John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

In the Hands of His Enemies


It is not necessary, in order to account for the exceedingly hostile reception of Sebastian Cabot when he returned to Spain, to explain that he was a foreigner, and as such had excited the jealousy of Spaniards, for, whether he were foreigner or native, his own acts had been such as to call down upon his head the severest condemnation. He had broken faith with the emperor and with the merchants who had fitted out his fleet; he had hung two of his crew, both Spaniards, and had mutilated others, for committing comparatively trivial offences. And he had abandoned three men with mutinous tendencies to the tender mercies of Indians reputed to be cannibals.

As soon as he arrived in Spain, says Tarducci, "his enemies fell upon him with the fury and unanimity of a pack of city curs on a lean country dog trembling with fear and hunger. So great was the burst of accusations and rumors, that the Council of the Indies decided to have him arrested at once. In the fury of this attack, this snapping and biting, some of his own officers were pre-eminent for their hatred and rage; so much so that one witness testified that it was said and believed among the members of the expedition that it was they who had caused his arrest." So far as the evidence goes, it was more the clamor of his own officers and crew against him than the malice of the merchants, while as for the king, nothing seemed to move him against his former pilot major so much as the implied ignorance of one who had held a high position in his government. However instigated, "a regular trial was opened at his charge on the accusations preferred against him."

The Spanish historians have ignored Cabot's arrival at port on his return voyage, and but for a letter written by a certain Dr. Affonso Simao, then residing in Seville, to his sovereign, the king of Portugal, we should have no record of it whatever. Writing under date of August 2, 1530, he says, after the customary formalities used in addressing royalty:

". . . This week there arrived here a pilot and captain who was sent to discover land. His name is Gaboto, he is the chief pilot of these kingdoms, and is the same person that sent the ship which touched at Lisbon two years ago and brought news of land discovered on the river Pereuai, which they said abounded in gold and silver. [This reference is probably to the caravel containing the two officers sent home by Cabot for orders from the king.]

"I find him very wretched and poor, for they say that he brought no gold or silver, nor anything of profit to those who fitted out the vessels; and of two hundred men that he took with him, he brings back less than twenty. They say all the rest were left there dead, some from fatigue and hunger, others killed in war: for they say the arrow-wounds killed many of them, and the wooden fort they built was destroyed; so that they are very ill-satisfied; and the pilot is a prisoner; and the talk is that they will send him to court, to see what shall be ordered done with him.

"What I could learn, and what is said here publicly, though in a low voice, is that in the land they say they discovered they left no guard but their dead and deserters. But notwithstanding this, these men tell me they saw that the land possessed much gold and silver, and the reason why they brought none is, as they say, because the captain would not allow them to bargain for it, and also because the natives deceived and rebelled against them. Your Highness will believe what you think best of this; but it is certain that the land is abandoned. The river, they say, is very long and deep, and very wide at its mouth. If your Highness shall find it for your interest to send there now, you could do so, for these people fly from a place where they see no money for themselves."

This letter to the king of Portugal, the Spanish sovereign's rival in the race for supremacy in South America, affords us an insight of affairs at the time mentioned. Particular emphasis, it will be noticed, is placed upon the fact that the Spaniards were said to have left nobody on guard in the country, as thereby their rivals would have a clear field for invasion. But Cabot did leave some men there, to hold possession of what he had found, and in doing so he deprived himself of their much-needed assistance on the return voyage, and went home short-handed. This would give us reason to infer that he fully appreciated the situation in its larger aspects, and sacrificed his personal interests to what he considered to be his duty to king and country.

Not much time was lost in bringing Sebastian Cabot to trial, for Spanish justice, though proverbially slow, was spurred to action by the clamors of his enemies. The king and the merchants held aloof, their resentment having died away in the four years that had elapsed since they committed themselves to the unfortunate adventure. They seemed to hold that it was, at best, an error of judgment merely, in having appointed to supreme command one who was wholly unfitted for the station. Fifty-two months he had taken to accomplish—nothing. Out of his fleet of four, the most important ship was sunk, with a vast quantity of provisions and equipment; one was left at La Plata; the third, a caravel, or small craft, had been sent home with the two officers; and but one, the flag-ship, had returned intact. But the greatest losses were represented in men, for of the two hundred who had gone out with Sebastian Cabot, all of three-fourths had perished. And this, the Spaniards indignantly exclaimed, "that an unknown foreigner, whose birthplace even is a matter of doubt, should be exalted over us, and supported by the king in a position of honor and emolument!" Their temper is indicated in the interrogatory propounded by Rojas' attorney at the trial which occurred three months after Cabot's return. "Do you not know," he said, addressing some of the witnesses, "that my client is an hidalgo's son of known worth, while Sebastian Cabot is a foreigner nobody knows who he is?"

This stranger, this foreigner, was arrested at the request (says the report of the Council of the Indies) "of relatives of persons of whose death he is accused; as also of having abandoned others on the land; and at the request of the Exchequer, which charges him with neglecting to follow the instructions he had received." The complaints were made as soon as he had landed; he was promptly arrested and was lodged in jail. His prospects must have appeared very dark at that time, and doubtless he was filled with apprehension as to the outcome of the trial then forthcoming. Through it all, however, he seems to have maintained a calm demeanor, as though conscious of rectitude; but among his enemies "what a chorus of imprecations was there. What cries for vengeance.... Even the Exchequer turned upon him, and all that it could do—charged him with not having followed instructions."

Cabot was a foreigner, but he was not quite alone. He had a wife and a daughter, who stood by him nobly. Catharine Medrano, his wife, appears but a few times in the history of his life, but she is always an interesting figure, strong and self-poised. She is more, in truth, for witnesses averred that she was prone to give advice to her husband, which he ever heeded, knowing her good sense. She was charged with having a deadly enmity for Martin Mendez, whom she hired an assassin to stab in the back; but this charge was not sustained. It came, it is said, from the mother of Mendez, Catharine Vasquez, who was the first of those relatives of murdered men to bring suit against Sebastian Cabot. Catharine Vasquez had good cause, she thought, to loathe the name of Sebastian Cabot, for three of her sons had sailed With him, and but one of them came back. This one, she averred, Cabot had tried to poison; for the poor soul was frantic with grief, and, knowing that the hated foreigner was the author of her woes, accused him blindly. For the death of Martin, however, she held him directly responsible, and indirectly for the loss of her son Michael, who died, she said, of a broken heart, because his brother had been degraded and abandoned to the cannibals.

Eleven witnesses testified at the trial, some of them that, upon the appointment of Martin Mendez as Cabot's lieutenant, the commander, his wife, and Rifos conceived a violent enmity towards him; that Cabot was ruled by the advice of his wife, and that the latter, Catharine Medrano, tried to have Mendez killed. Five of them believed that Mendez and Rodas died in consequence of their abandonment, "because they were drowned in trying to escape from the island, and they would not have tried to escape [from Rojas] if Cabot had not left them there." Three of them believed that, if Mendez had lived and been retained in his office of lieutenant, the expedition would not only have kept on its voyage to the Moluccas, but would not have lost so many men.

Cabot's witnesses, on the contrary, testified strongly in his favor. One had heard of the meeting in the church and of the agreement to kill Cabot and put Rojas in his place. He was also told that a sailor had attempted Cabot's life, and every one aboard ship believed he acted on behalf of the conspirators. Also, he had heard that Rojas said he would have killed Cabot at the Rio de la Plata, or Solis. All his eleven witnesses believed Cabot to be a person learned in matters of the sea, that on this account he was placed at the head of the expedition, and that he took no step without first consulting the captains and high officers. They also confirmed his report (being men who had been with the expedition) that he had ordered soundings to be taken before the flag-ship was wrecked, and if these orders had been obeyed it would not have been lost.

The Indians, in whose care the mutineers were left, were not cannibals, but humane and hospitable. The three mutineers were amply provided with provisions and arms; if they came to grief it was because of the wickedness of Francis de Rojas, who killed Genoese Michael, and then threatened Rodas and Mendez, who fled across the bay and were drowned. Much of the enmity against Cabot was attributed by him to John de Junco, treasurer of the expedition, because he had often reproved him for ill-treating the sailors, and one time when he found Junco threatening to kill a smith, he, Cabot, said that if he did he would soon kill him! Hence, as soon as they had arrived in Spain, Junco talked with the officers of the Contratacion, and Cabot was arrested immediately afterwards.

One Alonzo Bueno was Cabot's enemy because he had often had him punished for gaming, blaspheming, and selling articles to the sailors at exorbitant prices. Another, Gasmirez, was his enemy because he punished him for speaking ill of the emperor, etc. Nine witnesses confirmed the fact of a sailor's ears having been cut off by Cabot's orders for stealing; nine also testified that the commander always treated the Indians well, and would not suffer them to be harmed. All were agreed that they suffered terribly from hunger, that in consequence of weakness and sickness they were obliged to abandon two anchors in the Plata, and that many died of fever in various places. Finally, ten of the eleven witnesses affirmed that the two men they found at St. Catharine's Bay, who had been with Solis when he discovered the Plata, asserted that one of their companions had gone there and brought away great quantities of gold; also, that Cabot was urged by his officers to go there, and further that he did nothing of importance without consulting with said officers.

Francis de Rojas, former captain of the Trinidad  (and who appears to have been a deep-dyed villain, notwithstanding his boast of belonging to the hidalguia, or nobility), reached Spain a few months after Cabot, and on November 2, 1530, submitted an artfully contrived list of interrogatories, in the form of leading questions, which insinuated that—

"The witnesses knew that Rojas was of noble family and worth, and Cabot a foreigner, an unknown person, unfit for the command of a fleet, or any other office; those who fitted out the fleet discovered Cabot's incompetency, wanted to appoint Rojas, and this was the cause of Cabot's hatred of him; the main object of the expedition was to reach the islands of Ophir, Tarshish, etc.; but, when in the latitude of the Cape Verde islands Cabot changed his course so that they were carried to Pernambuco, where the. Portuguese who were there, in order to divert him from the voyage to the Moluccas, told him wonders about the wealth to be found on the Plata, trusting to which tales, he decided to alter the purpose of the voyage, and stop at that river; in consequence of the opposition of Rojas, he was arrested and kept some days a prisoner; despite his protests, Cabot stopped in at the island of Patos, to take off some Christians who were there, and get from them information of the Plata; as a consequence he lost his vessel, which, on its stranding, he basely abandoned, though he, Francis de Rojas, came forward and used every means to save crew and stores; as a further consequence of this zeal, Cabot, through envy, became the more hostile towards him; out of this envy he imprisoned him, with two others, on an island, the inhabitants of which ate human flesh, and had already killed and eaten several Christians; Rojas was given as a slave to the chief of the island, doubtless for the purpose of being eaten, and underwent great peril and suffering; by continuing the voyage, the expedition would have procured for the emperor a profit of not less than two millions, even if they had brought back only a cargo of spices; Rojas himself would have gained ten thousand crowns; and finally, all that is herein set forth is public voice and rumor." Presented by Francis de Rojas, November 2, 1530.

The outcome of the trial, so far as the accusations of Rojas and Catharine Vasquez are concerned, was what is popularly known, at the present day, as a "Scotch verdict" of "not proven." It would seem to indicate that the authorities haled him to the bar of justice more for the purpose of allaying public clamor than in expectation of a conviction. He was set at liberty in May, 1531, but under bail, and with a suspended sentence hanging over him, which was not pronounced until February of the following year. Then, on account of the disregard he had shown of the king's orders and the merchants' welfare, as well as the high-handed proceedings respecting his men, he was sentenced to be banished from Spain for the period of two years. The designated place of his exile was Oran, on the north coast of Africa; but there is no evidence in existence—or at least hitherto discovered to show that he went there. Per contra, a letter written by him from Seville, in June, 1533, indicates his whereabouts at that time, when the sentence would have been little more than half served, and we are led to conclude that it was either shortened, by grace of the king, or remitted altogether.