“John Cabot Landing on the Shores of Labrador,” Columbus and Columbia: a Pictorial History of the Man and the Nation Embracing a Review of Our Country’s Progress, a Complete History of America, a New Life of Columbus and An Illustrated Description of the Great Columbian Exposition, 1892, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E178.C7.
1455 CE - 1498 CE
Merchants of Bristol, England and King Henry VII of England
- Primary Goal:
Sail west to reach Asia.
Sailed west in order to reach Asia. Navigated through the Strait of Belle Isle and almost to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Followed the coast of Newfoundland from its western coast around the southern shore and back up the east coast. Disappeared in May 1498 with five ships and their crews while on a third voyage of exploration.
Historians aren’t quite sure about Giovanni Caboto’s early days. Sources disagree on his birthplace, but Genoa, Italy is the most likely location. They’re also not sure of the year he was born, but it was around 1455, and he was probably the son of a merchant named Egidius or Giulio Caboto. Caboto means “coastal seaman” and is a name frequently found among families of that Italian region. As a young man, Giovanni moved to Venice, where, between 1471 and 1473, he became a citizen of the city and married a woman named Mattea. (His ship, the Matthew, was probably named for his wife.) Together they had three sons, Ludovico, Sebastiano, and Sancio. Records indicate that while in Venice, Giovanni Caboto worked as a merchant and merchants’ factor, a person who helps transact business for someone else. It is also apparent he pursued a spice trade for some time, even traveling as far as Mecca along the pilgrimage routes. In 1490, he and his family moved to Spain to seek support for a voyage to Asia. It’s interesting to think his first audience with King Ferdinand may have followed on the heels of Columbus’1492 voyage. Agreeing with the Spanish geographers that Columbus had not sailed far enough to reach Asia, Caboto, nevertheless, failed to get support from the Spanish monarchs; they were committed to Columbus and his plans. And in Portugal, the king felt he had enough geographers and leaders to undertake an expedition without having to hire a foreigner. Discouraged, but not giving up, Caboto moved to Bristol, England where there was a substantial Italian community. Also, the merchants of Bristol had sponsored several voyages into the North Atlantic starting in 1480; they were seeking a land known as the Isle of Brasil. What they found were well-stocked fishing grounds, but failed to establish a westward route to China. Capturing the Asian trade was Caboto’s primary goal. While Columbus combined religious zeal with his desire to reach the rich Eastern Asian lands, Giovanni Caboto did not. There is no evidence of religious enthusiasm in any of Caboto’s plans, except the presence of some priests on his second voyage. His main purpose was to find and profit from the rich Asian lands. At this time, in many parts of Europe, there was still a huge gap in the general knowledge about the geography of The East. Many Europeans, even Italians, were unaware of the travels of Marco Polo and the existence of the islands of Cipango (Japan). For the merchants of Bristol and Henry VII of England, Giovanni Caboto’s plans for reaching Asia would bring huge profits to Bristol and his royal patron.
In 1496, Henry VII of England issued letters of patent to Caboto and Sons, authorizing them to sail in search of the westward sea route. Giovanni Caboto became known as John Cabot, the English version of his Italian name. Everything Cabot now did was in the name of the English Crown. The king’s patent dealt with the issue of Spanish claims in the New World by simply declaring that if Cabot found a land not already claimed by Spain, English interests would prevail. The Spanish, naturally, did not like this and sought a Papal Bull (proclamation), barring the English expedition. Henry VII, a devout Catholic, did not agree with the Pope’s right to interfere with political decisions and continued with the business of planning for the voyage.