Wednesday, 10 December 2008

John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto)

[1-John Cabot circa 16th c.]

Giovanni Caboto (c. 1450 - c. 1498), known in English as John Cabot, was an Italian navigator and explorer commonly credited as the first European to discover Canada in 1497, notwithstanding Norseman Leif Ericson's landing (c. 1003).

When Cabot was eleven, he moved to Venice and became a Venetian citizen.

Like other Italian explorers he was commissioned by another country. He had a simple plan, to start from a northerly latitude where the longitudes are much closer together, and where, as a result, the voyage would be much shorter.

Cabot sought funding from England and so his explorations were made under the English flag. King Henry VII of England gave him a letters patent to go on:

“... full and free authoritie, leave, and Power, to sayle to all Partes, Countreys, and Seas, of the East, of the West, and of the North, under our banners and ensignes, with five shippes, ... and as many mariners or men as they will have with them in the saide shippes, upon their owne proper costes and charges, to seeke out, discover, and finde, whatsoever Iles, Countreyes, Regions, or Provinces, of the Heathennes and Infidelles, whatsoever they bee, and in what part of the worlde soever they bee, whiche before this time have been unknowen to all Christians..”

Cabot went to Bristol to make the preparations for his voyage. Bristol was the second-largest seaport in England, and during the years from 1480 onwards several expeditions had been sent out to look for Hy-Brazil, an island said to lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean according to Celtic legends.

[2-Newfoundland from space]

He departed on either May 2 or May 20, 1497 and sailed to Dursey Head, Ireland. He landed on the coast of Newfoundland on June 24, 1497. Cape Bonavista, is the location recognized by the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom as being Cabot's official landing. His men may have been the first Europeans to set foot on the North American mainland since the Vikings. Cabot went ashore to take possession of the land, and explored the coast for thirty days not meeting any natives, and departed on July 20.

[3-East coast of Newfoundland]

Not wanting to return to England empty handed Cabot filled the holds of his ships with cod. He reported that the schools of cod were so thick in the water off Newfoundland that they slowed the ship. Cabot’s news set off a fishing frenzy, and soon the Europeans from France, Portugal and Spain were fishing in Newfoundland’s waters. Today, the cod has all but been fished out.

Drinking water for the voyage was carried in wooden casks and soon went bad. Often by the time the sailors got to the end of the cask there were more maggots than water.

[4-Replica of the Matthew in Bristol]

Back in England, Cabot was made an Admiral, rewarded with £10 and a patent was written for a new voyage. Later, a pension of £20 a year was granted to him. The next year, 1498, he departed again, with five ships this time, one being the Matthew, a small ship known as a “caravel” (24 metres long, weighed 50 tons and had a high sterncastle), but fast and able. He had 18 crewmen. Cabot wanted to travel south of his last voyage in the hope of proving he would be able to reach China. One of the ships returned to an Irish port because of damage taken on in a storm. Upon repair the ship again headed West. Cabot and his expedition were never heard from again and are presumed to have been lost at sea.

Of the five ships, it is believed one or two returned to England. What happened to the others is a mystery.


Photo Credits: [1][2][4]wikipedia, [3]-Bercana CC-nc-flickr.


Mihai A. said...

My favorite studies at school, besides literature, were geography and history. I have quite a weak spot for them ;)
Very nice post, Barbara :)

Barbara Martin said...

Dark Wolf, the early history of Canada is not known to many people outside of Canada, so I thought to cover this before getting back into the War of 1812.

Gary's third pottery blog said...

seems like there are Cabot's all over New England, and cheese too!

Barbara Martin said...

Gary, John's son, Sebastian, accompanied him on one of the early voyages. Then Sebastian went out at later dates to the New World, probably the US.

RuneE said...

I learn more and more Canadian history by reading your blog. I have heard of John Cabot, but nothing like this. I think we get quite a bit of US history in our education (and elsewhere) - but very little of the rest of America. Which of course is the largest part.

Cloudia said...

I didn't know he was a Paisan, a Venetian, a freebooter! Wow, we learn very little history in the U.S. Thanks, Barbara, aloha-

Cloudia said...

Cabbot Cheese!

Barbara Martin said...

RuneE, sometimes it is forgotten by others that Canada is second in size to Russia. You will like the next explorer to reach Canada in my post next week.

Barbara Martin said...

Cloudia, a fellow Italian for you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Barbara. That was really interesting. I find the 1400's and 1500's a fascinating time in history.

Barbara Martin said...

Pam, I kept wanting to put more of the history in, but there is only so much room.

laughingwolf said...

not to mention the world famous cabot trail ;)

Shauna Roberts said...

A really enjoyable post. Thank you. The disappearance of John Cabot and crew could be the basis for a fascinating novel.

Barbara Martin said...

Tony, as I had already done that post I hoped readers might recall.

Shauna, you're welcome. It would be a very interesting story.

Sepiru Chris said...


I always enjoy biographies of explorers from the Age of Exploration, and have a few on Cabot in storage in Canada.

Kudos to you for broadening the awareness of Giovanni Caboto.


Barbara Martin said...

Chris, somebody has to do it. Our neighbours have been stifled in their education.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hi Barbara,

I don't know if I would go that far per se, on a national level. It almost sounds like our citizens have been permitted a better education, which I for one do not buy, and I was educated, literally, across the country (in the south).

An awful lot of our fellow citizens are pretty neglectful of history, further there are grevious systemic failures and lapses in various provincial curriculae.

When I practised in Canada, I was involved in some aboriginal litigation where I saw these lapses plainly; but most Occidental, Oriental, and Asia history is lacking, let alone history of the Americas, or even of our own southern cousins.

How many Canadians understand the American Civil War?

Very few, yet it was so formative for America and its impact reverberates through the political, legislative, and judical history of our closest neighbour.

Admittedly, the diplomatic corps and expatriate crowd, as I am sure you know from your time in London, tend to be quite well educated, so maybe my perspective is skewed, but an awful lot of our neighbours are also very well educated.

Besides, in an e-world, our real neighbours are a satellite or a cable away.

I agree fully that a lot of people could have their knowledge base augmented, and I am fully heartened that you have taken this mission as an e-vocation. I'll light an e-votive candle for your 'vocare'.

I do not mean to sound pugnacious, and fear that I may come across that way. Please do not take this that way. I probably should not post when my blood sugar level is low...

I think that your articles are great and I very much enjoy them.

I hope my comments are taken within the vein of congenial collegial jousting as your profile states that you too are in the legal profession.


Barbara Martin said...

Chris, discourse is always good and I take no offense from your comments. I, too, should refrain from commenting when tired.

I am posting more Canadian history, albeit brief, due to requests from visitors.

Sepiru Chris said...


It is the next morning, and I cringe. I am glad that no offense is taken.

It is fantastic that you are writing such great Canadian, and global, content. Many of us could do with interesting reminders of the world we are embedded in and its past; and that is what you provide whether commenting on the natural world or the historical world.

All the best,

BernardL said...

Superlative article. Thanks, Barbara.