The Italian explorer John Cabot made history when he crossed the Atlantic and planted the English flag upon North American shores. He had sailed to a distant place where tall trees burst from rich, loamy soil, its waters so full of fish that the sailors hunted them by the barrel. But when Henry VII heard of Cabot’s rich discoveries, the monarch felt a pang of disappointment: why were there no spices?
Henry had backed Cabot’s venture in the hopes of securing a fast new trade route to China and Japan – both Cabot and the famous explorer Christopher Columbus believed sailing west from Europe would quickly take them to Asia, as Europeans did not yet know about America. At the time, Asia was thought to be overflowing with all manner of treasures, including precious stones, gold and spices.
And, as England was still reeling from the ill-effects of the Wars of the Roses and outbreaks of plague, securing such a profitable route into the heart of Asia would see the country’s prospects skyrocket.
Who was John Cabot?
Conversely, Cabot was not driven solely by the desire to fill his pockets with gold, but by his fervent ambition to travel the world and discover new lands. Born in the Italian city of Genoa in around 1450, Cabot upped sticks to Venice and became an official Venetian citizen in 1476. But he was determined to travel much further afield, and eventually found a job with a mercantile firm, where he learned how to navigate the sea with ease, and travelled as far as the Ottoman city of Mecca, an impressive trading hub where the eastern and western worlds collided.
Cabot’s determination to sail to far- flung regions had also been stoked by reading Marco Polo’s heady accounts of bustling Chinese cities. Cabot was desperate to see these places for himself, and he believed he could travel to them by charting a course west from Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean.
However, Cabot lacked the money to finance such an extravagant operation, and at first, he failed to share his dream with those who had the funds to back him. Trying his luck at the European royal courts, Cabot eventually took himself and his family to England, to try and prise open the purse strings of merchants in London and Bristol. Before leaving for England, the aspiring adventurer learned that fellow Italian Christopher Columbus had travelled across the Atlantic and found land – land that everyone was convinced was the ‘Spice Islands’, or Indies.
Cabot reached England without incident, and by the end of 1495 he and his family were settled in Bristol. Talk of Columbus’s far-flung travels as an ambassador for Spain caught the attention of the English, and Cabot capitalised on this to access the coffers of some of Bristol’s merchants. Yet a few months later, the Italian had the backing of a much greater patron.
In late 1495 or early 1496, Cabot visited London and met with Henry VII’s advisors to explain his grand plans for charting a swift trade route to the far east. After persuading them of his idea, he proceeded to petition the king himself. Cabot won over Henry, too, and on 5 March 1496 the king sent letters patent to Cabot and his sons – Lewis, Sebastian and Sancio – which gave them permission to cross the seas in search of new lands.
In this document, Henry VII granted to Cabot and his offspring “full and free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns”. The Tudor king also granted the explorer the right “to find, 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”. In other words, Cabot was not allowed to encroach upon land that had already been claimed by the Spanish or Portuguese – both Christian countries – as these nations had already sent explorers out in search of fresh territory.
The missive continued, giving Cabot and his descendants permission to “conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered that they may be able to conquer, occupy and possess… acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same towns, castles, cities, islands and mainlands discovered”.
Through giving the Italian explorer this right, England would be able to acquire power over new settlements and perhaps start to seed its empire across the globe.
Where did John Cabot explore?
Ever the shrewd ruler, Henry made sure that as well as growing England’s power abroad, he would benefit personally from Cabot’s exploits too. The letter also stated: “As often as [Cabot and his sons] shall arrive at our port of Bristol… [they shall] pay to us, either in goods or money, the fifth part of the whole capital gained.”
So, although Henry himself had not put forward so much as a single gold crown to finance the venture, he would receive one-fifth of the treasures they brought back to England.
To sweeten the deal, the king stipulated that Cabot and his family would be “free and exempt from all payment of customs” on all the goods they brought home from their travels. Moreover, “all mainlands, islands, towns, cities, castles and other places whatsoever discovered by them, however numerous they may happen to be, may not be frequented or visited by any other subjects of ours whatsoever without the licence of the aforesaid John [Cabot] and his sons”.
And finally, the king commanded that all English subjects “shall render good assistance to the aforesaid John [Cabot] and his sons and deputies, and that they shall give them all their favour and help as well in fitting out the ships or vessels as in buying stores and provisions with their money and in providing the other things which they must take with them on the said voyage”.
Buoyed by Henry’s support, in 1496 Cabot chartered a ship that would take him and his crew from Bristol across the Atlantic to – or so they hoped – Asia’s shores. However, it was not to be, and the first crossing ended in disaster. The Bristol merchant John Day revealed why this initial attempt failed, recording in a later letter: “Here is what happened: [Cabot] went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.”
Cabot was not dissuaded, though, and the following year he set out from Bristol once more in search of the far east and adventure. He recruited a crew of 18 men, most of whom were from Bristol – although a Burgundian man and a barber from Castiglione, near Genoa (who was hired to shave the crew’s chins so that they kept up with the fashions of the time), seem to have also been onboard.
In May 1497 the adventurers left Bristol on a vessel named the Matthew, travelling across the Irish Sea and circumnavigating Ireland’s southern coast, before sailing into the great unknown.
Happily, this second journey proved to be the opposite of the first. The ship was well-provisioned and the weather was largely kind. In June, some storms did set in, but once these squalls had passed Cabot heard the cries of birds in the air and saw bits of wood bobbing up and down with the waves. Land was drawing near.
On 24 June, the Matthew reached these unknown shores. Cabot’s spirits couldn’t have been higher: he thought he’d succeeded in discovering an island off the coast of Asia, believing that he had successfully plotted a fast trade route from England to the far east. But although he had reached land, it was not the coast he thought it to be – Cabot was actually standing on North American soil.
It’s not known for certain exactly where the Matthew landed – Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, and even Maine have all been suggested – but wherever it was, Cabot claimed it for Henry VII and called it the “New Founde Land”. John Day wrote: “He [Cabot] landed at only one spot of the mainland, near the place where land was first sighted, and they disembarked there with a crucifix and raised banners with the arms of the Holy Father [Pope Alexander VI] and those of the King of England, my master [Henry VII].”
The land that Cabot had proclaimed belonged to Henry VII was lovely indeed. The Milanese envoy Raimondo de Soncino recorded that “the land is excellent and temperate, and they [the crew] believe that brazil-wood and silk are native there. [The crew] assert that the sea is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.” And Day wrote: “[The crew] found tall trees of the kind masts are made, and other smaller trees, and the country is very rich in grass.”
What did John Cabot discover?
But Cabot and his men didn’t only find evidence of plentiful plants and creatures. According to Day, Cabot and his men spotted a trail that led further inland and “saw a site where a fire had been made, they saw manure of animals which they thought to be farm animals, and they saw a stick half a yard long pierced at both ends, carved and painted with brazil”. Who, they wondered, had occupied this fair land already?
Taking snares that had been left out to catch animals as well as a needle for stitching nets – as evidence of the mysterious people that could be presented to the king on their return – Cabot and the others left the trail, topped up their water supplies and returned to the safety of the Matthew. Cabot mapped more of the coastline from the confines of the ship, naming a variety of landmarks, before turning the Matthew around and beginning the journey home.
The Matthew docked in Bristol on 6 August 1497, and Cabot hurried to meet the city’s merchants who had financed his ventures and tell them of his success before rushing off to London where Henry was eagerly awaiting confirmation that the mission had borne fruit.
On 10 August, Cabot was granted an audience with Henry VII. He triumphantly announced that he’d sailed to north-eastern Asia and found an island there, describing the temperate weather and abundant waters. Although he’d brought back no riches this time, Cabot acknowledged, he would certainly find them on his next trip – and bring one- fifth back to Henry, whose coffers would soon be stuffed with gold.
The king gave Cabot a £10 reward for his efforts and vowed to give him a yearly income. He’d likely have offered the explorer far more money if he had indeed returned laden with spices. But Cabot’s mind was already on his next voyage across the Atlantic.
What happened to John Cabot?
By the end of the month, Cabot was back in Bristol and plans for his third journey were well underway. This time, he reasoned, he would sail back to “New Founde Land” before continuing westwards, where he would, he was certain, reach Japan. There, he would establish a trading post and start sending precious items from the far east back home to England.
In 1498, Cabot headed for the Atlantic once more, this time the leader of five ships – one financed by the king himself, and the other four courtesy of Bristol’s merchants – and commanding between 200 and 300 men. But the journey was soon marred by tragedy. At some point during the early stages of the voyage, one of the ships was seemingly caught in a storm and left unfit to cross the Atlantic, so it had to sail back to Ireland.
The other four ships continued on their journey – but what actually happened to them, and to their leader Cabot, is a mystery. Some believe the fleet sank beneath the waves in a savage storm; others have argued that Cabot was shipwrecked near to Newfoundland. There are also those who claim a freezing and starving crew mutinied somewhere across the Atlantic.
Whatever Cabot’s fate, though, his exploits had huge ramifications – although not in the way he had hoped. Rather than making England the premier European trading partner with the far east, thanks to a high-speed ocean highway, Cabot had, in fact, proved that rapid Atlantic travel was possible – but to a different destination entirely. The British colonies that were subsequently set up in what is now the United States and Canada owed a great debt to Cabot, for forging the way across the seas.
Rhiannon Davies is sub-editor for BBC History Magazine