable trade with Russia. Vessels were again despatched to Russia in 1555 and 1556. On the departure of the “Searchthrift” in May 1556, “the good old gentleman Master Cabot gave to the poor most liberal alms, wishing them to pray for the good fortune and prosperous success of the ‘Searchthrift’; and then, at the sign of the Christopher, he and his friends banqueted and made them that were in the company good cheer; and for very joy that he had to see the towardness of our intended discovery, he entered into the dance himself among the rest of the young and lusty company.” On the arrival of King Philip II. in England Cabot’s pension was stopped on the 26th of May 1557, but three days later Mary had it renewed. The date of Cabot’s death has not been definitely discovered. It is supposed that he died within the year.

See G. P. Winship, Cabot Bibliography, with an Introductory Essay on the Careers of the Cabots (London, 1900); and H. P. Biggar, “The Voyages of the Cabots to North America and Greenland,” in the Revue Hispanique, tome x. pp. 485-593 (Paris, 1903).  (H. P. B.) 


  1. Nothing further is known of Lewis and Santius.
  2. The dates are conjectural. Richard Eden (Decades of the Newe Worlde, f. 255) says Sebastian told him that when four years old he was taken by his father to Venice, and returned to England “after certeyne yeares; wherby he was thought to have bin born in Venice”; Stow (Annals, under year 1498) styles “Sebastian Caboto, a Genoas sonne, borne in Bristow”. Galvano and Herrera also give England the honour of his nativity. See also Nicholls, Remarkable Life of Sebastian Cabot (1869), a eulogistic account, with which may be contrasted Henry Harrisse’s John Cabot and his son Sebastian (1896).