John Cabot's Exploration of North America

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John Cabot's Exploration of North America


In 1497 John Cabot (1450?-1499?), an Italian explorer sailing for England, reached land somewhere in the northern part of North America. Although unsuccessful in his attempt to reach Asia, his landfall gave England a territorial claim in the New World that would be the basis for her eventual colonization of parts of that continent. In addition, Cabot's son, Sebastian (1476?-1557), became the first of many explorers who attempted to sail across the top of the world in an effort to find a Northwest Passage from Europe to the wealth of Asia.


In 1494 John Cabot (born Giovanni Caboto) moved his family to England from Valencia, Spain. He moved to England for the same reason that he had moved to Spain—to be a part of the exploration of the Atlantic Ocean and the lands on the other side, presumed at that time to be parts of Asia. He had been unsuccessful in convincing the Spanish and Portuguese to hire him, so he hoped to improve his luck in England.

Approaching the English king, Henry VII, Cabot offered to find a northern route to the Orient, challenging the Spanish route blazed by Christopher Columbus (1451?-1506) a few years earlier. Henry, who had barely missed the opportunity to sponsor Columbus's trip, jumped at the chance, provided Cabot could find some financial backing. In exchange for promises of an import monopoly from the Crown, a group of Bristol merchants underwrote Cabot's voyage, and the King issued a letter of patent authorizing Cabot to claim any lands he found for England. What none knew was that Cabot had made the same error as Columbus; he believed what he read, and his reading said that the world was actually only 17,000 miles (27,359 km) around, not the 24,000 miles (38,624 km) we now know it to be. Between England and Asia lay not only one ocean, but two, and a continent as well.

Cabot set sail for Asia in the spring of 1497, making landfall on June 24 of that year. The exact place of his landing is not known; convincing cases have been put forth for virtually every reasonable location between Maine and Labrador. What is known for certain is that he realized he had discovered a new continent, that he was the first European to land in North America since the Vikings, and that he claimed the territories he found for England.

Upon his return to England, Cabot announced his discoveries and immediately found backing for a larger expedition the next year. With five ships this time, he again set sail and again landed on the shores of the New World. This time, however, he traveled some way to the south in search of Japan or China. Failing to find them again, he returned to England. On his way, his small flotilla crossed a part of ocean swarming with fish, what is now known as the Grand Banks. Although he did not realize it at the time, this discovery alone justified his trip, for the Grand Banks has been one of the world's most productive fishing grounds for several centuries.

When he returned to England, Cabot reported his failure to prove he had landed in Asia and, from there, faded from history. In fact, it is not even certain when or where he died. However, his discoveries were to have a profound and lasting impact on England and the world.


Although Cabot, like Columbus and so many others, was unsuccessful in discovering a short and easy route to Asia, his voyages were significant for a number of reasons. Among these are:

  1. His territorial claims for the English Crown gave England a toehold in the New World.
  2. His son, Sebastian, was encouraged by his father to continue exploring, beginning the quest for the elusive Northwest Passage.
  3. His work helped prove that North America was a new continent, one that proved every bit as rich as Asia.

The letter of patent Cabot received from Henry VII allowed him to take possession of lands "which before that time were unknown to all Christians" for the English Crown. North America certainly qualified, and Cabot claimed everything he could for England. The next claim, based on Jacques Cartier's (1491-1557) 1535-1536 explorations of the Saint Lawrence River, established France as a colonial power along this river and into what is now Quebec. Thus, the future of Canada was set, even though England did not pursue its claim to these new lands for nearly a century. One result of these competing claims was the French and Indian War in which George Washington (1732-1799) gained most of his early military experience. Another outcome is still seen today, in Canada's perennial conflict between the French-speaking Quebecois and the English-speaking populations that settled the rest of Canada. There is some irony, too, that this territorial claim not only helped give England its North American colonies, but at the same time set in motion events that would eventually lead to training the man who would help take them away. However, at the time of Cabot's landing, none of this could even be envisioned.

Although it is interesting to speculate about how world history might have changed had Cabot not landed in North America, this is more properly the realm of speculative fiction. It is entirely likely that England would have found some pretext to launch her settlements in precisely the same locations as in fact occurred, though possibly without the strategic advantage granted by also possessing the port of Halifax in Nova Scotia. Although these claims may have been contested more vigorously, the history of North America probably would not have changed much because England's rivals were largely interested in different parts of the Americas. Spain had already claimed almost the entirety of South and Central America, plus a large part of the American Southwest and Florida, while the French had staked a claim to the lion's share of what is now Canada. This left the Dutch as England's only serious rivals in North America, primarily for what is now New York, and they elected to withdraw and concentrate on their possessions in South Africa and the Dutch East Indies rather than to contest English claims in North America.

Also important was the effect that Cabot's voyages had on his son, Sebastian. Instead of being discouraged by the perception that his father had failed in his voyages, Sebastian went on to try to discover a Northwest Passage, across the "top" of the new continent and leading to Asia. To this end, in 1508 Sebastian Cabot set out on a self-financed expedition to find a passage to Asia. This time, he was well aware of the fact that North America was, in fact, not Asia but a new continent entirely, and he seems to have purposely set out to find a northern route to Asia across this new continent. Although he failed in this attempt, he set in motion countless attempts by those who were to follow him for nearly four more centuries. Success would not come until 1906, when Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) was able to successfully thread his way through the tortuous channels that comprise the Canadian Arctic islands. Between Cabot and Amundsen, the Northwest Passage claimed scores of lives and many ships. In that time, too, the Northwest Passage went from being an important goal to a near-afterthought because, in the interim, other routes to Asia were pioneered and made both routine and profitable.

The other major result of Cabot's discoveries—the realization that North America was a continent in its own right—was made somewhat gradually. Many, including Sebastian Cabot, seemed to grasp this more quickly than others, but maps until the 1700s continued to show North America connected to Siberia. However, in spite of this purported land connection, by the middle of the sixteenth century, North America's status as a full-fledged continent was fairly well established. However, it was to be some time before the English saw it as anything other than an impediment hampering their ready access to Asia.

In fact, it is hard today to fathom England's near-obsession with ignoring America in favor of trade with Asia. However, at the time Asia represented a known commodity. Beginning with Marco Polo (1254?-1324), some fortunate European nations and city-states had grown wealthy on Asian trade, and the British had been left out because of their status as a relatively weak and poor nation on the outskirts of Europe. At that time, European power and civilization was centered on the Mediterranean and, without a strong navy, England simply could not open trade routes of its own, or compete with the established Mediterranean powers. So, rather than try, the English opted instead to seek alternate routes to these riches, and looked to the West. England was hoping to find a new route to the Orient that would be faster and safer than existing routes. By doing this, the English hoped to share in the wealth generated in China, Japan, and the Spice Islands.

It was only after a century or so of fruitless effort that England finally realized that the North American continent could be the key to wealth, too. With the establishment of its North American colonies, England began profiting from tobacco, timber, fish, and other goods. At the same time, British sea power was in the ascendancy, and England began to project this power throughout the world. It is also worth remembering that, in spite of the American Revolution, British influence in North America continued until the passage of the British North America Act in 1867. This gave Britain nearly three centuries of domination over the American colonies, and nearly a century more of colonial influence in North America. The North American colonies were among England's first overseas possessions, starting England on the path to global empire in the nineteenth century, and enriching its treasury at the same time.


Further Reading

Lehane, Brendan. The Northwest Passage. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Morison, Samuel E. The European Discovery of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Morison, Samuel E. The Great Explorers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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John Cabot's Exploration of North America

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