John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

The Honored Counsellor


In view of his repeated proposals to Venice, in 1522, 1523, and 1551, Sebastian Cabot has been accused of treachery and bad faith to Spain and England both; but, while he undoubtedly allowed his ambition to overshoot the mark, and evidently erred, he withdrew in time to save his reputation, and perhaps his life. The negotiations with Venice were dropped abruptly, in both instances, as soon as Sebastian found the Council of Ten taking him seriously. He had made his point, which was to remind his fellow-countrymen that he was achieving greatly for a foreign power; but their coveted recognition and reward were not forthcoming. He abandoned, then, his tentative inquiry in this direction, and, with the same composure that he endured rebuff of every sort, settled down to his duties in England.

His recall to that country was, doubtless, premature, for the three or four years ensuing constituted a period of storm and stress in English politics, and nothing was done to avail of his services. It is absurd to imagine that the young Edward, only eleven years of age at the time Cabot returned to England, could have appreciated the old navigator at his full worth, and it was doubtless his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, who, as regent, was instrumental in depriving King Charles of his grand pilot. During those years of inaction, between 1548 and 1553, Cabot witnessed great and distressing changes in the governing body of England. In 1549 the king's uncle, Thomas Seymour, was beheaded on the scaffold, and in 1552 the regent himself, the Duke of Somerset, met the same unhappy fate.

In view of the disturbed condition of affairs, Cabot may have felt justified in concluding that no expedition such as he desired to carry out would be promoted by the English government, and hence offered his services to Venice. However this may have been, before the death of Edward, which occurred in 1553, a movement was set on foot that looked towards the consummation of his long-deferred purpose. English foreign commerce had become almost extinct, but about this time "certain grave citizens of London, and the men of great wisdome and carefulle for the good of their countrey, began to thinke with themselves how this mischief might be remedied . . . . And whereas at the same time one Sebastian Cabota, a man in those days very renowned, happened to be in London, they began first of all to deale and consult diligently with im.'

By his advice a company of merchants, national in character, was formed for the purpose of seeking by sea new markets in the north, and three ships were "prepared and furnished for the search and discovery of the northern part of the world." They were fitted out in the spring of 1553, and on May 20th of that year set sail. They were called the Bona Esperanza, the Edward Bonaventura, and the Bona Confidencia, all names significant of the hopes their owners and masters had in their success. As they sailed down the Thames to Greenwich, the old chronicler says, "presently the courtiers came running out, and the common folk flocked together, standing very thick upon the shoare. The privie council, they looked out at the windows of the court, and the rest ranne up to the toppes of the towers. The shippes thereupon discharged their ordinance and shot off their pieces, after the manner of warre, insomuch that the toppes of the hills sounded therewith, the valleys and the waters gave an echo, and the mariners, they shouted in such sort that the skie rang again with the noise thereof."

In recognition of his high standing, and as the proposer of this scheme to seek new regions for trade in the northeast, Sebastian Cabot was elected governor of these "Merchant Adventurers of England, for the Discovery of Dominions, Islands, and other Places unknown," and, together with nearly all the shareholders in the enterprise, was at the river-bank to see the sailors off. King Edward himself had intended to be there, for he had taken a deep interest in the scheme, but at that time was stretched upon his death-bed.

The expedition sailed into the unknown northeast, coasted the shores of Norway, and then was heard of no more for many months. Two years later a single ship of the fleet returned, battered and worn, with the tidings that the vessel commanded by Sir Hugh Willoughby had been lost sight of early in the voyage. It was later ascertained that it had been frozen in on the Lapland coast and all its crew had perished. Willoughby's journal was found by his side, beginning, "The voyage intended for the discoverie of Cathay and divers other regions unknown, set forth by the right worshipful master Sebastian Cabota"; and ending: "September. We sent out three men south-southwest, to search if they could find people, who went three days' journey, but could find none; after that we sent other three men westward, which returned likewise. Then sent we three men southeast three dayes journey, who in sort returned without finding of people, or any similitude of habitations."

"Here endeth," says Hakluyt, "Sir Hugh Willoughby his note, which was written with his owne hand." The pathetic account of his last doings was found near his frozen body, from which his spirit had departed soon after writing those lines. Together with all his men, he had perished of the cold.

The surviving commander, Richard Chancellor, had rounded the great North Cape, sailed into the Arctic Ocean, and finally reached Archangel, whence he went overland to Moscow. He was received with courtesy by the Tsar, Ivan Basilivich, who gladly embraced the opportunity for opening trade with England, and thus was laid the foundation of a permanent and extensive commerce between the two great countries. It was the genius of Sebastian Cabot that conceived this project of making towards the northeast in search of a passage to Cathay, and in recognition of this fact he was confirmed in his position of governor of the company for life. It was his genius, but perhaps inspired by the ancient geographers, that pointed out the "northeast passage." Chancellor's ship was probably the first to penetrate the Arctic Ocean from this direction; but the complete voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, along the northern coasts of Europe and Asia, was not accomplished until more than three hundred years had passed away—by Nordenskjold, in 1879.

Sebastian Cabot's persistence in pointing, like the compass-needle, ever towards the pole, had at last been rewarded by success; but it was not until he had nearly attained his eightieth year and he was on the verge of the grave. Throughout his long life, amid trials, vicissitudes, failures—under circumstances the most adverse—he had kept his eyes fixed upon the northern star. He had voyaged forty degrees beyond the equator, south, and nearly fifty north—assuming him to have been with his father in 1497. No man then living probably knew so much as he knew of the world, either from actual experience or from scanning the works of others. His was a constructive genius of the highest order, though he failed in practice.

Under his direction and supervision the Russian trade became of great importance, for he guided every movement. His old age, says one of his biographers, instead of gliding away in debility or sloth, was occupied by the innumerable cares arising from his connection with the adventurers. The whale fisheries of Spitzbergen and the since-famous fisheries of Newfoundland were improved, if not established, by him at this period. "With strict justice," observes another, "it may be said of Sebastian Cabot that he was the author of the English marine, and opened the way to those improvements which have made the nation so great, so eminent, and so flourishing a people." He had shown his perspicacity in pointing out the route to Russia, and also in successfully combating the pretensions of that iron-bound corporation, the "Steel-yard Company," which had fastened itself upon England so firmly and clung so tenaciously that it required the combined energies of the king and the merchants to break its hold. This foreign monopoly of British trade with other lands had held its own in England for many years, but was finally overcome by the union of the merchants, with the king as their head and Sebastian Cabot as their guide.

Notwithstanding the ill-fortune of the Bona Esperanza, Sir Hugh Willoughby's ship, the general advantage of the trade opened by Chancellor was so great that the company fitted out a second fleet of three good ships, which sailed the following year, 1556. One of the ships was commanded by Stephen Burroughs, who had been in the first expedition, and who left a journal commencing with the following reference to the festivities as his vessel lay at Gravesend on the eve of sailing:

"The 27th April being Munday, the right worshipful Sebastian Cabota came aboard our pinnesse at Gravesende, accompanied with divers Gentlemen and Gentlewomen, who, after they had viewed our vessel, and tasted of such cheere as we could make them aboord, they went on shore, giving to our mariners right liberal rewardes; and the good old Gentleman, Master Cabota, gave to the poor most liberal almes, wishing them to pray for the good fortune and prosperous success of the Searchthrift, our pinnesse. And then, at the signe of the 'Christopher,' hee and his friends banketed [banqueted], and made me, and them that were in company, greet cheere; and for very joy that he had to see the towardness of our intended discovery, he entered into the dance himself e, among the rest of the yong and lusty company; which being ended, hee and his friends departed, most gently commending us to the governance of Almighty God."

He was then in his eighty-second year, not wholly free from the pressure of poverty (never having acquired a hoard of wealth for his old age), and looked upon with darkening suspicion by the stem and gloomy queen who had succeeded Edward on the throne. "Bloody Mary "was no friend to Sebastian Cabot on account of his discoveries, and was less inclined to aid him when she learned that he was once in the service of her husband's father in Spain. In May, 1557, a few days after Spanish Philip's arrival in London, on a visit to his consort, Cabot's pension was divided, and one-half of it bestowed upon an assistant, William Worthington. At the same time, it is believed, he was compelled to turn over to this man all his maps, charts, and papers of every sort; which fact would explain satisfactorily why so few of his literary remains have been found. Historian Hakluyt, in 1592, or thirty-five years after this shameful event, says, in a dedication of his book to Sir Philip Sidney: "All Sebastian Cabot's own mappes and discourses, drawne and written by himself e, are in the custodie of the worshipful master William Worthington, one of her Majesty's pensioners, who (because so worthy monuments should not be buried in perpetual oblivion) is very willing to suffer them to be overseen and published in as good order as maybe, to the encouragement and benefite of our countrymen."

The most patient search, however, has failed to reveal these treasures, and it has been thought by some that they were seized by Philip of Spain, on the occasion of some one of his visits, because they contained so much of value to his nation. This, of course, would preclude the possibility of their being in Worthington's possession in 1592, four years after the destruction of the great armada; but as Hakluyt gives his information merely on hearsay, and no one seems to have seen those treasures since, he was probably mistaken.

Shortly after Bloody Mary and her fanatical spouse had deprived Sebastian of half his pension, and compelled him to share his office and his honors with a non-entity, he disappears entirely from public view. That despicable action, falling upon one of his years, who, though always hopeful and buoyant, could not but have felt the insult keenly, may have proved a mortal blow. Sometime in the year 1557 he was borne to bed by the weight of his calamities, and there we are afforded a fleeting glimpse of the venerable navigator, through his friend Eden, who was with him when he breathed his last. "The good old man," he says, "had not, even in the article of death, shaken off all worldly vanitie," for, with a feeble voice, he "spake of a divine revelation made to him of a new and infallible method of finding longitude, but which he might disclose to no living mortal."

Strong in death, indeed; was his passion for mystery, for deception, for maintaining the prestige of his earlier-years. And thus he died; but when or where we know not, nor the hallowed spot which at the last claimed his remains, for no monument was raised above it, no inscription marks it.

In forming an estimate of Sebastian Cabot's character, especially as revealed in his latter years, with their ripened fruits of experience, we shall receive great assistance from the "ordinances, instructions and advertisements "which he wrote for the guidance of sailors on the Willoughby expedition into the northeast, in 1553. There are thirty-three long paragraphs, or "items," and we can make excerpts only here and there; but throughout is shown a mind matured by long dwelling upon the results of intelligent observation. In his seventh "item," recommending that

"the marchants and other persons skilful in writing shall daily write, describe, and put in memorie the navigation of every day and night, with the points and observations of the landes, tides, elements, altitude of the sunne, course of the moon and starres, and the same so noted by the master of every shippe," we have, it has been said, the origin of the nautical log-book.

"Every nation," he continues, "is to be considered advisedly, and not to be provoked by any disdain, contempt, or such like. No blaspheming of God, or detestable swearing, shall be used in any shippe, nor communication of ribaldrie, filthy tales, or ungodly talke to be suffered; neither dicing, carding, nor any other divelish games, whereby ensueth not only povertie to the players, but also strife, brawling, and ofttimes murther, to the utter destruction of the parties, and provoking of God's most just wrath and sworde of vengeance . . . ."

These suggestions must have emanated from a nature most devout, for all Cabot's acts on board ship, so far as we have seen, were in accord with them. Another page from his experience is presented when he says:

"Item, if you shall be invited into any lords or rulers house, to dinner or to other parliance, goe in such order of strength that you may be stronger than they, and be wary of woods and ambushes, and that your weapons be not out of your possession. If you shall see the salvages wearing lyons or beares skinnes, having long Bowes and arrowes, be not afraid of that sight; for such be worn ofttimes more to feare strangers, than for any other cause.

"Item, that morning and evening prayer, with other common services appointed by the King's Majestie and laws of this realme, to be read and said in every shippe daily, and the Bible or paraphrases to be read, devoutly and Christianly, to God's honour." Finally, he adjures the explorers: "All ye seek is most likely to be attained and brought to good effect, if every one in his vocation shall endeavor according to his charge and most bounden dutie, praying the living God to give you his grace, to accomplish your charge to his glorie, whose merciful hand shall prosper your voyage, and preserve you from all dangers."