One of John Cabot's sons, Sebastian, is bound up with his
father's story, and the story of the European exploration of
North America. So much so that for many years people confused
father and son, and thought it was Sebastian, not John, who had
crossed the North Atlantic in 1497 and 1498. How did this come
about? And did Sebastian sail with his father on his expeditions?
It is now known that Sebastian was born in Venice, probably
around 1484. He later moved to Bristol with his family, and would
only have been 13 or 14 years old in 1497. It is possible he was
on board the Matthew, but unlikely. The only supporting
evidence is a 1544 map showing parts of North America which bears
the legend: "This land was discovered by John Cabot the
Venetian and Sebastian Cabot his son." But why the confusion
between John and Sebastian? John Cabot did not return from the
1498 voyage, and his sons made no effort, so far as we know, to
preserve his memory. Indeed, Sebastian, who became a mariner and
explorer himself, seems to have encouraged people to think that
he deserved the credit for his father's exploits. No wonder
chroniclers became confused.
In 1508 - 1509, backed by Bristol interests, Sebastian Cabot
explored areas to the north of those found in 1497-98, seeking a
way round the new continent to Asia. He may well have sailed
through Hudson Strait, turning back only because his crew refused
to continue. This was the first attempt to find the northwest
passage, a quest that attracted explorers for centuries.
Sebastian then explored the east coast of America before
returning to England.
He was unable to get further backing in England, from Bristol
or King Henry VIII. As a result, from 1512 to the late 1540s,
Sebastian was in the service of the King of Spain. He then
returned to England, becoming governor of the Muscovy Company,
which aimed to find a northeast passage to Asia, around the north
of Russia. He probably died in 1557.
In 1897, the Newfoundland government issued a commemorative
stamp bearing a portrait thought to be of John Cabot. It was in
fact a portrait of Sebastian Cabot, painted in old age.
This image of Sebastian Cabot was mistakenly identified as that of his father John on a 1897 Newfoundland stamp.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of
Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL A2-18).
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project