John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

A Real Voyage at Last


Sebastian Cabot gained nothing by his double-dealing, by his repeated attempts to convince the world that he was a greater man than his father—a greater than any other since the days of Columbus. He had fame of a certain sort, he had honor, he had credit for possessing a knowledge of navigation far in excess of his real acquirements; yet he was not content. He gained nothing by his duplicity, but, on the contrary, he lost prestige, especially with the Council of Ten and in England.

We seek in vain an adequate reason for his actions, though it has been suggested that perhaps he was in pecuniary difficulties and hoped by attracting the attention of rival nations to secure a more remunerative position. That vaunted salary of one hundred and twenty-five thousand maravedis could hardly have sufficed for his maintenance in the city of Seville, where, in all probability, demands upon his purse must have been many, coming from disappointed mariners returning from the isles of the southern sea. It may have been in the hope of receiving a more liberal stipend that Sebastian persisted in thrusting his great acquirements forth for Spain's rivals to view. Still, he could not have expected much from the already decrepit Venice, cut off as she was from the Orient by the Turks, and from the Atlantic by the Spanish and Portuguese. Contarini had correctly stated the situation in his letter to the Ten, making it clear that there were obstacles insuperable; but, though Sebastian knew this, he pretended he could overcome them all. He had a plan, he said, by which the "Queen of the Adriatic "might become mistress of the ocean but he never divulged that plan. He did not go to Venice, and it appears that he never intended to go. After what had been divulged, showing that the artful machinations of the Venetians had enmeshed him, he did not dare to go. Having no plan, in reality, by which Venetian vessels could effect an entrance into the Atlantic, and having no secret information relating to the northwest passage, in very truth, he could not have faced the Council of Ten without having the mask stripped from his face.

The information acquired by Contarini and the Council was probably carefully pigeon-holed, for it was found several centuries later, by a diligent investigator, through whose intelligent endeavors we are enabled to throw some light upon the murky character of Sebastian Cabot. The Venetians evidently did not promulgate what they had learned respecting the self-stultified pilot, for the esteem in which he was held in Spain does not seem to have abated. In the year 1524, for example, he was appointed one of a council of geographers and cosmographers called together by King Charles to decide whether Spain or Portugal should hold sovereignty over the Moluccas. The committee met in April, but as the Portuguese prolonged the discussion to an unwarrantable length, the Spanish delegates cut it short by curtly declaring Spain's right to the islands, together with their reasons therefor, and adjourning forthwith. The first signature on the paper to which they set their names in affirmation was that of Fernando, son of Christopher Columbus. The year previous, under date of November 6, 1523, we find Sebastian Cabot's name associated with that of another discoverer in a peculiar way. It was when, according to contract, 10,000 maravedis were deducted from his salary as piloto mayor, on account of the pension paid to Maria Cerezo, the widow of Amerigo Vespucci. Thus he was painfully reminded of his predecessor, whose fame as a navigator excelled his own, but whose posthumous glory was exaggerated far beyond his deserts.

The council which Sebastian Cabot attended, in the year I524, was held at Badajos and lasted a month. It was on May 3 I St that the declaration was made that the Moluccas fell within the Spanish limits by at least twenty degrees, and, as the Portuguese delegates could not gainsay this, they retired full of chagrin and muttering threats of reprisal. These threats took shape the following year, when the first of the expeditions to follow in the great Magellan's wake was fitted out. Ferdinand Magellan, Portuguese navigator, who, having vainly offered to serve his sovereign in the highest capacity as explorer, finally set out on that voyage which carried the flag of Spain around the world, probably met Sebastian Cabot when; he was outfitting his fleet, in 1519. No mention is made of the fact, but it is impossible that the pilot major of Spain and the man who commanded the first expedition to find the secret strait and cross the Pacific should not have had converse together. Magellan's pilots were compelled to consult with Cabot as to their proficiency in the use of the astrolabe, the quadrant, and the theory of navigation reduced to practice. Seville, in which Cabot resided, was the resort of all who had to do with voyages of discovery, the home city of the great "India House," and all expeditions practically took their departure from there, no matter from what port they finally sailed. So it is quite impossible that Magellan and Cabot should not have met, and, having met, of course they held long and earnest conversations on the topic in which both were intensely interested. Magellan's fleet departed from Spain September 20, 1519. It consisted of five ships, containing 265 men; but three years later only a single vessel returned to Spain, with eighteen men on board, after having made the first great voyage around the world.

Sebastian Cabot was in Seville when Magellan took his departure; he was also there (as may be proved by referring to the Contarini correspondence) when the battered Victoria  sailed into the Guadalquivir with her wonderful news. She had circumnavigated the globe; but the losses had been terrible, including the commander of the fleet, Magellan, and all his men save the eighteen survivors. Then Spain, as well as Portugal, was on fire with a great desire to follow after the pioneers in the Pacific and reap the golden harvest that was promised in the Islands of Spices. Preparations were made for another fleet to the Moluccas, to sail swiftly and clinch the hold that Spain had obtained in the East. But Portugal, through her king, sent remonstrances and prayers, finally threats of vengeance deep, in her efforts to stay the Spanish movement towards the Orient by way of the strait. Portugal, it will, of course, be recalled, had possessed herself of the Oriental trade (formerly conducted by caravan and Arabian ships) through the voyage of Vasco da Gama, in 1497. She had been swift to take advantage of the rights bestowed upon her by the treaty of Tordesillas, when, by papal bull, she alone had the privilege of sailing to the Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope. She had established a remunerative trade between Lisbon and the Orient, which promised to be a strict monopoly, until Magellan discovered the southwest passage through South America. Then all was changed, for Portugal no longer had a monopoly in the East unless she might be able to thwart Spain in her endeavors to establish a route to the Spice Islands via the Strait of Magellan and the Pacific.

The first result of her futile efforts at restraint of Spain's traffic was the Council of Badajos, at which she lost her case, while Spain won. This failure wrought the Portuguese to such a pitch of rage that they hesitated at nothing short of open attack upon Spain's fleets to prevent her from sending an expedition to the Pacific. Secure in possession of the route by way of southern Africa, Portugal should have been content to allow Spain to proceed by the South American track; but no, she wished to control all highways to the Orient. The southwest passage, however, was Spain's, and it is about the time that the return of Magellan's men in the Victoria  informed Spain of its existence that we find Sebastian Cabot prating of a northwest passage  to the Venetian ambassador and the Council of Ten. It is stated, on the authority of Cabot, that he went to England with a proposition to find the northwest passage as early as 1517, and may well be doubted; but, as we have seen, it is beyond all doubt that he did make the proposition to Venice in the year 1522. He and Magellan may have talked the subject over many times, as both were in Spain together several years; but it is only when the passage has been proved to exist that Cabot begins to advocate another, in the northwest, by which Cathay and the Indies might be reached.

That passage was not achieved until more than three hundred years after Sebastian Cabot had passed away; but it did not lead to Cathay, and, owing to its barriers of ice, can never prove of practical utility. Sebastian assumed there ought to be a passage in the northwest, because there had been found a passage in the southwest; but of his own knowledge he knew nothing respecting either. He never essayed the northwest passage, but in the year 1525 accepted the command of an expedition that was to penetrate the southwest strait discovered by Magellan. He seems never to have discovered anything whatever, of his own initiative; but he was quick to appropriate the results of other men's efforts as his own. This trait appears in an account given by the pope's legate, who, years later,

"seeking his acquaintance, found him a very gentle person, who entertained him friendly, and shewed him many things, and among others a large mappe of the world, with certain particular nauigations, as well of the Portugals, as of the Spanyards, and that he spake further vnto him, to this effect. . . .'Whereupon I went into Spain, to the Catholique King and Queene Elizabeth, which advertised what I had done, entertained me, and at their charge furnished certain shipper, wherewith they caused me to saile to discouer the coastes of Brazil, where I found an exceeding great and large river, named at this present the Rio de la Plata—that is, the River of Silver into the which I sayled. . . . After this I made many other voyages, which I now pretermit, and waxing olde I glue myselfe to rest from such travels, because there are nowe many yong and lustie Pilots and Mariners of good experience, by whose forwardnesse I doe rejoice in the fruit of my labours, and rest with charge of this office, as you see.'"

He was then, as he had been for many years, "called Piloto Mayor  that is, Grand Pilot, being an expert man in that science, and one that coulde make cardes [charts] for the sea with his owne hand." But he was mistaken in saying that he had come into Spain during the reign of Elizabeth [Isabella], for she had been eight years in her grave when he first entered the service of Ferdinand, formerly her consort. Also, he made a misstatement in his own favor, when he said he was sent to discover the coasts of Brazil, and found the Rio de la Plata; for both the country and the river were made known years before. It may be truly said, even at the risk of reiteration, that Sebastian Cabot never discovered anything of value; that he never made a successful voyage; and, moreover, that he made but one voyage of which there is a record that cannot be impeached.

Notwithstanding the protests of the Portuguese, Spain made ready to garner the fruits of her discoveries in the Pacific, and a commercial expedition was organized by the merchants of Seville, the command of which was offered to their respected piloto mayor, Sebastian Cabot. He appeared well pleased with the proffer, and, having secured the consent of the India council, proceeded to interest the king and the court. While he may have been flattered by the appointment as commander of a commercial fleet, he still desired to give to the enterprise a wider scope and strove to enlist the government. In this he was quite successful, and was promptly granted the use of three ships, with the privilege of increasing the number to six, if found desirable. The "capitulation, "or agreement with the government, was signed on March 4, 1525, and its conditions were somewhat as follows: He was to sail by Magellan's Strait to the Moluccas and other spice islands of the Orient. From there he was to go in search of the islands of Tarshish and Ophir (it is said) of Eastern Cathay, and of Cipango, lading his ships at each of these places, and others that he might discover on his voyage, with all the gold, silver, precious gems, pearls, etc., that could be obtained by barter or in other ways. On his return he was to sail along the entire southern coast of the newly discovered continent, America, and, entering the Atlantic, reach Spain by the route he followed on the outward voyage.

Few voyagers have had a greater opportunity than this for acquiring fame and enriching themselves at the expense of others; but the intention of the voyage miscarried from the very beginning. In the first place, the merchants were exceedingly vexed at the turn by which the voyage was to be converted into one of discovery, as well as profit. The Moluccas, they knew, contained a wealth of spices, while there was good reason to expect to find vast quantities of gold and gems. As they bore the major portion of the expense, they reasonably expected to be consulted in the outfitting of the fleet, especially the manning of it with men of their own selection, whom they could trust to carry out their views.

In the controversy that ensued between the commander of the expedition and the merchants of Seville, we obtain a glimpse of the true Sebastian Cabot and a further revelation of his character. Hitherto, it must be confessed, he has proved elusive, resembling a creature of the imagination, for whom we groped in the dark, and could hardly force to reveal himself; but with the preparations for that expedition to the Moluccas he assumes substantial proportions. He suddenly becomes invested with some human attributes, and one trait he strongly presents is that of obstinacy—a belief in the infallibility of Sebastian Cabot. He had selected as his lieutenant one Michael de Rufis, because, as he said, he had contributed a caravel to the expedition; but the merchants desired him to give that position of importance to Martin Mendez, one of the few survivors of the Magellan voyage. He had been commissary of subsistence on that expedition, had borne himself with credit, and was now honored and respected as one of the eighteen survivors who came back in the Victoria.

Cabot stood by his man until he was commanded by the king himself to give Mendez the position, and then he reluctantly yielded, saying that to take as his lieutenant a creature of his opponents, was like hanging a stick between his legs to impede his journey. Mendez himself, feeling that a slight had been put upon him, carried the matter to the Council of the Indies; but he was finally pacified and sailed with the expedition. In an accusation brought by his mother, after the return of the fleet, it was charged that Cabot's wife, Catharine Medrano, who possessed great influence over her husband, had conceived a bitter hatred for Martin Mendez, and hired a person to assassinate him; but this was not proved to her credit we are bound to say it.