The name Sebastian Cabot won’t sound strange to history enthusiasts, especially those interested in the Age of Exploration. He was a navigator and cartographer who alternated between serving England and Spain (he also offered his services to his native Venice) when these countries were not yet enemies and became chief pilot of the Casa de Contratación. However, his father, John Cabot, who introduced his son to this adventurous life, might not be as familiar. John Cabot is a key figure in a strong controversy regarding the discovery of North America.

In reality, his name was Giovanni Caboto, and he was of Italian origin, though his birthplace is unclear; some believe he was born in Gaeta, a town in the Kingdom of Naples (then part of the Crown of Aragon), while others lean towards Castiglione Chiavarese in the Republic of Genoa. Both theories are based on family documents, though his son claimed he was Genoese. It seems agreed that he was born around 1450 and settled in Venice a decade later, residing there until he reached adulthood and obtaining citizenship in 1476, as fifteen years of residence were required.

Living in the Serenissima Republic implied involvement in activities like trade and navigation; Caboto engaged in the former, especially with the Near East, dealing in spices, silk, metals, and slaves. He later told the Milanese ambassador in London that he visited Mecca in 1497, though there is no proof beyond his word. His name (he signed as Zuan Chabotto, a typically Venetian twist of his name) appears in various documents of the time; not all commercial, as some refer to his involvement in real estate construction and family matters. Regarding the latter, a 1484 document mentions his marriage to a woman named Mattea, who bore him at least three sons: Ludovico, Sebastiano (the aforementioned Sebastian), and Sancto.

The Italian peninsula in the second half of the 15th century
The Italian peninsula in the second half of the 15th century. Credit: Shadowfox / Wikimedia Commons

By the end of that decade, debts accumulated, and insolvent, he fled the city with his family to settle in Valencia. However, an arrest order reached him there, so he moved to Seville, where he initially worked as a civil engineer. Yet, a dark fraud incident involving a bridge he never built, along with the successful examples of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, led him to seek sponsorship for a naval expedition following the same Atlantic direction towards Cathay and Cipango; though via a more northern route, as he believed shorter longitudes would make the journey quicker.

Like Columbus, he had to go from court to court asking for help. He tried first in Castile and then in Lisbon—where he stayed for two years, perhaps learning nautical skills—but to no avail. He then attempted in England, like his predecessor, achieving success in Bristol, a dynamic port city that became the English version of Seville in 1496 after the Crown granted him a monopoly. It seems the Italian community in London, led by the Augustinian Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, favorably interceded with Henry VII, and their banks—especially the Florentine ones—decisively contributed to the preparations.

Cabot, as he was called there, received a patent to navigate to all parts, regions, and coasts of the east, west, and north of the sea and to find, discover, and investigate all islands, countries, regions, or provinces of pagans and infidels, in any part of the world, which before this time were unknown to all Christians. This sudden interest in discovery isn’t surprising; the echo of Castile’s success in finding a New World resonated throughout Europe, and in the 1480s, several expeditions had sailed from Bristol in search of the mythical Hy-Brazil.

John Cabot portrayed in a mural in the Doge's Palace in Venice
John Cabot portrayed in a mural in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Hy-Brazil was the name of an island that, according to a Celtic legend, was in the middle of the Atlantic and became mythologically fused with that of Saint Brendan, an Irish monk who sailed west in search of the Earthly Paradise, discovering new lands. Some believe it might have been Macaronesia (Azores, Canaries…), while others refer to Hy-Brazil. In any case, the existence of islands in the middle of the ocean was speculated since antiquity, and Hy-Brazil was taken for granted, being hypothetically reflected in the cartography of the time and assumed that Bristol sailors had visited it in the past, though they later lost contact and forgot its location.

The interest in this place was in a tree from which a highly prized red dye could be extracted (or perhaps simply its wood), so British sailors sought it eagerly. Some believe it might have been Newfoundland or the Labrador Peninsula, which would mean its discoverers reached America before Columbus. Moreover, Columbus himself had heard of Hy-Brazil, as he was in Bristol and sailed those latitudes before arriving in Castile. If he knew about it before 1492, then so did Cabot in 1496.

That was the year he set sail with a single ship. It didn’t amount to much: he barely reached Iceland before having to turn back due to the crew’s opposition. But he was undeterred, and in May 1497, he made a second attempt, again with a single ship: the Matthew, as it was named, had only a 50-ton capacity and 18 crew members but managed to cross the Atlantic and reach land in June. It’s unclear if it was Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia, Maine, or some other point in that area, though in 1998 the British and Canadian governments chose Cape Bonavista (Newfoundland) to celebrate the fifth centenary of the events.

Map of Abraham Ortelius showing the island of Brazil next to Ireland (1595)
Map of Abraham Ortelius showing the island of Brazil next to Ireland (1595). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

They did not penetrate beyond the range of a crossbow shot nor did they make contact with indigenous people, although they did see evidence of their existence (remains of campfires, tools…). They explored a bit of the coast, stocked up on fresh water, claimed the land for the King of England, proclaimed the Pope’s religious authority, and returned the following month (taking the wrong route and drifting too far south, ending up in Brittany, France instead of England).

A letter written in Spanish by a Bristol merchant named John Day is almost the only source to know about that voyage, and it is believed that the recipient of the letter was Columbus because it refers to the Great Admiral (although others believe it could be the Chief Admiral of Castile, Fadrique Enríquez de Velasco), who would be interested in knowing the exact point Cabot reached as it could affect the Treaty of Tordesillas. In fact, if the date of Cabot’s arrival in Newfoundland is correct, he would have been the first European to set foot on the mainland of the New World (aside from the Vikings) because Columbus did not do so until 1498, during his third voyage.

In reality, most historians do not consider it reliable in terms of date, authorship, or content (full of inaccuracies), and the ambassador of the Catholic Monarchs in London, Pedro de Ayala, who was said to be well-informed about everything that happened, called Cabot little more than a fanciful charlatan. The fact is, back in Bristol, Cabot was called to court and rewarded by the king with 10 pounds, an amount that may seem small today but was equivalent to two years’ salary at the time. Most importantly, he was appointed Great Admiral, with all the privileges that entailed. However, at that time, attention was focused on the Second Cornish Uprising, led by the pretender to the throne Perkin Warbeck, whose supporters hailed him as Richard IV, in the context of the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster.

Outward and return routes followed by Cabot on his second voyage
Outward and return routes followed by Cabot on his second voyage. Credit: Evan T. Jones / Wikimedia Commons

Cabot had to wait for the conflict to be resolved, which ended in October of that year with Warbeck’s capture (he would be executed two years later). Then, Henry VII turned his attention back to the ocean and granted the sailor a pension of 20 pounds a year to help him organize a third, more ambitious voyage with five ships, one of them funded by the Crown, loaded with goods for trade. And so, in April 1498, that small fleet set sail from Bristol, soon to be reduced when one of the ships was damaged in a storm and had to stay in Ireland, according to Pedro de Ayala again (who pressed the court to ensure the route did not stray too far south, into Castilian territory).

And that’s really all; what happened to the expedition is unknown, and we have no further news of Cabot. He may have died at sea, or perhaps the results were not as expected, so he returned and died soon after, with no records kept about it due to the perceived failure of the venture. It is supposed that his son Sebastian, who would travel with him, took command for the return route, and there is one certainty: a crew member, Lancelot Thirkill, is recorded as a resident of London in 1501.

This detail has led some British historians like Alwyn Ruddock to speculate, quite voluntarily, that the ships reached Greenland, Chesapeake Bay, and possibly even the Spanish Caribbean islands. This deduction is based on the fact that Juan de la Cosa’s map includes the North American coastline with English flags marking specific points, considering that the cartographer from Santander made it in 1500, a couple of years after Cabot’s final adventure. But everything is as ethereal as John Day’s letter.

Territorial claims on Juan de la Cosa's map (1500)
Territorial claims on Juan de la Cosa’s map (1500). Credit: Evan T. Jones / Wikimedia Commons

Ruddock also relied on a series of documents he claimed to have discovered in the archive of a Venetian family residing in England. The problem is that this was in 1965, and more than half a century has passed without his theses gaining acceptance in the academic world. Furthermore, not only has no historian clearly supported him, but Ruddock himself left instructions for all notes on his research to be destroyed upon his death (which occurred in 2005), which is quite suspicious. He is often accused of trying to rewrite a history of discoveries favorable to England.

Some researchers at the University of Bristol continue to ponder the matter and place Cabot in London around the year 1500, but today everything remains tenuous, and attention has shifted to archaeological work. Ruddock claimed that the friars who accompanied Cabot on his second voyage stayed in Newfoundland and founded the first settlement in North America. Excavations in Newfoundland have uncovered remains of a later agricultural community from the late 17th century (among the finds, interestingly, was a Spanish coin minted in Peru).

Furthermore, Henry VII insisted on exploring those newly discovered lands and authorized other expeditions, such as the one led in 1499 by William Weston (a sailor who traveled with Cabot), who navigated the Hudson Strait in search of the longed-for Northwest Passage to the East Indies, or the one by Hugh Eliot and Robert Thorne in 1502, again with Newfoundland as the destination. However, when England claims its pioneering role in the discovery of the North American coast, it “forgets”, for example, the much earlier voyages by the Portuguese João Vaz Corte-Real and Gaspar Corte-Real.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 15, 2018: Juan Caboto, el navegante que descubrió América del Norte para Inglaterra

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