John Cabot's Voyage of 1498

Henry VII's northern Columbus returned to Bristol on 6 August 1497. Cabot and everyone else thought that a new, shorter route to Asia had been found. No silks and spices, but these could not be far away - and it was known that Columbus himself had not yet found anything of great commercial value.

So Cabot became a hero: "... he is called the Great Admiral and vast honour is paid to him", wrote Lorenzo Pasqualigo, a Venetian living in London, "and he goes dressed in silk, and these English run after him like mad ...."

Henry VII granted £10 "to hym that founde the new isle", and later a pension of £20 a year. These were lavish rewards in a time when houses could be rented for £2 a year. In February 1498, Henry granted Cabot his second letters patent. He was authorized to take six ships, and go to the "londe and iles of late founde by the seid John".

1498 Voyage a Puzzle

In May 1498 Cabot set sail with a fleet of five vessels - a significant advance over the previous year.

This voyage is one of history's puzzles. We know the fleet sailed, that one ship returned damaged after a storm, and that John Cabot disappears from the historical record. Everything else is speculation.

It seems likely that some of the vessels retraced the 1497 route, explored the area in more detail, and returned to England with more geographical knowledge.

It has also been assumed that Cabot died during the voyage. One tradition asserts that he was shipwrecked not far from Grates Cove, where he got ashore with his son Sancio and some of the crew. There they died, either by starvation or at the hands of Beothuk Indians. The Grates Cove Rock story is associated with this tradition.

New Evidence

However, recent research suggests that Cabot returned to England in the spring of 1500 and died there four months later. The late Alwyn Rudduck claimed to have found evidence that Cabot spent two years exploring North America's eastern coast before he returned to Europe. Unfortunately, Ruddock died before anything was published and she left instructions that her research notes were to be destroyed. Researchers at Bristol University have investigated her claim, and think that they have located "evidence that supports the notion that John Cabot's expedition returned to England in the spring of 1500" (Jones, In press).

Whatever Cabot's fate, his 1498 voyage demonstrated that he had not found an easy and profitable route to Asia. He had found codfish and trees, but not the great cities which could provide wealth and power. What he and Columbus had found, it was becoming clear, was a new continent which stood between Europe and Asia. This was a considerable disappointment to those who had backed Cabot's voyages.

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