John Cabot

Not very much is known for certain about John Cabot – or Zuan Caboto, to use his original Italian name. We do not even know precisely when and where he was born. It is likely, though, that he was born around 1455 in Gaeta, near Naples, and was the son of a merchant.

His name is also associated with Genoa, and he may have spent some time there as a boy. But by 1461 Cabot was living in Venice, where he became a citizen. In about 1482 he married a Venetian woman, Mattea, and they had three sons: Ludovico, Sebastiano and Sancio.

John Cabot
John Cabot
A detail from "The departure of John and Sebastian Cabot from Bristol on their first voyage of discovery, 1497." Oil on canvas by Ernest Board, 1906.
From J.R. Smallwood, ed., The Book of Newfoundland, Vol 1. (St. John's: Newfoundland Book Publishers, 1937)

A merchant like his father, Cabot traded in spices with the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, and became an expert mariner. Valuable goods from Asia – spices, silks, precious stones and metals – were brought either overland or up the Red Sea for sale in Europe. Venetians played a prominent part in this trade.

Moving to Spain

Then, about 1490, Cabot and his family moved to Valencia in Spain. Why? It is probable that, like his fellow-countryman Christopher Columbus, Cabot wanted to be part of an expanding frontier of exploration, the Atlantic Ocean. The leaders in this enterprise were the Portuguese, and the Spanish were also interested. The monarchs of both countries wanted to find new routes to Asia and its riches – routes which would avoid the Mediterranean and the virtual monopoly on the spice trade held by the Italians. There was another motivation as well. In a deeply religious age, Europeans wanted to spread knowledge of Christianity, and to contain the spread of Islam.

However, neither Portugal nor Spain was interested in John Cabot. The Portuguese pioneered their route to Asia by sailing down the African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope. And once Columbus had returned in triumph from his first transatlantic voyage in 1493 – he reached the Caribbean, but thought it was part of Asia – the Spanish likewise thought they had found their route to the east.

Support in England

As a result, Cabot turned in 1494 or 1495 to England – to the Italian community in London, to the merchants of the port of Bristol, where he settled with his family, and to the king, Henry VII. His scheme was to reach Asia by sailing west across the north Atlantic. He estimated that this would be shorter and quicker than Columbus' southerly route. Cabot was trying to go one better.

In England, Cabot received the backing he had been refused in Spain and Portugal. Italian bankers based in London agreed to invest in his scheme. So did the merchants of Bristol. They had sponsored probes into the north Atlantic from the early 1480s, looking for possible trading opportunities. Some historians think that Bristol mariners might even have reached Newfoundland and Labrador even before Cabot arrived on the scene.

John Cabot
John Cabot in London, n.d.
In England, Cabot received the backing he had been refused in Spain and Portugal.
Illustration by Percival Skelton. From Joseph Hatton and M. Harvey, Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883) 10.

These had been unofficial voyages. In contrast, on 5 March 1496, Henry VII issued letters patent to Cabot and his sons authorizing them to sail to all parts "of the eastern, western and northern sea" to discover and investigate,

whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.

Whatever Cabot did was in the name of the English Crown.

Cabot made his first try in 1496. It was a failure. All we know about the voyage is contained in a 1497 letter from John Day, an English merchant in the Spanish trade, to Christopher Columbus. It states that "he [Cabot] went with one ship, he had a disagreement with the crew, he was short of food and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back." The following year, Cabot had better luck.

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