John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

John and Sebastion Cabot


While it has been established, we think beyond doubt, that John Cabot discovered North America, it is not known, and probably never will be known, who discovered John Cabot! He was doubtless an entity; for some while he figured as a personage of distinction; but as to his origin and his ending little, if anything, is absolutely known. Out of obscurity he emerged, into obscurity he vanished, and no one can tell whence he came or whither he went. He is one of the most satisfactory personages that history has had to deal with, as to his antecedents not only, but his origin. He seems not to have had any ancestors, nor even, so far as we are informed, any parents or other relatives, near or distant—at least, there is no record of such connections.

Even his contemporaries were in doubt whether he was a Genoese or a Venetian. The Spanish ambassadors in London (to whom we have referred in previous pages), Don Ruy Gonzales de Puebla and Don Pedro de Ayala, allude to him as "another Genoese like Columbus"; but they may have been speaking generally of any native of the Italian states, without giving thought to one in particular. Ayala's letter to King Ferdinand, in which this allusion occurs, was a duplicate of his colleague's, so there is but one authority for this expression—" another Genoese like Columbus." It was copied, however, by historians of a later period, and thus became fixed in the minds of those who gave this subject any thought whatever and they were very few.

What mattered it, anyway, whether he were Genoese or Venetian, so long as he sailed in English ships and made his discovery beneath the British flag? It was no concern of his contemporaries, save a few, who would fain claim him as their countryman, and thus add to the glory of their nation. Animated by this purpose, doubtless, Lorenzo Pasqualigo wrote (as we have already noted): "This Venetian of ours is returned, . . . and has planted on the lands he discovered a great cross, with an English standard, and one of St. Mark, he being a Venetian; so that our ensign has been carried far."

Pasqualigo was a Venetian merchant then residing in London, or Bristol, and was writing to his brothers at home; but in the official letter sent by Raimondo Soncino to the Duke of Milan, "Zoanne Caboto "is also alluded to as a "popular Venetian," upon whom the king and the people were lavishing applause as discoverer of new islands. In the petitions, also, made to King Henry VII., Cabot calls himself a citizen of Venice, as he is likewise styled in the letters patent issued in consonance with those requests. The only evidence entitled to confidence seems to be in favor of his being a Venetian, for it comes from the same foreigners residing in England at the time of his discovery to whom we are indebted for the only information on that subject. English records of the event are non-existent (according to the best-informed writers), and, says one of them: "The English chroniclers of the first half of the sixteenth century never mention the name of Cabot, as neither, for that matter, do they mention the name of Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci!" Not until more than half a century after John Cabot had passed away was any mention made in print, by Englishmen, of his voyages, and then Sebastian seems to have obtained the credit for them. This may have been on account of his long residence in England, as well as his reputation as a maker of charts and one-time chief-pilot of Spain. In the Epitome of Chronicles, published in 1559, Sebastian is mentioned as "an Englishman born in Bristow, but a Genoways sonne."

Allusion has been made already to an English "preserver of antiquities," one John Stow, from whom the diligent Hakluyt quoted, in his Divers Voyages touching the Discouerie of America:  "This yeere [1499] the King, by meanes of a Venitian, caused to man and victuall a shippe," etc. Twenty years later, Hakluyt amended the quotation to read: "By means of one Iohn Caboto, Venetian "; but it is averred that in. Stow's original it was "One Sebastian Gavoto, a Genoa's sonne, borne in Bristow." The several discrepancies might seem inexplicable, if we did not know that the erudite Hakluyt was a student, and the antiquary, Stow, a man of little education, who had a mania for collecting, but no critical acumen. Hakluyt, with his full knowledge of historical events, gained by perusal of all that had up to his time been written and published, in English, Latin, and Spanish, simply changed Stow's reference from "Genoa's" to Venetian, in accordance with the facts as he had ascertained them.

Antiquary Stow was a self-made scholar, who, though born to poverty and early apprenticed to a tailor, wrought a reputation for himself that has survived to the present time. He was, as described by Hakluyt, a diligent preserver of antiquities, and to his self-sacrificing industry is due the conserving of many invaluable facts of history. He lived to the age of eighty, and when his years were half told, or at forty, he abandoned his tailoring and devoted himself to the collecting of old documents. He was so poor that he had to travel on foot, in this manner taking long journeys, searching out material in monasteries and libraries that had long been neglected, copying such papers as he could not beg or borrow, comparing and annotating, until his collection 116) ?> became truly invaluable. He gave himself so unreservedly to his self-imposed task, that when at last incapacitated from old age, at the age of eighty, he was obliged to crave of the king permission to wear the garb of a beggar, and ask for alms at doors of churches. He was not subjected to this ignominy long, however, for a few months later he died—died a beggar this man who had rescued from oblivion inestimable treasures of English history! Although an indefatigable collector, poor Stow had not the means for deciding points of controversy, nor the faculty of perception, perhaps, that would lead him to discriminate between the elder Cabot and his son; and as the latter was his contemporary, whom, indeed, he may have met and held converse with, he received the honors rightfully belonging to his father.

We may say, in the language of another: "There are no authentic proofs extant, so far as can be ascertained at present, as to John Cabot's birthplace." Like that of his great rival and immediate predecessor in discovery, Christopher Columbus, it is involved in doubt. But, as to his having been a citizen of Venice, there is abundant proof. On March 28, 1476, according to an entry in the Venetian archives, the Senate conferred upon John Caboto the privilege of citizenship, "within and without," in consequence of a residence of fifteen years. In explanation of these terms, "within and without"—de intus  and de extra  it may be said that they relate to privileges within and without the dominions of the republic. A citizen de extra  was entitled to all the privileges which the commercial rights of Venice in foreign lands conveyed. This included the privilege of sailing under the flag of St. Mark, and hence we have found John Cabot raising it beside that of England, his adoptive country, on the occasion of the first discovery. At least, it was claimed that he did so, and, if true, this act would signify that he still held his native land in tender remembrance.

When John Cabot lived in Venice, her illustrious voyagers, such as Marco Polo and the Zeno brothers, were still revered, and the republic had not entirely lost its prestige on land and sea. It was a centre of commerce; its sails whitened the Mediterranean; its commercial caravans traversed the deserts to and from the Orient; and we have evidence that Cabot himself was, at least once, in Mecca. There he became inspired with the desire, after conversing with the Eastern merchants, to find a new route to the land "where the spices grew." His famous countryman, Marco Polo, had shown Europe the way to the Orient by an eastern route, or, rather, the way to Cathay and the farther East; but John fell to speculating upon the possibilities of reaching that region by way of the west. Whether he thought of this before Columbus or after is not known; nor are we positively informed if he had full knowledge of the Columbian voyage to America.

It was not long after Columbus became confirmed in his belief that the voyage he had in mind would be feasible that John Cabot left Venice for England. The last previous information of this extremely vague individual pertained to his combined sea and caravan journey to Arabia, whence, with great facility, he sped to England, the farthest west of countries then in communication with Venice. How he went, and why he went, we know not. He probably went by sea, and, according to his son Sebastian, writing long after, he was then a merchant adventurer. This seems probable, in view of his journey to Arabia, for in his time there was no travelling for pleasure, and one must have been a soldier, a sailor, or a trader who ventured far from native home and land. Cabot was without doubt a sailor, and he may have done a little "merchandising "on his own account, in view of which his voyage to the British isles seems reasonable.

Foreign adventurers were flocking to various countries, some of them aimlessly, some with commercial prospects in view, and they chiefly wandered from the East towards the west. At first it was Genoa that attracted the floating population of Europe, then Venice, then Portugal, then Spain, and last of all England, depending upon which state or nation was foremost in exploration or navigation. England had not then attained to an advanced position, but its commerce was becoming valuable, and there was a resident foreign population of considerable strength.

"Every year," writes a Venetian author, "as soon as spring brought back the favorable season, an immense caravan of ships and merchants, partly on state and partly on private account, sailed from Venice to spread over the east and the west, and everywhere they found their own consuls, privileges, and warehouses, even in Siam and Cambodia. On their arrival they found the wares and products of other peoples and other lands ready and waiting to be embarked on the ships of the Venetians, with and by them to be distributed among the nations. Thus the commerce of every people passed through the hands of Venice; she furnished all the markets; to her flowed in the wealth of all nations. . . .

"There was in England a flourishing colony [of Venetians] governed in a republican form by its own consuls and a council of merchants, among whom were many patricians of great houses; whence it often happens that in reading Venetian documents we find patricians designated 'as of London.' The loading of ships was done at the city of Bristol, then the first port of the island. In this city we again find John Cabot, not as a mere commercial navigator, presented to history, but as the discoverer of new countries. He had settled in England, as his son relates, bringing all his family with him from Venice. In what year this was is unknown, but from some dates in the life of his son Sebastian it may be settled that it was about 1477.

We have no description of the outward man John Cabot, nor testimony as to his character, except of a negative kind. It certainly speaks well for the Venetian mariner that no ill-word was said of him, and that everybody rejoiced at his good-fortune when he sailed into Bristol harbor with the news of discovery. His generosity may be inferred from the gifts he made of newly discovered isles to his companions; though, of course, it may be objected that these islands cost him nothing, and that there is no evidence that the sailors ever took possession unless they were among the "three hundred" who sailed on the second voyage, in 1498. This expedition left Bristol in the spring of 1498, and, by the latest documentary mention of it, had not returned the succeeding October. So far as the world knows (from official sources) it never returned, with John Cabot in command. "As for John Cabot," says an authority, "Sebastian said he died, which is one of the few undisputed facts in the discussion"; but whether he died on land or at sea, and where his remains were buried, no man knows.

That the son succeeded to the father in command has been generally accepted as the truth; but why he should have been chosen in preference to his brothers, Lewis or Santius, one of whom was his senior, has never been explained. The father and two of the sons drop out of sight immediately after the sailing of the second expedition, and only Sebastian remains to represent the family. Also his mother, who at one time was reported as living with his father at Bristol, disappears, without leaving a trace of her existence, except that, long years after, Sebastian filed a claim with the Venetian Council of Ten for some property once in her possession.

Respecting the birthplace of Sebastian, as well as that of his father, there is a variety of conflicting testimony. According to Richard Eden (to whom reference has been made in previous chapters), he was born an Englishman, for he wrote, in his translation of the Decades of Peter Martyr, as a marginal note: "Sebastian Cabote Could me that he was borne in Bristowe [Bristol], and that at III yeare ould he was carried with his father to Venice, and so returned agayne into England with his father after certayne yeares, whereby he was thought to have been borne in Venice."

Peter Martyr himself says that Sebastian Cabot was by birth a Venetian, but taken to England by his parents while scarcely more than an infant; so here is a question of veracity for those who came after these two historians to settle. Shall we, believe Eden, who claims England as Sebastian's birth-place, or Peter Martyr, who gives the honor to Venice? As for Sebastian himself, he is said to have told the Venetian ambassador, Gaspare Contarini, who held a conversation with him in 1522, that he was not English born. "Sir Ambassador," he was reported by the Venetian to have said, "to tell you the whole truth, I was born in Venice, but brought up in England."

These are the witnesses who testify that they had the information from Sebastian's own lips: one an Englishman of undoubted veracity; another, Peter Martyr, Italian born, but then living in Spain, where he held a high position under the government, and equally to be credited; the third an ambassador, who was writing to the Council of Ten, on Sebastian's account, and who, presumably, would scorn to tell a lie. That somebody told one is quite evident, and others repeated it for many years thereafter. Those who state that Sebastian Cabot was born in Venice are Bacon, Martyr, Contarini, Gomara, and Ramusio; those who held that he was born in England are Eden, Stow, Hakluyt, and Herrera; all men of reputation. Those who professed to have had the statement from his own lips, however, are but three in number—Martyr, Eden, and Contarini.

When Sebastian Cabot gave the information respecting his birthplace to Martyr, he was a guest in the latter's house, or at least a frequent visitor. The historian was preparing his great life-work and glad enough to get such interesting information as Cabot could give, at first hand. That he did not possess full knowledge respecting the Cabotian voyage is shown by the fact that he knew of, or at least mentions, only one voyage, and that voyage, Sebastian told him, was made by himself. No mention is made of his father; but the real discoverer, as represented to Peter Martyr, the historiographer, is Sebastian Cabot, his informant. We know this to be an untruth, for we know that John Cabot was the "organizer, equipper, and leader "of both voyages. Hence arises the query: If Sebastian Cabot was capable of suppressing the truth respecting his father's acts, and not only of refraining from enlightening the historian as to John Cabot's great discovery, but of putting himself in his place, would he hesitate to convey misinformation regarding his birthplace?

This might seem a simple matter to him, and were he an unknown individual it would not matter to what country he belonged. When he told Martyr and the ambassador he was a Venetian, he was conversing with men who desired to believe that he was, on account of the lustre his name and deeds would reflect upon their country—for both were Italians. Moreover, he had every reason for establishing his nativity at Venice, because at that time he was in negotiation with the Council respecting a matter which will be alluded to further on. It appears, indeed, that when with Englishmen he gave out that he was born in Bristol; when with Venetians, that his native place was Venice. He had his own reasons, at the time, as he may have thought himself justified in claiming the discovery his father really made; but the verdict of impartial history has been in favor of the father rather than of the son.

"The son had a gift of reticence concerning others, including his father and brothers, which in these latter days has been the cause of much wearisome research to scholars," writes Dr. Dawson. "During the whole of the first voyage John Cabot was the commander; on the second he sailed in command; but who brought the expedition home, and when it returned, are not recorded. It is not known how or when John Cabot died, and although the letters patent for the second voyage were addressed to him alone, his son Sebastian during forty-five years took the whole credit, in every subsequent mention, of the discovery of America. This antithesis may throw light upon the suppression of his father's name in all the statements attributed to, or made by, Sebastian Cabot.

"He was marvellously reticent about his father. The only mention which occurs is on the map seen by Hakluyt, and on one supposed, somewhat rashly, to be a transcript of it. There the discovery is attributed to John Cabot and to Sebastian his son, and that has reference to the first voyage. . . . He never once alluded to his two brothers, who were associated in the first patent, and the preceding slight notice of his father is all that can be traced to him; although contemporary records of unquestionable authority indicate John Cabot as the moving spirit, and do not mention the son."

"If," says Tarducci, "the expedition of 1498 was led by the son, it was still unquestionably prepared, set forward, and for a time conducted by the father. Not then in the second rank—still less lower—is the place that belongs to John Cabot in the glorious phalanx of discoverers; but he must be hailed among the highest, very near the supreme chief that led them all—Christopher Columbus!"