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. Day wrote:

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
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 Cathay (China).

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 (Little 9).

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 centre 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 the King.

Bristol Channel
Bristol Channel
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.

Cabot's Voyages

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).

Letters Patent
Letters Patent
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 translation 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 centre 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
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, more than 500 years after John Cabot's historic voyage to the mainland New World, Bristol has a population in excess of 425,000 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.

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