John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

In The Good Ship Mathew


One morning in May, 1497, a diminutive craft, the Mathew, sailed down the Bristol channel, on its way to the sea. It was commanded by the Venetian, Giovanni Caboto, since known to history as John Cabot, and he had with him only eighteen men. Whether his three sons, Sebastian, Lewis, and Santius, were with him, or whether they had remained at home with John's Venetian wife, as an ancient narration intimates, nobody to-day can tell. A single small vessel, hardly large enough to be called a "shippe," but more probably a caravel, or brigantine, comprised the "fleet of flue "which, in the grandiloquent language of the letters patent, he was permitted to take, and eighteen Bristol sailors his crew. To these pitiful dimensions had his expedition shrunk, and as more than a year had passed since the royal sanction had been obtained, it must be inferred that the public response to his appeal had not been enthusiastic.

St. John's Church


But little more than four years had passed since the return of Columbus to Palos with the tidings of his great discovery, but the stolid Britons were evidently not greatly moved thereby, even if they were fully informed as to what the great discovery meant. These sailors of old Bristol knew only if they knew aught, in truth, of what the voyage imported that Christopher Columbus had sailed from Spain and the Canaries westerly, and kept on sailing, until he had revealed islands never seen by men of Europe before. This, they understood, was what their commander, Messer Caboto, intended to do, and as he had their sovereign's gracious permission to do so, and as they were to receive their wages, without doubt, and provend for the voyage, let it be long or short, they were content to keep on sailing into unknown waters, like their predecessors, the Northmen. Indeed, it is stated by some that Captain Caboto first laid his course for Iceland, home of the ancient Norsemen, between which and Bristol there had been commercial intercourse for centuries, in order to put the crew in spirits for the voyage and get them accustomed to sailing out of sight of land. But it is more probable that Ireland was meant, from the southern extremity of which, after having obtained his "bearings," he sailed along a certain degree of latitude—after the manner of the navigators of his time—until he came to land. He probably followed along that parallel as directly as possible across the ocean, at the end making land in about the latitude of the port from which he originally sailed.

This, however, is somewhat conjectural, for, as already stated, no log-book was kept on the voyage (or if kept was not preserved), and no letters are in existence, or were ever found, from Cabot to any of his contemporaries. They "sailed happily," Sebastian Cabot said afterwards, referring to the voyage he took to America; but he is equally vague as to whether it was the first one or the second. Any voyage that is not tempestuous, or marred by accident, is likely to be referred to by a sailor as a happy one, so, it may well be believed, was this, which began the first week in May, and ended in the discovery of land on a transatlantic continent, June 24, 1497.

From the little that has been preserved relative to that voyage, it must have been one of the stupidest and least eventful, per se, of any that ever took place. Poor Captain Caboto had no congenial spirits aboard, or in company, as had his great prototype, Columbus, in Martin Alonzo Pinzon, Juan de la Cosa, and a score of others whose birth and education had fitted them for elevated society. In fact, the Spaniards of those days seem to have been far in advance of the insular Britons, whether we take cognizance of royalty, of the aristocracy, or of the commonalty.

Be that as it may though this is not an entirely gratuitous reflection Captain John Cabot, so far as we know, was in splendid isolation on board the Mathew  unless he had the companionship of his sons, which is doubtful. The only basis for an inference that they were with him is to be found in the fact that they are mentioned in the letters patent conjointly with himself. But this may have been owing to a fond parent's desire that they should share in his achievement, or at least benefit by the royal per mission, perchance he himself might die. They are not mentioned further in any reference to that first voyage, until long after it was accomplished, and then only one is named: Sebastian, the second son, who at that time was probably about twenty-three years of age. His two brothers disappear shortly after, and also (as we shall see in another chapter) his father, whom several biographers have endeavored to suppress entirely as a factor in the discovery, in order to bring forward more conspicuously the figure of Sebastian.

Of the event which pre-empted North America for the English-speaking race, and probably settled for all time the question whether the Anglo-Saxon or the Spaniard should be the possessor of that continent "—the actual discovery and landing on the coast no account was written at the time, or, if written, has been found. "No record has been left of what took place on board when the magic moment arrived and the vistas of the long-wished-for shores were revealed. As yet more and more of the littoral landscape gradually opened to their view, as the little vessel silently closed in the distance between her and the waters of the coast, as further developments of the natural scenery became more distinctly visible to their anxious eyes, we are only faintly able to conceive the impressions of the beholders, and words can only feebly translate their emotions.

"Were their dreams of the pleasant western lands satisfied by the realities which they saw before them? Little is told of what they did. They went ashore, and realized that the land was inhabited, from seeing certain snares which had been laid to catch animals. Not fear, but prudence, perhaps, caused their speedy return: a prudent desire to make known the discovery in Bristol. Whatever there was to be disclosed to view by an inland exploration was left for the future. But, by the irony of fate, generations were destined to elapse ere the importance of the discovery was fully comprehended, either in its substantial reality or its fruitful possibility. It was not realized until long afterwards that the planting of the flag of England upon that coast was the event from which should be evolved the whole future history of North America."

While we have no authentic statement of the discovery by the chief participator therein, still, there have been discovered by delvers in ancient archives, in times comparatively recent, letters from people who saw and conversed with Captain Cabot immediately after his return. Fortunately for the historian, there were, as already intimated, watchful foreigners in London, who, jealous of England's initiative, reported to their governments every movement made by the king and his navigators. One of these was a Venetian, Lorenzo Pasqualigo, who has the honor of having written (so far as we know) the first letter referring to John Cabot's voyage. Under date of August 23, 1497, he writes from London to his brothers in Venice, whose names were Alvise and Francesco, an interesting account of the discovery.

"Our Venetian," he says, "who went with a small ship from Bristol to find new islands, has come back, and reports he has discovered, seven hundred leagues off, the mainland of the country of the Gran Cam [Grand Khan], for whom, also, Columbus was ever searching], and that he coasted along it for three hundred leagues, and landed, but did not see any person. But he has brought here to the king certain snares spread to take game, and a needle for making nets, and he found some notched trees, from which he judged that there were inhabitants. Being in doubt, he came back to the ship. He has been away three months on the voyage, which is certain, and, in returning, he saw two islands to the right; but he did not wish to land lest he should lose time, for he was in want of provisions. He says that the tides are slack, and do not make currents as they do here.

"The king has been much pleased. He has promised for another time ten armed ships, as he desires, and has given him all the prisoners, except such as are confined for high treason, to go with him, as he has requested; and has granted him money to amuse himself till then. Meanwhile, he is with his Venetian wife and his sons at Bristol. His name is Zuam Calbot: he is called the 'admiral,' high honor being paid him, and he goes dressed in silk. The English are ready to go with him, and so are our rascals. The discoverer of these things has planted a large cross in the ground, with a banner of England, and one of St. Mark, as he is a Venetian; so that our flag has been hoisted very far afield."

Here is confirmatory evidence, of a high degree of credibility, that John Cabot did discover land in North America, which was about seven hundred leagues, or two thousand miles, distant from his port of departure. Another foreigner then in London, Raimondo di Soncino, envoy of the Duke of Milan, got the news about the same time, for a day later, or on August 24th, he writes from London: "Some months ago his Majesty [Henry VII.] sent out a Venetian, who is a very good mariner, and has much skill, and he has returned safe, and has found two very large and fertile islands; having likewise discovered the 'Seven Cities,' four hundred leagues from England, on the western passage. This next spring his Majesty means to send him back with fifteen or twenty vessels."

Nearly four months later, after the first furor had passed away, and the details of the voyage had been learned, Soncino writes to the duke (on December 18, 1497):

"Perhaps amidst so many occupations, your Excellency will, not be unwilling to be informed how his Majesty [Henry VII.] has acquired a part of Asia [which it was supposed to be then, the intervening continent of America not having been dreamed of, even] without a stroke of his sword.

"In this kingdom there is a Venetian named Zoanne Caboto, of gentle breeding and great ability as a navigator, who, seeing that the most serene kings of Portugal and Spain had occupied unknown islands, meditated a similar acquisition for the said Majesty. Having obtained royal privileges securing to himself the use of the dominions he might discover, the sovereignty being reserved to the crown, he entrusted his fortune to a small vessel with a crew of eighteen persons, and set out from Bristol, a port in the western part of this kingdom. Having passed Ibernia [Ireland], which is still farther to the west, and then shaped a northerly course, he began to navigate the eastern part of the ocean. Leaving the north-star on the right hand, and having wandered thus for a long time, he at length hit upon land, where he planted the royal banner, took possession for his Highness, and having obtained various proofs of his discovery, he returned.

"The said Messer Zoanne, being a foreigner and poor, would not have been believed if the crew, who are nearly all Englishmen and from Bristol, had not testified that what he said was the truth. This Messer Zoanne has the description of the world on a chart, and also on a solid sphere which he has constructed, and on which he shows where he has been. And they say that the land is excellent, the climate temperate, suggesting that Brazil [wood] and silk grow there. They also affirm that the sea is full of fish, which are not only taken with a net, but also with a basket, a stone being fastened to it in order to make it sink in the water; and this I have heard stated by the said Messer Zoanne.

"The aforesaid Englishmen, his partners, say that they can bring so many fish that this kingdom will no longer have need of Iceland. But Messer Zoanne has set his mind on greater undertakings, for he thinks that, when that place has been occupied, he will keep on still farther towards the East, until he is opposite to an island called Zipango, situated in the equinoctial region, where he believes that all the spices of the world, as well as the jewels, are found. He further says that he was once at Mecca, whither the spices are brought by caravan from distant countries; and having inquired of those carrying them whence they were brought, and where they grow, they answered that they did not know, but that such merchandise was brought from remote countries by other caravans to their homes, and that the same information was repeated by those who brought the spices in turn to them.

"Thus he adduced this argument: that if the eastern people tell those in the south that these things come from a far distance from them, presupposing the rotundity of the earth, it must be that the last turn would be by the north towards the west;  and it is said that the route would not cost more than it costs now, and I also believe it. And what is more, his Majesty, who is frugal and not prodigal, reposes such trust in him, because of what he has already achieved, that he gives him a good maintenance, as Messer Zoanne has himself told me. And it is said that before long his Majesty will arm some ships for him, and will give him all the malefactors to go to that country and form a colony, so that they hope to make of London a greater place for spices than Alexandria.

"The principal people in the enterprise belong to Bristol. They are great seamen, and now that they know where to go, they say that the voyage thither will not occupy more than fifteen days, after leaving Ibernia. I have also spoken with a Burgundian, who was a companion of Messer Zoanne, who affirms all this, and who wishes to return, because the admiral (for so Messer Zoanne is entitled) has given him an island. And he has given another to his barber, who is a Genoese, and they both look upon themselves as counts; nor do they look upon my lord the admiral as less than a prince! I also believe that some poor Italian friars are going on this voyage, who have all had bishoprics promised them; and if I had but made friends with the admiral when he was about to sail, I should have got an archbishopric at least; but I have thought that the benefits reserved for me by your Excellency will be more secure.

Your Excellency's most humble servant,

Thus we have positive proof, in these letters cited, first, that there was a voyage to America in the year 1497; second, that the ship in which it was made was commanded by John Cabot; and third, that his landfall was on our northeast coast, probably between Labrador and Nova Scotia.