John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

That "First-Seen" Land


The land discovered by the Cabots (assuming father and son to have sailed together, on one voyage or the other) is, and has been for nearly four hundred years, as dim and shadowy as their own personalities. In attempting to fix the position, even approximately, of the "Prima Vista," or land "First Seene," we shall be obliged to grope our way carefully, as the first voyagers sailed along the mist-hidden coasts of the newly discovered country. We, too, must sail through mists—of misinformation, feel our way through fogs, and beware lest we strike upon some rock—of prejudice.

Honestly desirous as we are of ascertaining the truth, we can hardly claim to have determined more than this: That a voyage was made in 1497, which may have been followed by another in 1498; that the vessel in which it was made was commanded by one John Cabot, a Venetian; that a safe return was accomplished, and a vague report rendered which, in its barrenness of detail, would have been considered discreditable, at the present day, to the most ignorant sailor that ever ploughed the main. A second voyage was projected and actually begun; but whither, or what became of the vessels engaged, their crews and commander, remains a mystery yet unsolved. "From the date of the sailing of that expedition, down to the present time," says one patient investigator, "the fate of John Cabot and his co-adventurers has been enshrouded in mystery. Even his name does not appear as the discoverer of North America until quite a late period. It is true that it is found associated with that of his son Sebastian in connection with that discovery; but the accounts in the various historical works have merely served the purpose of glorifying the memory of the son. John Cabot had a narrow escape from complete suppression. It was the fortunate preservation of the Milanese, Spanish, and Venetian correspondence [already cited] which has given a firm basis to his reputation."

If the sturdy navigator, John Cabot, neglected to prepare a written report of his voyage, with chart or map, he fully deserves the immersion he received into the deeps of oblivion; but it is believed, by those who were good enough to rescue him, that he was more thoughtful of posterity than on the surface appears. Doubtless there were papers prepared; and as to a chart, we have the testimony of the Spanish ambassador, Don Pedro de Ayala, that one was not only seen by him, but in his possession. So, probably, there were copies made; and that at least one was sent to Spain we have good reason for assuming. Our reason is this: that in the year 1500 Juan de la Cosa, that gallant mariner who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage, in 1492 (for he owned the flag-ship, the Santa Maria, and was the foremost pilot of his day), made a chart, on which the discoveries of the Cabots were depicted. This is the proper word—depicted—for it was a gorgeous map, resplendent in colors of the rainbow and spangled with gold. On this map, which was drawn on an ox-hide (and may be seen in the naval museum at Madrid, for which it was bought at a cost of one thousand dollars), the discoveries of Spain were represented by the banner of Castile, and those of Inglaterra, or England, by the flag of St. George. Honest La Cosa was accurate, so far as he went, and although it must have been a distasteful task, to set down a discovery by Englishmen on the coast of a country claimed (by right of the Tordesillas treaty) for his royal master and mistress, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, yet he faithfully performed it. He was rather vague, as the cartographers of his time were prone to be, and his map would hardly answer as a sailing-chart for the coast of North America. But there is the evidence: Cavo de Ynglaterra, or "England's Cape," somewhere in the latitude of southern Newfoundland, with four English flags adorning the coast, half-way from that point to Florida.

The Florida of the fifteenth century was a vaster region than it is to-day, extending up the Atlantic coast indefinitely, and away westward as far as the imagination could wander; so it was very strange that La Cosa should have conceded to England title to a country based on hearsay. He probably had some secret source of information, and perhaps the Spanish ambassadors in London furnished it.

As to the English records: it would appear that the second voyage was a bitter disappointment, almost as barren in results as the first; but many years after, when Sebastian Cabot could view it in perspective, it blossomed into a wonderful thing indeed. Sebastian, son of John, was then pilot-major of Spain, with a large salary from the Spanish crown, and enjoying a life of comparative ease and luxury in Seville. He was a frequent visitor at the house of the famous Peter Martyr, none other than the great historiographer of Spain his intimate friend, in fact—and to him he told the story. He told it in English or Spanish, but it was "written in the Latin tounge by Peter Martyr of Angleria, and translated into Englisshe by Richard Eden, Anno 1555." Sebastian Cabot was then living, and in England, so that if there were errors in the original narrative he may be supposed to have seen them, as Eden was his friend also.

According to the sixth chapter of Martyr's Decades of the New World, as rendered into English by Eden:

"These North Seas haue bene searched by one Sebastian Cabot, a Venetian borne, whom being yet but in a maner an infant, his parents carried with them into England, hauing occasion to resort thither for trade of marchandise, as is the maner of the Venetians to leaue no part of the world unsearched to obtaine riches.

"Hee therefore furnished two ships in England, at his owne charge, and first with three hundred men directed his course so farre to the North Pole that, euen in the moneth of Iuly, he found monstrous heapes of ice swimming on the sea, and in a maner continuall daylight, yet saw hee the land in that tract free from ice, which had bene molten by the heat of the sunne. Thus seeing such heaps of ice before him, hee was forced to turne his sailes and follow the west, so coasting still by the shore that hee was thereby brought so farre into the South, by reason of the land bending so much that way, that it was there almost equal in latitude with the sea cauled Fretum Herculeum  [Straits of Gibraltar], hauing the North Pole eleuate in maner in the same degree. He sayled lykewise in this tracte so farre towards the west, that hee had the island of Cuba on his left hand, in maner in the same degree of longitude.

"As he traueyled by the coaster of this great land (which hee named Baccalaos), he saith that hee found the like course of the waters towards the west, but the same to runne more softly and gently than the swift waters which the Spanyardes found in their nauigations southeward. Wherefore, it is not onely more like to be trewe, but ought also of necessitie to be concluded, that betweene both the lands hitherto vnknowen,, there should bee certaine great open places where-by the waters should thus continually passe from the Easte vnto the west: which waters I suppose to bee druyen about the globe of the earth by the uncessant mooing and impulsion of the heauens, and not to bee swallowed vp and cast vp againe by the breatheing of Demogorgon—as some haue imagined, bycause they see the seas by increase and decrease to flowe and reflowe.

"Sebastian Cabot himself e named those lands Baccalaos  [lands of codfish], bycause that in the seas thereabout hee found so great a multitude of certaine bigge fysshes, much lyke vnto tunes (which the inhabitants called baccalaos), that they sometymes stayed his shippes. He found also the people of those regions couered with beastes skinnes; yet not without the use of reason [on account of the cold]. Hee also sayth there is great plentie of Beares in those regions, which vse to eat fysshe: for, plungeing themselues in ye water, where they perceiue a multitude of these fysshes to lye, they fasten theyr clawes in theyr scales, and so drawe them to lande and eat them; so that (as he saith) the Beares beinge thus satisfied with fysshe, are not noysom to man. Hee declareth further, that in many places of these regions hee saw great plentie of copper among the inhabitants.

"Cabot is my very friend, whom I vse familiarly, and delight to haue him in my owne house. For, being called out, of England, by the commaundement of the Catholique King of Castile, after the death of King Henry the seuenth of that name, King of England, he was made one of our council and assistants, as touching the affaires of the new Indies; looking for shipps dayly to be furnished for him to discouer this hid secret of Nature."

A more concise narration, but probably quoted from Martyr also, is that of Gomara, given in his History of the Indies, who says:

"He which brought the most certaine news of the countrey & people of Baccalaos  was Sebastian Cabote; a Venetian, which rigged vp two shipps at the cost of K. Henry the VII. of England, hauing great desire to traffique for the spices, as the Portingals did. He carried with him three hundred men, and tooke the way towards Island [Iceland?] from beyond the Cape of Labrador, vntill he found himselfe in fifty-eight degrees and better. He made relation that in the moneth of Iuly it was so cold and the ice was so great, thet he durst not passe any further: that the days were very long, in a maner without any night, and for that short night that they had, it was very cleare. Cabot, feeling the cold, turned towards the west, refreshing himselfe at Baccalaos; and afterwards he sayled along the coast vnto thirty-eight degrees, and from thence he shaped his course to returne into England."

Before concluding these Cabotian chronicles in old English of the black-letter period, in all fairness to the subject of them should be mentioned the "three Sauages, which Cabot brought home and presented vnto the king, in the 14th yeere of his reigne, as followeth:

"This yeere also were brought vnto the king three men taken in the Newfound Island that before I spake of: These were clothed in beasts' skins & did eat raw flesh, and spake such speach that no man could vnderstand them, and in their demeanour like to bruite beastes, whom the king kept a time after. Of the which vpon two yeeres after, I saw these two appairelled after the maner of Englishmen, in Westminster pallace, which that time I could not discerne from Englishmen, til I was learned what they were; but as for speach, I heard none of them vtter one word."

It will be remembered that Sebastian Cabot, in the relation to the pope's legate, stated that he sailed as far north as the fifty-sixth degree; thus there is a discrepancy of eleven degrees in the two narratives. This may mean either that his hearers misunderstood him, or else his memory was at fault. These two voyages, indeed, have been most unaccountably mingled, as witness the following, "taken out of the map of Sebastian Cabot, concerning his discovery of the West Indies [which he did not discover], which is to be seene in her Majesties priuie gallerie at Westminster, and in many other ancient marchants' houses.

"In the yeere of our Lord 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian, and his sonne Sebastian [as already quoted, page 99] discouered that land which no man before that time had attempted. . . . The inhabitants of this island vse to weare beastes skinnes and haue them in great estimation, as we haue our finest garments. In their warres they vse bowes, arrowes, pikes, darts, woodden clubbes and slings. The soile is barren in some places, & yeeldeth little fruit; but it is full of white Beares, and stagges farce greater than ours. It yeeldeth plenty of fysshe, and those very great, as seales, and those which commonly we call salmons; there are also soles aboue a yard in length; but especially there is great abundance of that kind of fysshe which the Sauages call baccalaos. In the same island also there breed haukes, but they are so blacke that they are very like to rauens, as also their partridges, and egles, which are in like sort blacke."

Now we will revert to the question with which this chapter opened: Where was, or where is, that Prima Vista, so named by John Cabot, or the "First-seen" Land, of his voyage in 1497? The Scottish historian, Robertson, who may be said to reflect, in his History of America, the opinions of the time in which he wrote, has this anent the discoverer and his discovery:

"As in that age the most eminent navigators, formed by the instructions of Columbus, or animated by his example, were guided by his superior knowledge and experience, Cabot had adopted the system of that great man, concerning the probability of opening a new and shorter passage to the East Indies, by holding a western course. The opinion which Columbus had formed with respect to the islands he had discovered was universally received. They were supposed to lie contiguous to the great continent of India, and to constitute a part of the vast countries comprehended under that general name. Cabot accordingly deemed it probable that, by steering to the northwest, he might reach India by a shorter course than that which Columbus had taken, and hoped to fall in with the coast of Cathay, or China, of whose fertility and opulence the descriptions of Marco Polo had excited high ideas.

"After sailing for some weeks due west, and nearly on the parallel of the port from which he took his departure, he discovered a large island, which he called Prima Vista, and his sailors Newfoundland; and in a few days he descried a smaller isle, to which he gave the name of St. John. He landed on both these, made some observations on their soil and productions, and brought off three of the natives. Continuing his course westward, he soon reached the continent of North America, and sailed along it from the fifty-sixth to the thirty-eighth degree of [north] latitude, or from the coast of Labrador to that of Virginia. As his chief object was to discover some inlet that might open a passage to the west, it does not appear that he landed anywhere during this extensive run; and he returned to England, without attempting either settlement or conquest in any part of that continent."

In this account, as the reader cannot fail to remark, the eighteenth century historian has combined the two voyages, of 1497 and 1498, and accepted without question the narrative in Peter Martyr's Decades, as given in Eden's translation, and later by Hakluyt. Since his time several notable discoveries have been made of valuable manuscripts, chiefly in the archives of Spain, Venice, and Milan, which have enabled discerning historians to differentiate the two voyages, and separate the achievements of the Cabots, father and son. We have already perused these documents, as transcribed and translated by indefatigable students, and have also read the various state papers relating to the inception and equipping of the expeditions.

Still, with all the illuminating data afforded by these various papers, it must be admitted that the landfall of John Cabot, in his first voyage of 1497, has not been exactly determined. On the planisphere ascribed to Sebastian Cabot, bearing date 1544, the Prima Vista  is indicated as nearly as can be at the island of Cape Breton; but the Canadian board appointed in 1895 to investigate this matter in its relation to the then forthcoming commemoration of 1897, made this report: "While the committee are of opinion that the greatly preponderating weight of evidence points to the eastern-most cape of Cape Breton as the landfall of John Cabot, in 1497, they would observe that the commemoration now proposed will not commit the Royal Society of Canada, as a whole, to the definite acceptance of that theory."

On the other hand, an eminent Canadian, Dr. S. E. Dawson, who has exhaustively investigated the subject, leans towards the Cavo (or Cabo) Descubierto  (the "Discovered Cape") on La Cosa's map of 1500, as representing the landfall, or first land seen. "There was," he says, "no other meaning to the name than the 'discovered cape'; and as this map of La Cosa's was, beyond reasonable doubt, based on John Cabot's own map, which Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish ambassador, had from him, and promised, in July, 1498, to send to King Ferdinand, we have here John Cabot indicating his own landfall in a Spanish translation."

Further, he says: "The Cabo de Ynglaterra  [on the La Cosa map] cannot be taken for any other than that characteristic headland of northeast America, which for almost [quite] four hundred years has appeared on the maps under one name in the various forms of Cape Raz, Rase, Razzo, or Race—a name derived from the Latin rasus, smooth, shaven, or flat."

The citation above shows how easily one may be led astray by a false or imperfect premise, for, in the first place, the learned author assumes that La Cosa actually did see and use John Cabot's map—which has never been proved; and in the second, that the delineation is cartographically accurate—which is far from the truth.

To the writer it seems, after scanning the La Cosa map, that, while Cabo Descubierto  may possibly represent the landfall, and also be identical with Cape Race, Cabo Ynglaterra, which is set down much farther north, may stand for the northern limit of English voyaging at that time. As to the landfall of the second voyage, there is little, if any, doubt that it was somewhere on the coast of Labrador. Neither landfall is a matter of great import, so long as it can be shown that there was one on a June day in 1497, which fact gave John Cabot priority over Christopher Columbus, in his discovery of the continent, by nearly a year!