The History of Bristol to 1497:
Bristol's Transatlantic Explorations
Prior to 1497
It is difficult to provide exact dates for the early
voyages from Bristol into the North Atlantic, but they
certainly happened during the 1490s. Pedro de Ayala, a Spanish
envoy in London, reported in 1498 that for the previous seven
years Bristolians had been equipping caravels to look for
the islands of Brasile and the Seven Cities. The details and
background are as yet unknown, but Ayala does provide proof
of westward voyages.
Another document which supports this claim is the letter
written by the English merchant John Day to an unidentified
Spanish 'Lord Grand Admiral', probably Christopher Columbus.
It is considered certain that the cape of
the said land was found and discovered in the
past by the men from Bristol who found 'Brasil'
as your Lordship well knows. It was called the
Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed
to be the mainland that the men from Bristol
found (Williamson, 1962 213).
John Day's letter.
This letter was written by the English merchant John Day to an
unidentified Spanish 'Lord Grand Admiral' who is believed to have
been Christopher Columbus.
From Ian Wilson, John Cabot and the Matthew (Tiverton,
England: Redcliffe Press, ©1996) 6. Courtesy of the Spanish
National Archives. Valladolid, Spain.
However, the English were not the only people involved. The
Portuguese had also probed the western ocean from the Azores,
a group of islands lying in the mid North Atlantic found by
the Portuguese around 1480 (Wilson 40).
They thought there was a large land mass to the northwest, and
assumed it was geographically near Europe. This shows how
infrequently even master mariners ventured away from sight of
the coastline. Most ships tended to stick fairly close to land,
hopping from island to island, rather than braving the dark
uncharted waters of the North Atlantic.
The Search for a Western Passage to the East
Bristol's well-established wine trade with Bordeaux and Gascony,
along with the spice trade between England and the Middle East,
suffered heavy blows in 1453. The Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople
and the trade route linking Western Europe with the Middle East
and Asia. It placed heavy taxes on goods exported west, prompting
Bristol merchants to seek out new trade routes and markets. They
believed they could either sail around Africa's southern tip or
west across the Atlantic to the coasts of Cipangu (Japan) and
The equally well established wine trade also suffered a setback
in 1453 when France wrested Bordeaux and Gascony from English
control. As a result, Bristol was forced to redirect its wine
trade to Spain, Portugal and the Atlantic islands of the Canaries
and Madeira. Along with Icelandic expeditions to exchange West
English cloth for stockfish and the ancient trading routes with
Limerick and Galway in Ireland, such voyages gave Bristol seamen
further experience navigating through Atlantic waters.
All this meant that Bristol seamen,
particularly, were skilled and experienced in
deep-sea, Atlantic navigation. By the last decade
of the fifteenth century they had already
ventured on the more experimental process of
voyaging, straight out on a westerly course in
search of mythical, and perhaps real, lands with
which new trade might grow and prosper
Thus, by the time Cabot was ready to undertake his
transatlantic journey, Bristol was a port which was well
known for its expeditions of exploration. In addition, it
was an important center of English trade and one of the best
shipbuilding ports in Europe. Thus, Bristol was a logical
choice for Cabot. It faces west, and Bristol mariners were
experts in navigating northern waters. An argument might be
made that Cabot might have settled in Bristol before he approached
Bristol proved to
be a convenient port for John Cabot because of its strategic position near
the Bristol Channel which leads into the Atlantic Ocean.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana.
Henry VII agreed to support Cabot's voyage, and in March 1496
he granted the letters patent authorizing Cabot and his sons to
explore 'all parts, regions, and coasts of the eastern, western
and northern seas unknown to all Christians' (Biggar 7).
On 5 March 1496, King Henry VII granted a letters patent to John Cabot and his sons.
This permitted them to investigate, claim and possess any new lands so long as they
did not intrude on Spanish or Portuguese territories.
From André Vachon, in collaboration with Victorin Chabot and André Desrosiers,
Dreams of Empire: Canada before 1700, Records of Our History series, English transl.
by John F. Flinn (Ottawa, Ontario: Public Archives of Canada, ©1982) 23. Plate 7.
Courtesy of Public Records Office, London, England: Chancery, Warrants for the Great Seal,
Series II, C 82/146, no. 6.
The king was to receive one fifth of any trading profits obtained
from the expedition but the whole financial cost of the expedition
was the responsibility of Cabot and his backers - Bristol merchants,
and Italian bankers based in London. The men of Bristol were willing
to invest their money because they dreamed of turning their prosperous
port into a center for Asian spice distribution in Europe (Roberts 219).
It is known that Cabot - with a Bristolian crew - started an initial
voyage in 1496, one year before he set out on his historic journey.
Widely believed to have been an experimental journey to the west, the
vessel was forced to return to Bristol because of poor weather and
dwindling supplies. John Day also refers to a disagreement between
Cabot and his crew. In 1497, when Cabot was ready to attempt the
voyage again, the Bristol merchants refused to supply the five ships
he was permitted to take with him (Little 18). For this voyage the
merchants provided him with only one vessel: the Matthew.
Outfitted for sea and accompanied by a crew of between 18 and 20
men, Cabot left Bristol in May of 1497 and sailed west. Approximately
one month later, he landed upon the eastern shores of North America,
possibly in Newfoundland. What Cabot thought of his discovery is unknown,
but he certainly could not have realized the profound effects which
it would have upon England and indeed Europe. His seemingly humble
discovery enabled England - previously overshadowed on the political
stage by more powerful countries like Spain and Portugal - to
eventually build itself into one of the world's greatest empires.
Made possible by financial backing from Bristol's wealthy merchant
class, in addition to the money he obtained from Italian financiers,
and the prime location of the Bristol harbour, Cabot's 1497
transatlantic voyage formed a lasting bridge between the old world and the new.
John Cabot leaving Bristol, May 1497.
Cabot leaving Bristol on his "Voyage of Discovery".
Painting by Thomson. From J.A. Cochrane, The Story of Newfoundland (Montreal:
Ginn and Co., 1938) 29.
20th Century Bristol
Today, 500 years after John Cabot's historic voyage to
the mainland New World, Bristol has a population in excess
of 380,000 and is presently the largest city in Western England.
Due to its prime location on the Avon River and close proximity
to the Severn, Bristol continues to be dominated by sea trade
just as it was one thousand years ago.
Article by Wendy Churchill. ©1997, Newfoundland and
Labrador Heritage Web Site.
Updated by James Hiller and Jenny Higgins, June 2013