John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

First Voyage of the Cabots


Is it still debatable, who discovered America? Shall we deny the Northmen credit for the discovery merely because they did not "enter their claim," but let it lapse and allowed it to be pre-empted by Columbus?

How strangely, almost inextricably, interwoven are the threads of tradition and history, which connect the earliest mention of America with the men who dragged it forth from obscurity and set it among the known countries of the world. Leaving out of the question even the Northmen and their settlements, still there are three claimants for the honor of having been the first to, set foot on continental America: Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and John Cabot. The first-named, by his own account, voyaged to Ultima Thule, or Iceland, long before he set out for America, and when there may have obtained knowledge of the sagas, from which we have quoted in preceding chapters. Availing himself of that knowledge, he may have made his great "discovery "merely by crossing the Atlantic at a more southern parallel of latitude—as he availed himself of Toscanelli's chart in his first transatlantic voyage.

Columbus, as we know, discovered only islands—those now known as the West Indies—in his first two voyages, of 1492 and I49; and it was not until 1498 that he had his first glimpse of a continent, at the northeast coast of South America. On July 31, 1498, he sighted the great island Trinidad, and a little later Paria, a projection of the continent (as, anciently, the geologists tell us, was Trinidad itself). But if we may believe the narrative of Vespucci, he was on that coast as early as June 10, 1407; which date, again, is just two weeks earlier than John Cabot first sighted the coast of North America, off Newfoundland or Labrador. Historian Richard Hakluyt has it thus: "Anno Dom. 1497, John Cabot, a Venetian, and his sonne Sebastian (with an English fleet set out from Bristol), discovered that land which no man before that time had attempted, on the 24th of June, about five of the clocke, early in the morning. This land he called Prima Vista, that is to say, First Seene, because as I suppose it was that part whereof they had the first sight from the sea."

Grave doubts attach to the so-called "1497 voyage" of Vespucci, which, it is claimed with much reason, should have been dated two years later, as he certainly was on the coast of South America in the year 1499. The question arises: Did he purposely falsify the date of his first voyage in order to deprive both Columbus and Cabot of the honor of the achievement? His claim was not made until seven years after the alleged voyage had taken place; but Columbus was then alive, and also Sebastian Cabot, who always showed himself jealous of his own, if not of his honored father's fame.

"Whether, in the first sight of the mainland," says one who writes with an air of authority.... "Vespucci did not take precedence of the Cabots and Columbus, has been a disputed question for nearly [quite] four hundred years; and it will probably never be satisfactorily settled, should it continue in dispute for four hundred years longer." That is, there will always be champions of the one and of the others, so long as the matter is in doubt, which promises to be forever.

But again, leaving the question of precedence in South America to be argued by whomsoever will take the trouble, we shall note that there is now no doubt as to the date on which John Cabot made his landfall on the coast of North America. That continent—speaking particularly of the northern land-mass of the western hemisphere—belongs to him by right of discovery, and no one has sought to take that honor from him save his son Sebastian. In his old age, and while residing in Seville, as pilot major of Spain, Sebastian Cabot is said to have discoursed as follows to the pope's legate at the Spanish court: . . .

"When my father [John Cabot] departed from Venice many yeeres since to dwell in England, to follow the trade of marchandises, hee tooke mee with him to the citie of London, while I was very yong, yet hawing nevertheless some knowledge of letters, of humanitie, and of the Sphere. And when my father died, in that time when newes were brought that Don Christopher Colonus Genuese [Columbus, Genoese] had discouered the coasts of India; whereof was great talke in all the court of king Henry the VII., who then raigned, insomuch that all men, with great admiration, affirmed it to be a thing more diuine than humane, to saile by the West into the East where spices growe, by a way that was neuer knowen before—by this fame and report there increased in my heart a great flame of desire to attempt some notable thing.

"And vnderstanding by reason of the Sphere, that if I should saile by way of the Northwest I should by a shorter tract come into India, I thereupon caused the king to be aduertised of my deuise, who immediately caused two carauels to be furnished with all things appertayning to the voyage, which was, as farre as I remember, in the yeere 1496, in the beginning of sommer. I began therefore to saile towards the Northwest, not thinking to finde any other land than that of Cathay, and from thence to turne towards India; but after certaine dayes I found that the land ranne towards the North, which was to mee a great displeasure. Neuertheless, sayling along by the coast to see if I could finde any gulf e that turned, I found the lande still a continent to the 56 degree vnder our Pole. And seeing that there the coast turned towards the East, despairing to finde the passage, I turned backe again and sailed downe by the coast of that lande which is nowe called Florida, where, my victuals failing, I departed from thence and returned into England, where I found great tumults among the people, and preparation for warres in Scotland; by reason whereof there was no more consideration had to this voyage."

If it were not that nearly all the "discourses "of Sebastian Cabot (after he had placed a goodly distance between himself and the scenes of his alleged adventures) were of this boastful tenor, we might infer that the aforesaid "legate of the pope" had incorrectly reported this narration; but, unfortunately, no such conclusion can be reached. The statement is in direct contravention of the truth, for it was John Cabot, and not Sebastian, his son, who directed the first ships from England to North America. This fact has been established, though labored efforts have been made to show the contrary. As Robertson, in the preceding chapter, rather loosely says: The "commission for discovery was issued to John Cabot and his three sons; but he held chief command."

How, then, could Sebastian lay claim to the discovery without being open to the charge that he, too, as well as Amerigo Vespucci, had falsified the records? As already mentioned, no log was made of the voyage by those most interested. Unlike Columbus and Vespucci, who both kept journals of their voyages (the former consistently advertising himself and his doings from the beginning of the first voyage almost to the day of his death). John Cabot left not a line, so far as can be discovered, at the time or later. And it was not until long after that his son, impressed by the importance of his father's achievement, which loomed great by comparison with other lauded discoveries, seems to have resolved to gather the laurels which Cabot the senior had failed to grasp!

That acute critic, Justin Winsor, truthfully says:

"Unlike the enterprises of Columbus, Vespucci, and many other navigators who wrote accounts of their voyages and discoveries, at the time of their occurrence, which by the aid of the press were published to the world, the exploits of the Cabots were [contemporaneously] unchronicled . . . Although the fact of their voyage [as we shall later see] had been reported by jealous and watchful liegers at the English court to the principal cabinets of the continent, and the map of their discoveries had been made known and thus had its influence in leading other expeditions to the northern shores of North America, the historical literature relating to the discovery of America, as preserved in print, is, for nearly twenty years after the event took place, silent as to the enterprises, and even the names of the Cabots!

"Scarcely anything has come down to us from these navigators themselves, and for what we know we have hitherto been chiefly indebted to the uncertain reports, in foreign languages, of conversations originally held with Sebastian Cabot, many years afterwards, and sometimes related at second and third hands. Even the year in which the [first] voyage took place is misstated."

This last line refers to the legend on a map attributed to Sebastian Cabot in 1544, which reads: "This country [Newfoundland] was discovered by John Cabot, Venetian, and Sebastian Cabot his son, in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ, MCCCCXCIIII."; which should have been given as MCCCCXCVII., by joining the first two Is, and thus making a V.

Having cleared away the brushwood, as it were, we proceed to consider next the letters patent under which the first Cabotian voyage was made, granted in 1496 by King Henry VIIth, "unto Iohn Cabot and his three sonnes, Lewis, Sebastian, and Santius, for the discouerie of new and vnknowen lands." It is contained in Hakluyt's Principall Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, published more than ninety years after the voyage took place.

"Henry, by the grace of God king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all to whom these presents shall come:

"GREETING.—Be it known that we have given and granted, and by these presents do give and grant for us and our heires, to our well-beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice, to Lewis, Sebastian, and Santius, sonnes of the sayd John, and to the heires of them and euery of them, and their deputies, full and free authority, leaue, and power, to saile to all parts, countreys, and seas of the East, of the West, and of the North, vnder our banners and ensigns, with flue ships of what burthen or quantity soeuer they be, and as many mariners or men as they will haue with them in the sayd ships, Vpon their own proper costs and charges, to seeke out, discouer, and finde whatsoeuer isles, countreys, regions, or prouinces of the heathen and infidels whatsoeuer they be, and in what part of the world whatsoeuer they be, which before this time haue been vnknowen to all Christians: we haue granted to them, and also to euery of them, the heires of them, and euery of them, and their deputies, and haue giuen them licence to set vp our banners and ensigns in euery village, towne, castle, isle, or main land of them newly found.

"And that the aforesayd Iohn and his sonnes, or their heires and assignes may subdue, occupy, and possesse all such townes, cities, castles, and isles of them found, which they can subdue, occupy, and possess, as our vassals and lieutenants, getting unto vs the rule, title, and jurisdiction of the same villages, townes, castles, & firme land so found.

"Yet so that the aforesayd Iohn, and his sonnes and heires, and their deputies, be holden and bounden of all the fruits, profits, gains, and commodities growing out of such nauigation, for euery their voyage, as often as they shall arrive at our port of Bristoll (at the which port they shall be bound and holden onely to arriue) all maner of necessary costs and charges by them made being deducted, to pay vnto vs in wares or money the fift part of the capitall game so gotten. We giuing and granting vnto them, and to their heires and deputies, that they shall be free from all paying of customes of all and singuler such merchandize as they shall bring with them from those places so newly found.

"And moreouer, we haue giuen and granted to them, their heires and deputies, that all the firme lands, isles, villages, townes, castles, and places whatsoeuer they be that they shall chance to finde, may not of any other of our subjects be frequented or visited without the licence of the aforesayd Iohn and his sonnes, and their deputies, vnder paine of forfeiture—as well of their shippes as of all and singuler goods of all of them that shall presume to saile to those places so found. Willing, and most straightly commanding all and singuler our subjects as well on land as on sea, to giue good assistance to the aforesayd Iohn and his sonnes and deputies, and that as well in arming and furnishing their shippes or vessels, as in prouision of food, and in buying of victuals for their money, and all other things by them to be prouided necessary for the sayd nauigation, they do giue them all their help and fauour. In witnesse whereof we haue caused to be made these our Letters patents. Witnesse our selfe at Westminister the fift day of March, in the eleuenth yeere of our reigne."

The royal letters patent were issued in response to a petition, received by the king a short time previously, which has been called by an English historian, G. E. Weare, "so far as we know up to the present time, the earliest document which in any way relates to the discovery of North America by John Cabot." It is without date, and as follows:

"To the Kyng our souvereigne Lord:

"Please it your highnes, of your most noble and haboundant grace, to graunt vnto Iohn Cabotto, Citizen of Venice, Lewes, Sebastyan, and Sancto his sonnys, your gracious letters patentes vnder your grete Seale in due forme to be made according to the tenour hereafter ensuying. And they shall during their lyves pray to God for the prosperous continuance of your most noble and royall astate long to enduer."

All the evidence goes to show that the petition was promptly acted upon, for King Henry was probably by this time convinced that, if he desired to obtain any share of the New World, then being apportioned between his royal brothers of Spain and Portugal, he had no time to lose. By a bull of May 4, 1493, less than four years previously, Pope Alexander VI. had established the dividing-line between the prospective possessions of the Spanish and Portuguese in that New World at one hundred leagues west of the Azores, running from pole to pole. By the treaty of Tordesillas, the next year, this imaginary line was shifted to a point three hundred and seventy leagues westward of the Cape Verde islands. East of that line of demarcation, Portugal was to have and to hold all she had found, and might in the future discover, while Spain was confirmed in equal privileges to the westward. This edict was to go into effect on June 20, 1494; but the bull confirming it was not issued until several years thereafter, or in 1506. This, however, did not matter to the kings of Spain and Portugal, for the sanction of the Holy Father was merely pro forma. They had already agreed to divide the world between them; but the pope's co-operation was such a shameless transaction that it aroused the wrath of other monarchs, notably that of the king of France, who at one time, when Spain had protested against his invasion of the southern seas, demanded indignantly to be shown the will of Father Adam, by which the two sovereigns were to be made sole heirs to the universe!

Whether Henry protested is not certainly known; but at least he manifested a disregard of the tripartite compact, when he sent out his ships to explore. It will be noticed, however, that he was careful to stipulate that Cabot was to sail only to the seas and countries of the East, the. West, and the North, which before that time were "unknown to all Christians" By thus instructing his captain, though he showed a tacit disregard of the papal bull of partition, he manifested a regard for the Spanish and Portuguese discoveries, all of which had been in the south.

King Henry's fears may have been aroused by the Spanish ambassador to the English court, Ruy Gonzales de Puebla, who was keenly watching the sovereign in the interests of King Ferdinand, whom he had evidently informed of Cabot's intended voyage, for under date of March 28, 1496, their "Catholic Majesties" wrote him:

"You write that a person like Columbus has come to England for the purpose of persuading the king into an undertaking similar to that of the Indies, without prejudice to Spain and Portugal. He is quite at liberty. But we believe that this under taking was thrown in the way of the King of England by the King of France, with the premeditated intention of distracting him from his other business. Take care that the King of England be not deceived. The French will try hard to lead him into such undertakings; but they are very unpleasant, and must not be gone into at present. Besides, they cannot be executed without prejudice to us and to the King of Portugal."

It was evidently intended that this letter, or the purport of it, should be communicated to King Henry; and that the wily ambassador, Puebla, found means for carrying out the intention, is hardly to be doubted. We shall see something of Puebla later; or, rather, we shall have opportunity to read some of his letters, by which it will be seen that he was ever alert, always watchful of his sovereign's interests, and better informed as to King Henry's intentions than any other man in the kingdom save the sovereign himself. It is to him, and to other foreigners then residing in London, as merchants and diplomatists, that we are solely indebted for contemporary information of John Cabot's voyage to North America.