John Cabot

views updated Jun 27 2018

John Cabot

John Cabot (active 1471-1498), born Giovanni Caboto, was an Italian explorer in English service. He was once thought to have been the first to bear the English flag across the Atlantic, but recent evidence shows that another voyage preceded his.

John Cabot was probably born in Genoa. Venetian historical records show that between 1471 and 1473 he was admitted as an adult to citizenship in the republic. Naturalization in Venice presumed a residence of 15 years, but Cabot may have come with his family as a minor. By 1484 he was the father of Sebastian Cabot, who would achieve fame as an explorer, and another, older son.

A London acquaintance reported in 1497 that Cabot had once been as far east as Mecca and had attempted to learn the Oriental origin of spices. In view of his Italian birth and Christianity, it seems probable that Cabot visited Jidda, the port of Mecca, rather than the forbidden holy city itself.

Cabot was in Spain in the early 1490s and reached England by 1495, determined to make a voyage to Marco Polo's Cathay. He knew by then of Columbus's discoveries and believed the new land could not be China. English merchants from Bristol had been voyaging into the Atlantic since about 1480, and one expedition, either before or after 1492, had discovered the island of "Brasile," certainly Newfoundland. Cabot believed that this was the northeast corner of Asia, south of which would be found Japan and the Great Khan's empire. For his own voyage he received letters patent from Henry VII and financial backing in Bristol.

In 1497 Cabot sailed from Bristol in the little Matthew with 18 men. From the midpoint of Ireland he went as directly west as possible and made a North American landfall June 24. This was evidently Newfoundland again, perhaps Cape Race. Cabot then followed the coast in regions not precisely identified, but it is thought that he traversed part of Nova Scotia and possibly Maine. He returned to Bristol August 6. The amazing speed of the entire voyage has caused some scholars to doubt the accuracy of the computation, but it must be remembered that Cabot intended this only as a reconnaissance.

When the discoverer reached London, the city hailed him. King Henry, then on rather good terms with Spain, felt that the newly found lands lay far enough northward to be outside any legitimate Spanish sphere. The King granted Cabot a yearly pension of £20 and gladly gave his consent to a new voyage which would penetrate south of the regions already discovered.

In May 1498 Cabot sailed from Bristol again in command of five ships, and here knowledge of him virtually ends. Several of the vessels returned but the one in which Cabot traveled did not; those returning seemed not to know where or when Cabot's ship had been lost. Spanish evidence suggests that one English ship did reach the Caribbean, bearing out the fact that the intention had been to follow the American continent southward.

Further Reading

The most authoritative work on Cabot is James A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (1962). This partly supersedes Williamson's earlier study, The Voyages of the Cabots and the English Discovery of North America (1929). An important contribution, in Italian, is Roberto Almagià, Gli Italiani: Primi esploratori dell'America (1937), which contains a long chapter on both John and Sebastian Cabot. Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America (1971), discusses John Cabot. □

Cabot, John

views updated May 29 2018

Cabot, John (d. 1498) and Sebastian (1474–1557). Much obscurity surrounds the lives of the Cabots, father and son, and their precise roles in the discovery of the Americas. But they discovered and defined the north-east American coast as part of a continent and Sebastian set the British on the long and fruitless search for polar passages to the Orient. Genoese born, but working for Venice and Spain, John came to Bristol in 1493 and was inspired by Columbus to try to cross the Atlantic. After one failure, he reached Cape Breton and Newfoundland in the Matthew in 1497, thinking initially that he had reached Cathay. He died on an attempted repeat voyage. Sebastian may have been with him in 1497 but certainly attempted the North-West Passage to the Orient in 1508. Possibly he reached the entrance to Hudson's Bay before navigating to a disputed extent southwards along the North American coast. With a decline in English interest, Sebastian sailed with a Spanish expedition to the river Plate in 1526–30 and was influential as a cartographer and trainer of pilots. In 1547, he returned to English service, advised on maritime matters, and helped to found the Company of Merchant Venturers which, in searching for a North-East Passage, opened up trade with Russia.

Roy C. Bridges

Cabot, John

views updated May 23 2018

Cabot, John (c.1450–98) Italian navigator, b. Giovanni Caboto. Backed by Henry VII of England, he sailed in search of a w route to India, and reached Newfoundland (1497). His discovery served as the basis for English claims in North America. His account of the Newfoundland fisheries encouraged fishermen from European Atlantic ports to follow his route.

John Cabot

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Cabot

c. 1450-c. 1500

Italian navigator, also known as Giovanni Caboto, who was the first European to discover the North American mainland. In 1497 he set out with his three sons on a voyage for Henry VII of England to seek a western route to Asia. On June 24 he discovered Cape Breton Island but believed that he had reached northeast Asia. He undertook another voyage the following year and probably died at sea.

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