1474 CE - 1577 CE
England and Spain
He worked as a cartographer in the employ of Henry VIII of England and also as a pilot and captain for the Muscovy Company and the Spanish court. He tried to follow his father’s footsteps in discovering a westward sea route to Asia. In service to the Spanish king, he made an expedition that took him to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay in South America. He explored this river and the Paraná River before returning to Spain. In England, near the end of his life, he was made a governor of the Muscovy Company, which still sought a western route to Asia.
Sebastian Cabot was the son of John Cabot, and was probably born in Venice in c. 1474. It is possible that as teenager he accompanied his father on the 1497 voyage of the Matthew to the shores of America in service to the merchants of Bristol. They probably reached the coast of Newfoundland before returning to England, but no maps or ship logs exist that provide details of the voyage or the lands they discovered.
In 1512, Sebastian was in service to Henry VIII of England, as a cartographer or mapmaker. That same year he accompanied Sir Hugh Willoughby to Spain where Cabot received the rank of Captain from King Ferdinand V. (In 1553, Willoughby would attempt to travel by a northeast route to Asia, becoming trapped in polar ice and either froze or starved to death along with his entire crew. The remains of the lost ship and crew were found by Russian fishermen, and identified in 1554.) After the death of Ferdinand, Cabot returned to England and tried to gain the support of Vice-Admiral Perte for another expedition to search for a sea route to Asia. Failing to find favor for such a venture in England, Sebastian Cabot returned once more to Spain. In 1522, he was a pilot-major for Spain but possibly made a secret offer to Venetian interests to seek a northwest passage to China.
In March 1525, he was given command of a Spanish fleet with orders to find a westward route to Cathay and the Moluccas. He had three ships and 150 men. The expedition only made it as far as the Rio de la Plata, on the coast between Argentina and Uruguay in South America. At this point Cabot argued with his companions, went ashore with a small party, and explored the la Plata and Paraná Rivers on his own. He went as far as the junction of the Paraná and the Paraguay rivers where his men constructed two forts.
In August 1530 he returned to Spain, where he faced the consequences of his disagreement with his fellow explorers and failure to find the route to Asia. He was banished to Spanish-held lands in Africa for two years, after which he was pardoned and returned to Spain. He remained in Spain as a pilot-major until 1547 when he returned to England. In 1553, Charles V of Spain tried to lure him back, but Cabot had once again entered negotiations with the city of Venice. When no contract materialized with the Venetian merchants, Cabot offered his services to both England and Spain. He advised Willoughby of England on his fateful last voyage, and was made a governor for life of the “Company of Merchant Adventurers,” or the Muscovy Company. He died, most probably, in 1557 or soon after. Of all his personal writings, he left behind just one map. Made during a 1544 voyage, this world map was discovered in Bavaria and is kept in the National Library at Paris.
An unscrupulous man who switched allegiances whenever the possibility of a better deal came along, Sebastian Cabot was willing to work for whichever country would provide him with the means to satisfy his desire for fame and glory. His efforts on behalf of the maritime interests of England had the most lasting effect, creating a national enthusiasm for global exploration and exploitation, and the basis for the development of English supremacy at sea.