Sebastian Cabot

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.

Sebastian Cabot
Sebastian Cabot
This image of Sebastian Cabot was mistakenly identified as that of his father John on a 1897 Newfoundland stamp.
Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (A2-18).

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