John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Cabot as "Piloto Mayor"


The office of Piloto Mayor, or Chief Pilot, was not created for Sebastian Cabot, as some have assumed, but was first filled by that eminent Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci. He died in 1512, leaving a widow, whose pension was made a charge upon the office he held, so that the magnificent sum of one hundred and twenty-five thousand maravedis per year, attached to it as the salary of its occupant, was somewhat reduced in consequence. After Vespucci came the venturous navigator Juan de Solis, who immortalized his name by the discovery of the Rio de la Plata. He held the position about three years, but in 1515 set out on the voyage which proved to be his last, for he was killed by Indians while exploring the river he had found.

Three years later, by a royal ordinance dated at Valladolid, February 5, 1518, Sebastian Cabot was made chief pilot, without whose approval no navigator could sail a vessel to the Indies. He was the third to be thus honored by the king for his great knowledge of navigation, and at the time he took office ten years had elapsed since it was first occupied by Vespucci. At the time of its creation a letter describing the duties of Piloto Mayor  was written by order of the king, which letter may be found in the Life of Amerigo Vespucci, a volume of this series.

The chief pilot resided at Seville, near the great West India House—the Casa de Contratacion—which had oversight of all fleets sailing to the new countries and seas, and which was presided over for so many years by Bishop Fonseca, the one-time enemy of Christopher Columbus. Neither the street nor the house in which Sebastian Cabot lived at the time he was chief pilot is known to-day, though Seville was for years his place of residence. He never made a voyage to the Indies, but stayed at home and attended to the duties of his office, which, as he had several assistants, were hardly more than nominal.

We can imagine him, surrounded by the navigators newly arrived from the West Indies and the coast of South America, explaining to them the charts he had prepared and which had been left him by his predecessors, Solis and Vespucci. Never having made a voyage by means of them himself, it cannot be considered at all strange if the pilots who were compelled to go to him for instruction should murmur at the injustice of their king in forcing them to sit at the feet of this foreigner. Many of them knew the seas better than he did, many had made the voyage southward, to the isles of the Antilles, without the aid of the charts, and had returned in safety; and why they should be thus humiliated passed their comprehension. Still, they submitted, as perforce they had to submit, for it was by the king's orders, and no one could sail to any point without Sebastian Cabot's permission.

In treating of this period of his life we are on secure ground, because of the official papers confirming his appointment and authorizing the payments on his salary. But now and then the king's pilot disappears from view, and at such times his biographers give out that he has sailed for England, there to make another voyage in the service of King Henry. Such a trip (confirming which, however, there is no direct evidence), it is claimed by some, he took between the years 1516 and 1518, allusion to which was made in the last chapter. It was at a time when Spanish affairs were in considerable confusion, owing to the demise of Ferdinand the Catholic, the succession of "Crazy Jane "and Philip her consort, and finally the accession of Charles, their son.

Availing himself of the laxity prevailing in public affairs, it is said, Sebastian slipped off to England and made another attempt to discover something, somewhere, on the northeast coast of America. Why he did not essay something for the only real patron he ever had, hitherto, and make a voyage into the waters and beyond, which were within Spanish jurisdiction, constitutes one of the numerous mysteries of his life. It is not known that he went to England, but assumed, merely, in order to account for another hiatus in his life—or, rather, a period of inactivity—when he does not appear prominently enough to suit his ardent eulogists.

It is given out that he was constantly seeking a northwest passage to Cathay, and this was the will-o'-the-wisp that so often allured him from the delights of his official position of honor and emolument. But, not long after he went to Spain, the necessity for discovering a northwest passage no longer existed, since Balboa had rendered it unnecessary by finding a way across the isthmus of Darien. Attention was then directed to the southwest, instead, with the ultimate result that, in 1520, Magellan made his memorable voyage through the strait now named after him, and for the first time crossed the Pacific.

It is possible that an expedition was planned by King Ferdinand in consultation with Cabot, and that his death in 1516 upset all their calculations. "All preparations were checked," narrates a credulous biographer; "public well-wishers and ambitious speculators were disappointed; but Cabot had more cause than any other to regret the loss of his patron. Charles V., who was to be his successor, had lately been acknowledged emperor in the Netherlands, and remained some time in Brussels before assuming the Spanish crown—a period of dissension and much confusion among the Spaniards, who, by means of his minister, Chievres, employed every intriguing art to find favor with the young sovereign.

"Ferdinand's kindness to Sebastian had incensed his jealous subjects, who were indignant that the king should have raised a foreigner to his confidence, and availed themselves of his death to manifest their resentment. They insinuated that the voyage of 1497 had accomplished nothing, that Cabot was a foreign impostor, and that under their new king affairs should take a different turn. Cardinal Ximenes was too aged to govern with severity during the interregnum, and when Charles had arrived in Spain, at only sixteen years of age, intriguers and misrepresenters had given an undue bias to his mind. Even Fonseca, the notorious calumniator of Columbus, was in office. Cabot could catch no glimmer of hope in all this darkness, and, that he might avoid undeserved obloquy, he returned once more to England.

"After a short residence in England, our navigator succeeded in fitting out the expedition which the death of Ferdinand had delayed. Henry VIII., probably not displeased at his return, 'furnished certen shippes,' says Richard Eden, with some funds, and appointed one Sir Thomas Pert first in command under Cabot, whose weakness, as we shall see, rendered the affair a failure. They sailed from England in 1517. Concerning their exact destination many disputes have arisen. Several historians say that they went on a trading voyage to the West Indies; but these accounts are so confused that we find them at one time off the coast of Labrador, and shortly after that as far south as Florida. The point is interesting, because, if Cabot really undertook a trading voyage, he must have relinquished, in a moment of pique, his hopes of discovering the northwest passage. The trading voyage, which, by a confusion of dates, is assigned to 1517, actually took place ten years after, in 1527. So that Cabot was neither so inconsistent, nor so ungrateful to the memory of his late patron, as to interfere with a trade to which the Spanish government laid an exclusive claim."

Neither was Sebastian Cabot so unwise as to attempt to trade, under English colors, with islands owned by Spain! The truth is, probably, that he did not leave Spain for England at all, for many years after his arrival there in 1512. The treatment he received at the hands of the two Henrys (the one penurious, the other a rake and a spendthrift of mean capacity) had not been such as to encourage him to return. Neither had given him permanent employment, as had the king of Spain; neither had honored him in any manner whatever; so what had he to gain by going to England?

But the self-blinded biographer goes on to say: "Contemporary and subsequent accounts represent Sir Thomas Pert as totally unfit to be second in command in such an expedition. His cowardice was sufficient to render his commander's energy ineffectual. They penetrated to about the 67th degree of north latitude and, entering Hudson's bay [now so called], gave English names to various places in the vicinity, when, as previously, doubts of success arose among the crew. The severity of the climate and many privations increased their eagerness to return, while Pert, a man of high command and influence, favored their remonstrances. Under such circumstances, it was impossible to quell the mutiny by force, and, the pilots [why 'pilots,' when Cabot himself was there?] being unable to convince the understandings of the crew, Cabot turned homeward. Although he had confessedly failed, he must have gained credit in England by his resolution, while Sir Thomas Pert seems to have been recognized as the cause of the miscarriage."

Alas, poor Sir Thomas Pert! To be afflicted with such a name, and to have it maligned, besides passed down to posterity with a stigma attached to it by Sebastian Cabot! Proceeding in this apologetic vein as relates to Cabot, the biographer says: "Neither the merchants interested in the late unfortunate expedition, nor the king, who was then engaged on the continent, were disposed to renew an attempt to discover the long-desired passage. Moreover, a frightful disease known as the sweating-sickness prevailed in England in 1517, and prevented the people from thinking of an expensive and unpromising enterprise. Fortunately for Cabot affairs in Spain were in a better condition. Soon after his accession, Charles V., examining into the unsettled expedition of 1516 [which is purely conjectural, by the way], was surprised at the sudden disappearance of Cabot. He already knew something of his character, and the state records bore ample testimony of Ferdinand's high regard for him. These facts sufficiently exposed the jealousy and intrigues of the Spaniards, and Charles, anxious to atone for past injustice, appointed Cabot to the honorable office of pilot major of Spain."

It is related as a rumor (confirmed by Sebastian Cabot) that the third year following his appointment as chief pilot he might have been found in England once more, having been lured thither, he averred, by Henry VIII.'s prime-minister, Cardinal Wolsey, who "made him great offers if he would re-enter the service of England and make new expeditions and discoveries for her." Such is the statement of Cabot; but it is manifestly untrue, coming so soon after an alleged expedition, which, as all admit, was so disastrous as to cool the ardor of both the king and the people. One might be led to think, from the frequency with which the Chief Pilot of Spain is said to have laid aside the cares of office and hied away to England, on the most frivolous pretexts, that he had not only little to do, but possessed the unlimited confidence of a government which was not prone to look upon such levity with indulgence. Spain was an exacting mistress, and would not have disregarded these frequent lapses of allegiance in one standing so high in official rank as Sebastian Cabot.

In the year 1521, two members of Henry VIII.'s council, Sir Wolston Brown and Sir Robert Wynkfeld, urged the merchants of London to furnish five vessels for an expedition which was to be placed under command of "one man called, as understood, Sebastyan." He had, apparently, convinced the king this man Sebastyan [Cabot]—that said expedition would result greatly to his advantage; but the merchants' wardens, being cautious men, and withal having knowledge of the king's craftiness, demurred. They questioned whether the king and his council were duly informed as to the purposed expedition; and further, why credible reports had not been obtained of "maisters and mariners naturally born within this realm of England." And they add: "We think it were too sore a venture to jepord V shipps, with men and goods, unto the said Island, upon the singular trust of one man, called, as we understand, 'Sebastyan,' which Sebastyan, as we here say, was never in that land himself, all if [although] he makes report of many things as he bath heard his father and other men speke in tymes past."

The hard-headed men of business, whose money would have to pay for the venture, were naturally against the proposition, though the king, having nothing to lose, might be in favor of it. But the merchants of London were unnecessarily exercised over the prospect of losing their ships and their capital, for, in all probability, Sebastian Cabot had no serious thought of making a voyage in the king of England's service. In truth, how could he, being a subsidized servant of Spain, and holding so conspicuous a position that his dereliction would be noticed at once? It is beyond belief that the haughty monarch, Charles V., would have allowed his pilot major to sail on a voyage for any other sovereign, in any capacity whatever.