John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

In England Once Again


During the term of his imprisonment, whether in Seville or in exile at Oran, Sebastian Cabot, in all probability, was sustained and comforted by his loyal, outspoken, and high-spirited wife, Catharine Medrano. Believing her husband to be the greatest man of his profession in the world, she had ardently and openly championed his cause, making many enemies thereby. Perhaps she had threatened those who were opposed to him—at least, some of them, for she was accused by Catharine Vasquez of meditating the assassination of her son; though no proof was offered, and the accusation fell to the ground.

Although she completely dominated the mild-mannered Sebastian in their home, he yielded easily to her government, and that he had a great affection for her was shown on several occasions. By means of a document dated October 25, 1525, we are informed that he desired to convey to her for life, in case of his death, on the then forthcoming expedition, a life annuity of 25,000 maravedis. We have seen that he named after her the bay on the coast of Brazil in which his greatest misfortunes overtook him, and he seems always to have had her in mind, though rarely writing of or to her in the course of his journeyings. In the letter referred to in the preceding chapter there is a pathetic allusion to her illness at that time, and to the recent death of his daughter, supposed to have been their only child. This reference comes in quite casually, as though the writer would not allow his private griefs to obtrude in public affairs, but is none the less affecting. The letter is addressed to Juan de Samano, his Majesty's secretary in Madrid, and begins:

"MUY MAGNIFICO SENOR,"To-day, on the feast of Saint John, I received a letter from the governor of the Canaries, from which it seems that he still desires undertaking an expedition to the Parana, tan taro me cuesta  which cost me so dear—. . . Senor, the chart which your Worship desired me to forward is already finished and will be sent you by the contador  of the Indian house. I entreat your Worship to pardon me for not having finished and sent it sooner; but, in truth, it was not possible, on account of the death of my daughter, and the illness of my wife."

[He proceeds to say, without further mention of domestic calamities, that he has not only sent that chart, but has prepared two maps, one for the emperor, and another for the Council of the Indies. He requests the secretary to urge upon the Council an advance of a third part of his salary, in order that he may discharge his indebtedness to various persons in Seville, and after explaining some points of navigation, the variation of the compass-needle, etc., he closes by repeatedly "kissing the hands" of the secretary and his wife, the Senora Dona Juana, and signing himself,]

"Your very faithful servant, "SEBASTIAN CABOTO."

With this letter to guide us, we can affirm that at this time Cabot was in Seville, that he had resumed the making of charts, which were in request by persons highest in authority in Spain, including the king himself. That he was still chief pilot de jure  may be assumed by his request for an advance on his salary; that he soon became so de facto  is also evident a little later, when the government restored him to office. The authorities seem to have reasoned that, whatever his faults, whatever his lapses, he was too valuable a man to lose, and his services were in constant demand. His expedition was a failure, they admitted; but, as one of the Spanish historians, Gomara, expressed it, perhaps "not so much, as some say, through his fault, as the fault of the men he had with him." There was fault on both sides, in fact, for it was Cabot's lack of firmness at the outset that allowed the mutiny to simmer through months of inaction, the ship to be lost from lack of navigating skill, the crews to be decimated by disease and wounds, through lack of judgment. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the personnel  of Cabot's crews was bad, though no worse than that of Columbus's and Magellan's. The latter, amid dangers far greater than Cabot encountered, quelled a mutiny of more portentous proportions by hanging the ring leaders, and then compelling the rest to continue with him on a voyage without a parallel in history.

Cabot was at home in the office of chief pilot, and he should never have been removed to a sphere of wider activities, for he was a theorist and impractical. He could construct charts for others to sail by, but was unable to navigate a ship himself, as seems to have been shown quite fully. Others had no difficulty in sailing by the directions on his sea-charts; or, at least, no protests are recorded. If they had been notably defective, doubtless complaints would have flowed into the Casa de Contratacion  in a stream against the pretentious foreigner who held the highest position in Spain's mercantile marine; but that he held this position for thirty years, and then left it voluntarily, speaks volumes for his efficiency.

The period that ensued after the tumultuous waters of hate and rivalry had calmed, and in which, once more settled in Seville, Sebastian Cabot devoted himself exclusively to the duties of his office, seems to have been the most satisfactory of his life. A Venetian contemporary who visited him between his return from South America and his final departure from Spain, in 1548, says of him, "He is so valiant a man, and so well practised in all things pertaining to navigations and the science of cosmographie, that at this present he hath not his like in all Spaine."

What we should particularly admire in Sebastian Cabot's character is his composure, under trials so great that many a less resolute mind than his would have been utterly crushed. His cheerful serenity seems never to have deserted him, even after the accumulated misfortunes of his voyage, of his imprisonment and exile, culminated by the advent of death into his family circle. After the date of the letter to Secretary Samano, we hear nothing more from his family, and may infer, perhaps, that his wife followed the daughter to the grave, for she drops out of sight entirely. Still, his serenity does, not forsake him, and many years later we hear him say to a friend, "I do rejoyce in the fruit of my labors, and rest with the charge of this office, as you see."

He was always courteous, gentle, soft of speech, and insinuating of address. His chief delight was to convey to others information of which he claimed to be exclusively possessed, and to the end of his days he was prone to "shoot with the long bow." With the exception of Columbus, he was wont to say, he had made more and greater discoveries than any other man since the New World was made known to the Old. He was consistent in his wonderful narratives of adventures, which, perhaps, had never taken place—at least no proof has been forthcoming and most tenacious of his theories, such as the existence of a northwest passage to Cathay, the presumption that his native Venice would sustain him in an effort to find that passage, and the delusion that he was the original discoverer of the compass-needle's declination.

In appearance he is said to have been tall and of majestic presence, resembling Columbus in stature and somewhat in features. A portrait has come down to us ascribed to Holbein, which once hung in the royal gallery at Whitehall, and which shows him costumed in rich velvet, with a long, golden chain around his neck and upon his breast. His features are benevolent, his whole aspect venerable; but his eyes, if correctly rendered, are shifty and prevaricating, sustaining his self-delineated character as set forth in this history. Fortunate was it for the reputation of Sebastian Cabot that he lived to be venerable, and became revered for his years as well as for his supposed achievements. Towards the last of his days he grew into the reputation he had striven all his life to acquire, but it was only after he had returned from Spain to England, in or about the year 1548, that his labors brought him substantial fame.

The last-known date of Cabot's residence in Spain, says his biographer, Tarducci, is 1545, in which year he was associated with three others in the examination of a work called the Art of Navigation. The year previous he had issued his famous planispbere, which constitutes, with its inscriptions, almost the sole record from his own hand, at present existing, of his accomplishments. Finally, it is thought, he grew tired of the enforced inaction of the pilot's office in Seville (though, accepting his own story, he made several voyages; but to what points he does not state after the return from Parana) and allowed his longing for England and renewed activities there to prevail over his sense of duty to Spain.

He owed Spain nothing, however; for what can repay a man for thirty-five years taken out of his life? The empty honors of his position were unsatisfying, and the high-sounding salary of 125,000 maravedis (a maravedi being about a quarter of a cent), when reduced to its equivalent in gold, was not more than enough to satisfy his necessities. So it happened, probably after a secret correspondence had been carried on with the English court, that in the first year of young King Edward's reign a generous appropriation was made "for the transporting of one Shabot [Cabot], a pilot, to come out of Hispain [Spain], to serve and inhabit in England." How it was accomplished, and exactly when, does not appear; but Sebastian seems to have slipped out of Spain with his accustomed facility, and sometime in the autumn of 1548 he is discovered in England. The next January, probably in conformance with a promise from the crown, he is granted an annuity for life of one hundred and sixty-six pounds sterling, to date from the previous September. This may indicate the date of his arrival in England, where he was wanted to continue the desultory explorations that had taken place since his departure, nearly forty years before.

His stay in Spain almost coincided with the stormy reign of Henry VIII., when all minds were turned to other thoughts than of navigation and discovery. "The disorders of the government," says Tarducci, "must have come to Cabot's ears, and sounded worse than they actually were, as Spain was directly injured by the king's madness; for his reputed wife, Catherine of Aragon, was of that nation, and aunt to Charles V. . . . It is, then, easy to imagine what must have been said at the court and throughout the kingdom of Spain concerning so many wives married and divorced, so many learned and holy men given into the hangman's hands, and the scandals of every nature which at that time afflicted England. But in 1547 Henry VIII. died, and the new reign of Edward VI. seemed from its commencement to be the dawn of a new era for the English marine." The English had never given up the intention of pushing to the northwest, by some way that might open a passage to the eastern regions of Cathay, and had made several attempts; but all had resulted in defeat. In 1527, for instance, two ships sailed, well supplied, but were unable to get beyond the fifty-third degree of north latitude; and in 1536 another expedition sailed for the northwest, but disappeared without leaving a trace of its route or record of its discoveries, if any were made.

"To give a strong impulse to the expeditions which were projected (the bad results of others having deterred English sailors from again putting their skill and courage to the proof), a man was needed who would be able to restore that courage, and by confidence in his own ability inspire confidence in the hearts of others. This man for England could be none other than Sebastian Cabot."

Edward VI. had just reached the British throne, says the author of a Life of Sebastian Cabot, Mr. Hayward, when our navigator returned and fixed his residence in Bristol. Public hopes had been much raised touching the young king, for, having enjoyed an excellent education, and being naturally fond of naval affairs, it was thought that his reign would be most promising for the encouraging of maritime excellence. These hopes were disappointed by his early demise, but he doubtless recognized the superior ability of the navigator newly arrived from Spain, and, in addition to the pension already mentioned, made him a present of two hundred pounds.

The pension had been granted "in consideration of the good and acceptable service done, and to be done, unto us by our beloved servant, Sebastian Cabota, of our special grace, certain knowledge, meere motion, and by the advice and counsel of our most honorable uncle, Edward Duke of Somerset, governor of our person, and protector of our kingdomes, dominions and subjects." Purchas, the historian, was led to believe, from an inscription on the portrait alluded to as hanging in the royal palace at Whitehall, that Cabot was honored by being knighted, and in his Pilgrims  occurs this line: "Hail, Sir Sebastian! England's northern pole." This title could not add to or detract from his greatness and glory; but there is no evidence entitled to credence that it was bestowed upon him. He occupied a position in England similar to that which he had vacated in Spain, and that his opinion was deferred to by the king, and any decision of his respecting maritime affairs considered final, appears from the complaint of one Captain Alday, whose license to navigate had been withdrawn, after it had been approved by his majesty, on account of Cabot's disapproval.

Much has been made of Sebastian Cabot's explanation to the king of the magnetic needle's variation, and Edward was, forsooth; greatly impressed thereby. "With his usual ardor," says a misinformed biographer, "he insisted on a convocation of the learned men [and they were not many] of the kingdom, before whom the venerable seaman had the honor of explaining the phenomenon to his young sovereign. He showed the extent of the variation, and that it was different in different latitudes. Unfortunately we are without the papers of Cabot himself, and are thus unable to know precisely the theory offered to the prince. Although not the correct one, it attracted general attention, and added to the esteem which our navigator now enjoyed in his native land."

It was not the correct theory, nor, as we have noted in preceding pages, was it Sebastian Cabot's discovery; though, from the general ignorance of such subjects in England, he was readily given credit for what really was an achievement of Christopher Columbus. Owing to his wider range of observation, however, having visited more northern and also more southern regions than Columbus, he may have been enabled to present a more lucid explanation than his predecessor, and to some extent was entitled to credit. "He must be a great man, indeed, who knows so much more than we do," the simple people reasoned, and, following the example of their equally ignorant king, they placed Sebastian Cabot in the niche he had hollowed for himself, and thenceforth his fame was secure. It only needed the protest from Spain, which arrived in November, 1549, against England's appropriating the services of her chief pilot, to cause Cabot to be regarded with respect approaching veneration.

The Spanish monarch seemed surprised, hurt, and indignant that "this very necessary man for the emperor, whose servant he was, and had a pension of him, "should have vacated his kingdom without leave. A demand was made for his return through the English ambassador at Brussels, a belated and cautious answer to which was returned in April, 1550, as follows:

"And as for Sebastian Cabot, answere was first made to the said ambassador that he was not detained heere by us, but that he of himself refused to go either into Spayne, or to the Emperor, and that he, being of that mind, and the King's subjecte, no reason or equitie wolde that he shude be forced or compelled to go against his will. Upon which answere the said ambassador said that if this were Cabot's answere, then he required that the said Cabot, in the presence of some one whom we coud appoint, might speke with the said ambassador, and declare unto him this to be his mind and answere. Whereunto we condescended, and at last sent the said Cabot with Richard Shelley to the ambassador, that he was not minded to go, neither to Spayne nor to the Emperor. Nevertheless, having knowledge of certain things verie necessarie for the Emperor's knowledge, he was well contented, for the good will he bore the Emperor, to write his minde unto him, or declare the same here to anie such as shude be appointed to here him. Whereunto, the said ambassador asked the said Cabot, in case the king's Majestie, or we, shude command him to go to the Emperor, whether then he wold not do it; whereupon Cabot made answere, as Shelley reporthe, that if the King's Highnes, or we, did command him so to do, then he knew well enough what he had to do!  But it semets [seemeth] that the ambassador tooke this answere of Cabot to sound as though he had answered that, being commanded by the King's Highnes, or us, that then he wolde be contented to go to the Emperor; wherein we rekon the said ambassador to be deceived, so that he was funk determined not to go there at all."

In sooth, Sebastian Cabot was averse to going back to Spain, and fully determined not to go, whatever his reasons may have been. His answer, that if the king commanded him, "then he knew what he had to do," was crafty and equivocal. It is a fairly good index of his character, which is consistent in its duplicity, to the very end of his life. It sufficed, however, to quiet the Spanish sovereign for a while; but in 1553, after King Edward had been succeeded on the throne by his sister, the infamous "Bloody Mary," another request was made for the return of Cabot to Spain. The queen was asked by the emperor to give permission for Sebastian Cabot to come, "as he has need to communicate with him concerning some matters affecting the safety of the navigation of the Spanish realms." Neither was this request complied with, for, though the suspicions of the emperor were excited as to the use his former chief pilot was making of information he had gathered during his long service in Spain, so were those of Cabot himself. The ill-feeling aroused by his misadventure of more than twenty years before still rankled in the breasts of many Spaniards, and the Spanish historians scarcely veil their animosity towards one who brought their country into disrepute. He had probably become convinced, long since, that he could never expect to receive what he considered to be his just deserts while he resided in Spain.

Although racially allied to the Spaniards by birth, he seemed less an alien in England than in Spain. He constantly recurred to Venice, however, as the land of his parentage and ancestors, though it had no claim whatever upon him save through the accident of birth. By some strange process of reasoning, he had arrived at the conclusion that Venice ought to benefit by his services, instead of England or Spain, and in 1551, nearly thirty years after he had first formulated the proposition (given on page 73), we find him again approaching a Venetian ambassador to the same effect. It might have been only yesterday, or the'year before, that the first proposal was made, so similar was it to the second, after the lapse of a generation.

The Venetian ambassador to England forwarded his proposal to make an expedition under the flag of St. Mark as had the Venetian ambassador to Spain, in 1522. All who were previously concerned all save Cabot—had probably passed away; but the "Council of Ten" manifested the same astuteness in dealing with the matter as its wily predecessors. The difficulty arising as to the getting of Cabot to Venice, while in the service of England, he suggested, as before, that, to allay any possible suspicions of his employers, the plea be advanced that he wished to collect some old debts due him, and recover certain properties once belonging to his mother. This was done, and "the English government, in compliance with his request, wrote its ambassador in Venice to appear before the Council of Ten and make the recommendation. . . . The Council answered the ambassador that they were very glad to learn in what esteem and confidence a subject of their Republic was held in England, and that they would be eager to satisfy the wishes of Cabot and the English ministers." But their suspicions were excited, and they finally wrote their ambassador in London to tell Cabot that his offer was most welcome, informing him, however, that "Cabot not being known to any one here, it will be necessary for him to come himself, to prove his identity and give his reasons, the matter he speaks of being very old; and we have given the same answer to his Excellency, the ambassador of his Majesty. You will continue, in the mean time, to endeavor to learn from him more in detail the plan of that navigation, giving particular information of the whole to the chiefs of the Council of Ten."

But Cabot the septuagenarian was still Sebastian the unready. The pretended secret which he had carried locked in his breast for more than forty years he was still unwilling to divulge, save on certain conditions impossible of fulfilment. Whether it related to a northwest passage or a northeast passage, or whether there were really any secret at all, nobody knows, and probably nobody ever will know. Meanwhile, during all these years, the map of the world had changed. Comparing, says a writer of note, the map of the world made by Martin Behairn in 1492, with the planisphere made by Sebastian Cabot in 1544, "we shall see at a glance what wonderful progress geographical science had made in the relatively short space of time that separates those dates"; yet Cabot himself was continually harking back to a period when it was believed that Cathay could be reached by merely crossing the ocean.