John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Some Facts about Sebastian


The first thirty-five or forty years of Sebastian Cabot's life constitute a period of obscurity scarce irradiated by a gleam of light from contemporary sources. The same cannot be said of the latter part of his father's life, for we have the evidence of several undoubted authorities that he was not only in existence, but accomplished voyages between Bristol and distant lands. This we should not forget: That all the evidence of Sebastian's alleged voyages in the fifteenth century is ex post facto, unsustained by a single authoritative statement made at the time, so far as we can learn.

How can we explain this hiatus in his life-history, except by the assumption that he was so obscure that his deeds were not considered worthy of mention? Together with his two brothers, Lewis and Santius, he is mentioned in the letters patent of 1496; then the three disappear utterly for nearly a score of years, when Sebastian alone emerges, and declares himself the chief factor in the great discovery. Even his father is relegated to comparative obscurity, while the fame of the second son, Sebastian, like the smoke-cloud from the Afrite's jar, mounts to the skies and overspreads the earth.

"So far as we have proceeded with the narrative," says Mr. G. E. Weare, "the name of Sebastian Cabot appears only in the first grant of letters patent, in common with those of his two brothers. It may be desirable to repeat here, that if we are to assume that Sebastian sailed with his father in 1497, simply because his name appears in the letters patent, then we must assume that all three sons were with their father in the voyage made by him in the Mathew. And if the presence of their names in the letters patent is to be accepted as evidence of their presence in the first voyage, then, by parity of reasoning, the absence of the names in the second letters patent must be equally conclusive of their absence in the second expedition. But surely, so far as the evidence goes, the presence or absence of any of the sons must be treated as pure conjecture. "

And yet, writing upon the mere assumption that the second son took the place of his father in the second voyage, the author of still another Life of Sebastian Cabot, Mr. Hayward, says:

"Shortly after the date of this patent, John Cabot died, and Sebastian determined to prosecute alone the voyage, of which he had ever, in reality, the direction. Aside from his adventurous spirit, the heavy expenses of the first voyage had been requited only by his claims in the new country. Neither was he ready to relinquish what he had so hardly won, now that public favor was on his side. What the royal interest was in this second expedition it is impossible to state; it extended, however, to one or two ships and a considerable amount of funds. . . . But for the grossest neglect, we might have learned the particulars of these memorable voyages from Cabot himself. A series of his papers, with suitable maps, descriptive of these adventures, was left nearly ready for publication. Carelessness, however, suffered them to be mislaid; and now time has hidden them forever. How delightful as well as remarkable was the modesty which made no boast of such achievements; committing merit to the keeping of a few hasty manuscripts and the gratitude of posterity; that gratitude which has suffered such a man to be forgotten, because he forbore to proclaim his own praises!"

Had the foregoing been written of the father, instead of the son, it might be considered peculiarly applicable; but the evidence goes to show that Sebastian Cabot has not suffered "because he forbore to proclaim his own praises that is, he has not suffered for lack of appreciation. On the contrary, he neglected no opportunity to trumpet forth his deeds, when, years after, he found himself far distant from the lands in which they were alleged to have happened, and all, or nearly all, those said to have been concerned with him had passed away.

The first, or foundation account, as it may be called, of the ascription of Sebastian Cabot as the discoverer of North America was that by Peter Martyr (Pietro Martire d'Anghiera), author of the great historical work, De Orbe Novo. He was born in Milan in 1455, and died in Granada, Spain, 1526. Ten or eleven years previous to his death, in 1515 or 1516, Sebastian Cabot was in his house as a guest, and from his own lips, probably, he obtained the account to which reference has already been made: "These north seas have been searched by one Sebastian Cabot, a Venetian born," etc. The account was substantially repeated by Antonio Galvao, in 1550, and by Gomara, in his Historic General de las Indias, published in 1552. It was translated into English (as we have seen) by Eden, in 1555, and used by Hakluyt in both editions of his Principal Navigation, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation,1589, 1598.

Peter Martyr appears to have given credence to Sebastian's story; but he also records (as by his allegiance to the Spanish sovereigns he was bound to do): "Some of the Spaniards deny that Cabot was the first finder of the land of Bacalaos [the Codfish Country], and affirm that he went not so far westward." If, however, the learned historian had searched the Spanish archives of the century previous, he might possibly have discovered the letters sent to the court by Ayala and Puebla, in 1496 and 1498, which convincingly established the fact that a Cabot had voyaged that far to the westward—but John, and not Sebastian!

Having in his company, however, one who affirmed that he had made the voyage, and was the real discoverer, Martyr sets down his statement for what it is worth, courteously professing faith in his guest, without seeking to verify his statements by investigating the records. Alluding to this claim made by Sebastian Cabot, M. Harrisse, a learned and persevering investigator, says: "The belief rests exclusively upon statements from his own lips, made at a time, under circumstances, in a form and with details, which render them very suspicious."

In this connection we should not omit more particular reference to the map of the world, or planisphere, ascribed to Sebastian Cabot, and which, if admitted to be genuine, would prove a powerful corroborative of the statement made by him to the learned Peter Martyr. Hakluyt published an extract from what purported to be a copy of this map, which then "hung up in the privy gallery at Whitehall," but which is not, "so far as can be ascertained, at present in existence." A similar map was discovered in Bavaria, which was purchased in 1844 by the French government, and is now preserved in the national library at Paris. It bears date 1544, and is inscribed with various legends in Spanish, one of which: "Esta tierra jue descubierto por loan Caboto, Veneciano y Sebastian Caboto, su hijo"—this land was discovered by John Cabot, a Venetian, and Sebastian Cabot, his son, etc. has already been quoted, substantially, on a previous page.

In the year 1594 (according to a paper communicated to the "Society of Antiquaries" by Mr. R. H. Major, F.S.A.) a wandering German named Kochhaff published a work containing, amongst other historical matter, several legends which he professed to have copied from a map he saw at Oxford, England. There were nineteen of these inscriptions, including the legend mentioned above, one of which read: "Sebastian Cabot, captain and pilot of his Sacred Imperial Catholic Majesty the Emperor Charles, fifth of that name and King of Spain, put upon me the finishing hand and, projecting me after this form, delineated me in a plane figure, in the year of redemption and nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, 1549, who has described me according to the latitude and longitude of degrees, the position of the winds, so learnedly and so faithfully in the fashion of a sailing-chart following the authority of the geographer Ptolemy and the belief of the more skilled Portuguese, and also from the experience and practice of long sea-service of the most excellent John Cabot, a Venetian by nation, and the author, Sebastian, his son, the most learned of all men in knowledge of the stars and the art of navigation, who have discovered a certain part of the globe for a long time hidden from our people. . . . Sebastian Cabot, sailing into the western ocean, reached a certain sea and region where the lily of the compass-needle pointed due north, at one quarter north-northeast. For which reasons, and by the safest nautical experience, it is most clearly evident that defects and variations of the compass frequently occur with observation of the north."

Map St. Lawrence


Two things particularly claim our attention herewith. One is that the date, 1549, would infer a copy from some original unknown, differing as it does from the date, 1544, on the Paris map; the other is that the (inferential) discovery of the variation of the compass is ostensibly claimed by Cabot, when said variation, or declination, was observed as long previous as the first voyage of Columbus, in 1492. The question arises, however, whether or not Sebastian Cabot was the real author of the maps ascribed to him the maps bearing date 1544 and 1549. Did he produce them, or was somebody trading upon his reputation? If he was the author of the map of 1549 and its legends, then the remarks anent the variation of the compass-needle were misleading, to say the least. For he must have known that this was no new discovery

that Columbus reported the result of his own observations respecting it upon his return to Spain in 1493.

But in justice to Sebastian it should be remarked that there is at present a general disbelief among authorities in his authorship of map or legends. Says that critical investigator, M. Harrisse: "Considered as a graphic exposition of geographical positions and forms, this planisphere must rank as the most imperfect of all the Spanish maps of the sixteenth century which have reached us. . . . As regards the New World, we are surprised to find how inferior its position and outlines are, when compared with those of the Weimar maps, for instance, although these were constructed fifteen years previous. Labrador and northern Canada, which, naturally, should be much more exact than in the other charts of the time, are particularly defective." This critic also might have added that the map of Juan de la Cosa surpassed it in approximate accuracy, though made forty or fifty years before—accepting the dates of the Cabot map as genuine.

In another respect, also, Sebastian Cabot (if this be his map) has sinned grievously for example, in introducing into regions he should have known and delineated with care, the figures of bears, pumas, and nondescript animals, which conveniently hide large tracts of coast and inland territory. This might have been permissible in the map-makers of pre-Columbian times, but not in those who were presumed to have had the results of numerous voyages and the testimony of many explorers as to the relative positions of the continents.

"It would appear to be incredible," says Dr. J. G. Kohl, "that a distinguished mariner and mathematician like Cabot should not have been shocked by this rough and stupid proceeding. . . . This may suffice for the present in considering the question how far Sebastian Cabot may be regarded as having made this map; or, rather, it may serve to show how utterly improbable it is that it was originally drawn by him, or executed under his direction or superintendence. . . . Whenever he is mentioned in the inscriptions, it is with some pompous description like this: 'In the art of navigation and astronomy the most experienced man'; or, . . . 'Of all men the most learned in astronomy and in the art of navigation' . . . Such also is the following complimentary expression connected with the above, which runs thus: 'Therefore you may use this hydrographical chart as the most faithful and the most learned mistress, in sailing to any part of the ocean wherever you should have the mind to sail.'

It is very certain that any mariner who placed his trust in that planisphere as a sailing-chart would have been sadly disappointed, if, indeed, he would not have lost his vessel. The learned doctor adds: "I cannot but concur in the opinion both of Mr. Bancroft and Mr. Charles Deane, 'that Cabot himself evidently did not write these inscriptions.' That accurate scholar, Dr. Justin Winsor, says with reference to them:

"These inscriptions are further enigmas; for while Sebastian Cabot must necessarily have been the source from which some of the statements are drawn, there are parts of the legends which it is impossible to believe represent such knowledge as he must be supposed to have had."

"All the important questions which have been raised with regard to the map," says Mr. Weare, in his Discovery of North America, "its authenticity, etc., etc., are summarized in the following:

"1. It may or may not be Sebastian Cabot's map; at present there exists no authentic evidence to prove affirmatively that it was ever issued with his authority; he never (presumptively) said he was its author; and it seems almost certain that he never had a hand in its revision. There is [then] no certainty that he ever saw the planisphere of 1544.

"2. There is a probability, but no actual proof, that some portion of the contents of the map may have been originally derived either from a map made by Sebastian, or from information supplied by him.

"3. Until it is proved beyond doubt that Sebastian Cabot was with his father in the voyage of discovery in the year 1497, the map appears to have no bearing on the question at issue—that is, as to the comparative agency of John and Sebastian Cabot.

"4. Having regard to the many admitted errors and absurdities which appear upon the map, coupled with the absence of any reliable evidence to prove the agency of Sebastian therewith, it is suggested that it would be unjust to connect him with it, so far as it purports to be a publication by him, or one issued with his authority."

These citations of eminent authorities show us how involved in obscurity, how completely obfuscated, are the deeds of Sebastian Cabot, which are alleged to have been great and meritorious, for it cannot be proved that he ever made a voyage with independent command before he went to Spain in 1512. In view of this fact, and in view of the testimony of a contemporary, Diego Garcia, given in a court of law, that "this navigation Sebastian Cabot did not know enough to make, with all his astronomy," the query naturally arises: Did Sebastian Cabot ever discover anything? Did he explore, in the true sense of the word? Did he contribute anything of importance to the then existing knowledge of the world?

The answer must be, judging from the evidence, or rather the lack of it, that he never held an independent command previous to his going to Spain; that he made no discoveries of his own initiative; that the world would have known just as much of North America if he had never existed!

Then was he, in the language of M. Harrisse, "only an unmitigated charlatan, a mendacious and unfilial boaster"? We will suspend judgment until we have examined further into his history, meanwhile keeping in mind the fact that the world appears never to have heard of him, never differentiated him from the other sons of John Cabot, until after he was forty years of age. As he was born in or before the year 1474, but as to whether in Venice or Bristol, the evidence from his own lips is conflicting he must have been about thirty-eight years old when he left England and entered into the service of Spain.

It would be rather ambiguous to say that little was heard of him during the years between 1498 and 1512, for he has scarcely, as yet, established himself as a real personality. He was born; he arrived at the age of discretion, or of maturity, without attracting attention at the time he is said to have been performing great deeds; and if he had survived but the ordinary span of man's existence, his fame would have been posthumous only. Perhaps it would not have been even that, for it is to him we are indebted for the only accounts that make him out a great discoverer. Taking him at his face value, the eulogists of Sebastian Cabot have bestowed much sympathy upon his conjectural sufferings when he returned to England from his conjectural voyage. "The news of the bad result of the enterprise," says Tarducci, "must have been  most unpleasant for the English, and their dejection upon its return equal to the enthusiasm on its departure the year before [1 499. It was like passing suddenly from the brightness of the noonday sun to midnight darkness: What a load of criticism, ridicule, and invective must have been  heaped on the young Sebastian, who had succeeded his father in the command of the expedition. For, without doubt, those who had promoted and aided the expedition threw the blame of its want of success on the too great want of age and experience on the part of its leader. There must have been  great lament for the loss of John, whose bravery and experience would, in their opinion, have secured a happy issue of the undertaking. From this general feeling the poor young man must have  received a blow that caused him to disappear wholly from view, and fourteen years passed before he reappears openly shining in the light of day."

This is the language, such are the wholly hypothetical arguments, used by most of Sebastian Cabot's biographers in speaking of that supposititious discoverer. The English, of course, "must have been "greatly exercised over the disasters attendant upon the voyage, and there "must have been "great lament over the loss of gallant seamen; but, in view of the fact that it is not known whether John Cabot ever returned from that voyage, or whether his son was in command when the return was made—if there were a return—the assumptions of the biographer might seem purely gratuitous.

During those fourteen years, however, it is thought that Sebastian must have done something to distinguish himself; though why it was necessary for him to do so, any more than for his brothers, who are never heard of more, does not appear. His most ardent champion, Mr. Biddle, quotes from an old Bristol almanac of 1499 the following paragraph, to show that Sebastian was yet "up and doing," and not quite crushed by his defeat: "This yeare Sebastian Cabot, borne in Bristol, proffered his service to King Henry for discovering new countries; which had noe great or favorable entertainment of the king; but he with no extraordinary preparation set forth from Bristol, and made greate discoveries."

If he did so, Sebastian Cabot was strangely neglectful of his future, for these "great discoveries "are not recorded anywhere on earth. "About this time," however, as the almanacs say, it is supposed, by those who wish to account for his whereabouts, that he was somewhere off the coast of South America. That hare-brained adventurer, Alonzo de Ojeda, one-time companion of Columbus and Vespucci, beneficiary and comrade of Juan de la Cosa, reported that, in his voyage of 1499, when off the coast of Venezuela, he had discovered a vessel containing Englishmen. It is not stated what he did to them, or said to them; but it was not in the nature of Alonzo de Ojeda to allow any invaders of his sovereign's territory to pass unchallenged. In truth, they were fortunate to escape with their lives, for the fiery Ojeda was not only well armed and equipped, with a large force at his back, but he had the disposition to promptly make way with all, especially foreigners, who stood in his path.

There is no record that he did this, and nothing more was ever heard of those mysterious, perhaps mythical, Englishmen, who were said to be the first to invade the Caribbean Sea. Nothing more was heard of them, either there or in England, hence, the enthusiastic Tarducci argues: "They must have been led by Sebastian Cabot! This supposition, "he says, "corresponds very well with what Navarrete relates of Ojeda: 'It is certain that on his first voyage he found some Englishmen in the vicinity of Coquibacoa [coast of Maracaibo].'"

Then the ardent Tarducci at once connects these Englishmen with Cabot, by the following absurd chain of reasoning: "Ojeda sailed from Spain May 25, 1499, and was absent only one year. Therefore, the dates of Cabot's departure from Bristol [if he departed then], and Ojeda's from Spain, would very well permit the meeting of the English and the Spaniards! If Navarrete's information is correct, there is every probability that these English were led by Sebastian Cabot, as the only man in England at that time who was capable of conducting such an expedition. This is so true that when, two years later, a new expedition was planned, the Portuguese were called on to direct it."

Now, if it were true that Sebastian Cabot was the "only man in England capable of conducting such an expedition," why was it that, two years later, when another was prepared, it was given to some Portuguese? The truth is, that nothing definite is known of Cabot's movements at that time; and, moreover, nothing need have been known of him, for, in common with his two brothers, he was merely the "son of his father "—and the father was dead. Another biographer invents a voyage for 1508, in order to account for the "hopeless confusion, which, perhaps, may be disentangled by applying certain of these narrations to a venture of that date." But does it not naturally suggest itself that this "hopeless confusion" would not have occurred if Sebastian Cabot, disinclined to bask in the radiance of his father's glory, had not undertaken to appropriate that glory for himself?