Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cabot, Sebastian

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CABOT, SEBASTIAN (1474–1557), cosmographer and cartographer, was the second son of John Cabot, a Venetian pilot, who afterwards settled in Bristol as a merchant, probably as early as 1472, and who, after having made discoveries on the east coast of North Amarica, assisted by his sons Sebastian, Lewes, and Sancto, is supposed to have died in Bristol about 1498.

Sebastian Cabot has recently been described as the ‘Sphinx of North American history for over three hundred years' (Winsor, iii. 32.) A confusion between himself and his father on the part of many of his recent biographers has been the main cause of their perplexity. This error can be avoided by a cautious use of the materials found in the pages of Peter Martyr (Anglerius), Ramusio, Eden and Hakluyt, checked by comparisons with the letters patent granted Henry VII to the elder Cabot and his sons, 1496–8.

Recent writers have injudiciously rejected the old tradition that referred Cabot's birthplace to Bristol in favour of a comparatively new but suspicious story which removes it to Venice. One of the dreams of Sebastian's life, inherited from his father, was the finding of ‘a new passage’ to Cathay or Tanais, perhaps Tainsu, by the north or north-east (Weise, p. 193). At the age of forty-eight years or thereabout, having received no encouragement in Spain, Sebastian endeavoured to secure the attention of Gaspar Contarini, the Venetian ambassador, whom he met at Valladolid in 1522, in order that the scheme should be brought before the council of ten in Venice. If we are to believe the ambassador, Cabot at a secret interview by night endeavoured to gain his ear by saying, ‘Signor ambassator, per dirve il tuto io naqui a Venetia, ma sum nutrito in Ingelterra’ (Harrisse, p. 348). Assuming Contarini's report to be correct, Cabot's motive for ingratiating himself is so obvious that the interview must be regarded as a mere display of diplomatic finesse. Although negotiations were reopened as late as 12 Sept. 1551, Cabot never ventured to Venice in the interval of twenty-nine years to substantiate his claims as a citizen or his statements. In short, it is now shown and admitted by his latest biographer ‘that all the alleged facts were used as a pretext and a blind was on both sides avowed’ (Winsor, iii. 31). The old tradition is in favour of Bristol, which Cabot had no motive for claiming falsely. Eden, the old friend of Cabot, while translating fol. 404 of vol. i. of G. B. Ramusio's ‘Il Navigatione’ of 1550 for his own ‘Decades’ in 1555, two years before Cabot's death, went out of his way to refute a similar story to Contarini's which he found in his text. In a marginal note Eden writes: ‘Sebastian Cabot tould me that he was borne in Brystowe, and that at iiii. yeare owld he was carried with his father to Venice, and so returned agayne into England with his father after certayne yeares, wherby he was thought to have bin born in Venice’ (fol. 255).

There are two interesting accounts of Sebastian Cabot's early years which read as follows: 1. ‘Sebastian Cabote, a Venetian borne, whom being yet but in maner an infante, his parentes caryed with them into England, havying occasion to resort thither for trade of marchandies, as is the maner of the Venetians too leave no parte of the worlde vnsearched to obteyne richesse’ (Peter Martyr (Anglerius), 3 Dec. bk. vi. Eden's trans. fol. 118). 2. ‘When my father departed from Venice many yeares since to dwell in Englande to follow the trade of marchaundies, he took me with him to the citie of London whyle I was very yong, yet having neverthelesse sum knowledge of letters of humanitie and of the sphere’ ({{sc|Ramusio}{}, Eden's trans. fol. 255). A glance at the movements of John Cabot in Spain and Italy after 1476 serves to show that these two accounts refer to the last journey of his parents (about 1493) from Venice to Bristol viâ London while Sebastian was a minor in his eighteenth year (cf. Fox Bourne, i. 28).

Early in 1496 we find the name of Sebastian Cabot associated with those of his father and two brothers in the following petition to Henry VII: ‘Please it your highness of your moste noble and haboundant Grace to grant unto John Cabotto, citezen of Venes, Lewes, Sebastyan, and Sancto, his sonneys, your gracious letteres patentes … according to the tenour hereafter ensuyng,’ which was to commission them to sail for the discovery of islands, countries, &c., which were then unknown to all christians. These letters patent were granted on 5 March 1496. With this commission John Cabot and his sons set sail from Bristol in the spring of the following year with two ships, one of which was named the Matthew, which resulted in the discovery of the new-found lands of Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia on St. John's day 1497. On 3 Feb. 1498 letters patent were granted, in the name of John Cabot only, for a second expedition to the field of his first discoveries; the fleet of five ships set sail early in the summer and was expected to return towards September. According to Raimondo di Soncino, who wrote on 18 Dec. 1497, these discoveries were recorded by John Cabot on a map, and also on a globe, which are now lost (Weise, p. 192). Nothing is known of the termination of this second voyage, and from this period the history of John Cabot ceases.

It is much to be feared, from the ambiguous and often contradictory accounts of the voyages of 1497 to 1499 in contemporary chronicles, that nearly if not all the discoveries that are usually assigned to Sebastian Cabot are really those of his father. According to Stow (p. 862) Sebastian (?) Cabot ‘made a voyage with two ships in the 14th yeare of Henry VII,’ or 1499. If this is the voyage referred to by Peter Martyr (Eden, p. 119), Lopez de Gomara (ib. 318), and Galvano, he, or more probably his father, must have sailed along the coast of Labrador almost up to latitude 60° north and have returned along the coast of Baccalos, or Newfoundland, thence almost out of sight of land down to latitude 30°, whence he steered for England. The descriptions of the regions explored apply to no portion of the United States, but only to the coasts of Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia, as laid down upon the famous map of 1544 noticed below (cf. Weise, p. 202). Of the nature of these discoveries nothing is known. There were other expeditions to Newfoundland set forth by the Bristol merchants Nicholas Thorn the elder and Eliot, assisted by Portugese, from 1501 to 1505, but there is no eyidence that Sebastian Cabot was in any way connected with them; on the contrary, according to a contemporary manuscript hitherto unnoticed by Cabot's biographers, 'Sebastyan . . . was neyer in that fiina [i.e. Newfoundland] himself, and made report of many things only as he heard his father and other men speke in times past' (Herbert, i. 411). We hear nothing more of him for the next dozen years, during which period he was doubtless well employed in the study of the accounts of the discoyeries of Columbus and his followers. His fame as a cartographer had already attracted the notice of Henry VIlI, for we read in the king's exchequer accounts in May 1512: 'Paid Sebastian Tabot (sic Cabot), making of a carde of Gascoigne and Guyon (Guienne), 20s. (Brit. Mus, Add, MS. 21481). Feeling, howeyer, dissatisfied at the want of encouragement from the king, at the instance of Lord Willoughby he went to Spain in the following autumn, and entered the seryice of King Ferdinand the Catholic as cartographer, and a member of the council of the New Indies, with the rank of captain, at a yearly salary of 50,000 maravedis. He was ordered to remain in Seyille in readiness for any work that might be assigned to him. Before the close of the year he married Catalina Medrano, eyidently a Spaniard (Navarrete, ii. 698). On 18 Nov. 1515 Cabot figures as one of the cosmographers who met to define the rights of the Spanish crown to the Moluccas (ib. iii. 319). About this period he was directed to prepare for a voyage of discoyery towards the northwest. According to Peter Martyr, 'this voyage' was 'appointed to bee begunne in March in the yeare next followynge, being the yeare of Chryst, 1516' (Eden, p. 119). But this and other projects were frustrated by the death of Ferdinand on 23 Jan. previous, and by the jealous conduct of Cardmal Ximenes as regent, which led to Cabot's return to England towards the end of the year (Fox Bourne, i. 42).

This brings us to the well-known story of the disputed yoyage of Cabot with Sir Thomas Perte about the year 1517. The sole authority for this yoyage is Eden, in his 'Treatyse of Newe India.' In the dedication he writes : 'Kyng Henry the VIII about the same yere of his raygne, furnished and sent forth certen shippes under the gouernance of Sebastian Cabot, yet liying (1553), and one Syr Thomas Perte, whose laynt heart was the cause that that viage took none effect.' Hakluyt in 1589, in his eagerness to confirm Eden^ story, had the misfortune, through a printer's error in 'Ramusio' (iii. 204), to associate it with an incident in a voyage now known to be that of John Rut (Rotz?), correctly recorded in Oviedo's earlier work of 1535 (cap. xiii. fol. 161 ) under its true date of 1527. Hence the confusion, which has led not only to the rejection of Eden's story, but also of Cabot's own statement that he was in England in 1517 or thereabouts. In Contarini's despatch quoted aboye, Cabot, on the Christmas eye of 1522, is reported to haye said, 'Now it so happened that when in England some three years ago, unless I err. Cardinal Wolsey offered me high terms if I would sail with an armada of his on a voyage of discoyery; the vessels were almost ready, and they had got together 30,000 ducats for their outfit.' Observing that he could not do so without the emperor's leave, he adds : 'I wrote to the emperor by no means to give me leave to serve the King of England . . . and that on the contrary he should recall me forthwith' (Miscell. Philobiblon Soc. ii. 15). Although Cabot may have exaggerated the purport of a chance conversation with Wolsey, there can be no reasonable doubt that he was in England probably till the close of 1519. That he knew Perte is also probable, as the latter was of an old Bristol family (cf. Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 29866). A careful review of all the known facts relating to this much-disputed yoyage serves to show that it is highly probable that Henry VIII, through Wolsey, took advantage of Cabot's temporary stay in England at tnis period to request him to organise a small expedition, which 'tooke none effect,' or perhaps did not even leave our shores, either through the timidity or jealousy of Perte, who at this period was a yeoman of the crown and overseer of ballasting ships in the Thames (Brewer, vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 110, and Norden, p. 39). A second visit by Cabot, and a second failure of a voyage in 1519, as suggested by Harrisse (p. 116), evidently refer to the same story. On 6 May 1519 Cabot was appointed pilot-major to Charles V when he returned to Spain. From this period up to the time of his interview with Contarini in 1522 he appears to have been employed in making researches in reference to the variation of the needle first observed by Columbus. In the spring of 1524 he attended the conference of Badaios as an expert on behalf of the emperor, which terminated in assigning the Moluccas to Spain, and Brazil to Portugal. In April 1526 he was appointed to the command of an expedition to Brazil. He visited the river and adjoining district of La Plata, and founded a fort at San Salvador, spending nearly four years in attempting to lay the foundations of the Spanish conquest of South America. The attempt was such a failure, that on his return to Spain in August 1530 he was imprisoned for nearly a year, and afterwards condemned by the council of the Indies to two years' banishment to Oran in Africa for mismanagement and excesses committed during the course of the expedition. He, however, returned to Seville in June 1533, and was soon reinstated in his former position. As remarked by Oviedo, Cabot was ‘a good person, and skilful in his office of cosmography, and making a map of the whole world in plane or in a spherical form, but it is not the same thing to command and govern people as to point a quadrant or an astrolabe’ (ii. 169). For the next eleven years his duties as examiner of pilots in the Contractation House at Seville were varied by several voyages too unimportant to dwell upon (Eden, p. 256), and in compiling materials for his famous mappemonde. The original of this famous map was drawn on parchment, and illuminated with gold and colours. The last that was heard of the manuscript was the sale of it at the decease of Juan de Ovando, president of the Council of the Indies, in September 1575. Another draft of it was afterwards engraved, apparently in three different states; the first in 1544; the second edition, dated 1549, and seen by Nicholas Chytraeus (Kochhoff) in 1566; a third one, ‘cut by Clement Adams [q. v.], which in his day was to be seen in the privie gallery at Westminster, and in many other ancient merchants' houses.’ Of these the only one preserved to us is the unique example which was discovered in Germany in 1844, and which is now so distinguished an exhibit in the Galerie de Géographie of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. It is projected in plano on an ellipse with a longitudinal axis of 39 inches, and a parallel axis of 44 inches, engraved and coloured. It bears the following inscription: ‘Sebastian Caboto capitan, y piloto mayor de la S.c.c. m. del Imperador don Carlos quinto … hizo esta figura extensa en plano, anno de … J.C. 1544.’ There are legends on the map both in Latin and Spanish, the latter being corrupted at the hands of a Fleming. It was probably printed at Antwerp, the great centre of the production of geographical works at this period. It embodies not only Cabot's discoveries in South America, and those of his father in North America, but also those of the Portuguese and Spaniards down to his day. It served as the model for all the general maps of the world afterwards published in Italy, and also for the well-known ‘Typus orbis terrarum’ by Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp, so often reproduced by Hakluyt and others down to the end of the sixteenth century. Cabot's last official act as pilot-major to Charles V was the exercise of his censorship upon Pedro Medina's ‘Arte de Nauegar,’ Valladolid, 1544, fol.

Shortly after the death of Henry VIII (28 Jan. 1547), Cabot received tempting offers from friends in England to transfer his services to the country of his birth. That no time was lost in accepting them is proved by the following minute of the privy council of Edward VI under date of 9 Oct. 1547: ‘Mr. Peckham had warrant for 100 li for the transporting of one Shabot (), a pilot, to come out of Hispain to serve and inhabit in England.’ According to Strype (ii. i. 296), he once more settled in his native town, Bristol. In the following January he was awarded a pension of 166l. 13s. 4d. by the year during his life (Rymer, xv. 181). No sooner had this news reached the ears of the Emperor Charles at Brussels, than he somewhat imperiously, through the English ambassador there, conveyed to the privy council in England his desire that ‘Sebastian, grand pilot of the emperor's Indies, then in England, be sent over to Spain as a very necessary man for the emperor, whose servant he was, and had a pension of him’ (Strype, loc. cit.) On 21 April 1550 the privy council in England replied, ‘that as for Sebastian Cabot, he of himself refused to go either into Spain or to the emperor, and that he being of that mind, and the King of England's subject, no reason or equity would that he should be forced or compelled to go against his will’ (Harl. MS. 523, fol. 6). This application was renewed in the reign of Queen Mary on 9 Sept. 1553, but without result. Hakluyt records (iii. pref.) that King Edward, in addition to his pension, advanced him to be grand pilot of England. This, however, is an error, as no mention is made of it in either of the three patents relating to his pension. This honorary office was first created for Stephen Borough [q. v.] in 1563. Important work was soon found for Cabot, in addition to a general supervision of the maritime affairs of the country. He was called upon to settle the long growing disputes that had almost reached their height between the merchants of the steelyard, a colony of German traders of the Hanseatic League, and the merchants of London, who for a long period had suffered from the monopolies exercised by the former. For his good offices on this occasion Cabot was awarded by the crown in March 1551 a further gratuity of 200l. (Strype, ii. ii. 76).

This brings us to the crowning work of Cabot's career. He was not the discoverer of North America—an honour never claimed for him by his contemporaries or the chronicles of the sixteenth century—but he was the first governor of the Merchant Adventurers, and founder of a new era in the history of commerce and British merchant shipping. Having brought to so successful an issue the steelyard grievances, Cabot's further advice was sought by ‘certain grave citizens of London’ for the removal of the great stagnation in trade resulting from the disturbed and warlike state of the continent. ‘After much speech and conference together,’ the merchants were induced by him to make an effort ‘for the searche and discoverie of the northern part of the world by sea to open a way and passage to Cathay by the North-East.’ Cabot's advice was adopted, and the Company of Merchant Adventurers was formed and incorporated on 18 Dec. 1551, with Cabot as governor for life. In May 1553 a fleet of three vessels was prepared, and set forth under the supervision of Cabot, with Sir H. Willoughby for admiral, and R. Chancellor for chief pilot. The first results of this expedition were the accidental discovery of Russia by the latter in the following August, and the opening up five years later by Ant. Jenkinson of the first English trade across the Caspian Sea to Central Asia. Although Cabot's pension had been renewed to him by Queen Mary on 27 Nov. 1555, the tide in Cabot's affairs appears to have reached its height in the latest sketch of him afforded us in the account of the setting forth of the Searchthrift in the adventurers' third voyage to Russia in May 1556. Stephen Borough writes: ‘The good old gentleman, Master Cabot, accompanied with divers gentlemen and gentlewomen,’ went to Gravesend to inspect the ship previous to its departure. ‘Master Cabot,’ adds Borough, ‘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 me and them that were in the company great 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; which being ended, he and his friends departed, most gently commending us to the governance of Almighty God’ (Hakluyt, i. 274). Within a week of King Philip's entry into London on 27 May 1557, Cabot was called upon to resign his pension, only to be allowed to share it two days later with William Worthington, perhaps out of royal spite for withdrawing himself from the service of Spain. Concerning the date and place of Cabot's death we have no information, but there is evidence of a negative character from which it may safely be inferred that he was already dead soon after the middle of 1557. The only account of Cabot's death on record is by his friend Eden, who writes: ‘Sebastian Cabot, on his deathbed, told me that he had the knowledge [of the art of finding longitude] by divine revelation, yet so that he myght not teach any man. But I think that the goode olde man, in that extreme age, somewhat doted, and had not yet, even in the article of death, vtterly shaken of () all worldly vayne glorie’ (J. Taisnierus, Book concerning Navigation. Translated by R. Eden, London, n. d.—circa 1574).

With the exception of the engraved map of 1544 and its facsimile, natural size, executed by M. Jomard, no literary relics of Cabot are extant. All that Bristol has to show as a relic is what is known as the Dun Cow, the rib of a cow whale preserved in the western entrance of St. Mary Redcliffe Church, supposed to have been placed there in 1497 as a trophy of Cabot's discovery of Newfoundland (Arrowsmith, pp. 100, 255). A street near the church is still known as Cathay. There was formerly a portrait of Cabot in the time of James I in the king's private gallery at Whitehall. This, or another copy of it, was discovered in Scotland in 1792 by Mr. C. J. Harford of Bristol, who purchased it some years later. It was afterwards purchased by Mr. R. Biddle, the author of the memoir of Cabot, but was destroyed by fire with his mansion at Pittsburg in 1845. It bore the following inscription: ‘Effigies Sebastiani Caboti filii Johanis Caboti Veneti, militis aurati primi invētoris Terræ Novæ sub Henrico VII, Angliæ Rege.’ An engraving of it was made for Seyers's ‘Memoirs’ (ii. 208). Cabot is here represented with a pair of compasses and a globe, dressed in his fur robe and gold chain, believed to be his official dress as governor of the Merchant Adventurers. To this day, in the Saba della Scudo in the ducal palace (Venice), there is a full-length portrait of Sebastian Cabot, copied (in the year 1763) apparently from a picture attributed to Holbein. It bears an additional inscription as follows: ‘Henricus VII Angliæ Rex Joannem Cabotam et Sebastianum Filium … Hac spe amissa eo tamen navigatore Terra nova detecta et Florida promontorium’ (Philobiblon Soc. Miscell. ii. 25).


C. H. C.