John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Under Sealed Orders


There was a very general opinion in Seville that the Portuguese were at the bottom of the troubles attending the expedition fitted out in 1525 for the Moluccas. They had fought Spain at every step of the proceedings looking towards a voyage to the Orient by way of the strait; they had cried fraud at the decision respecting Spanish jurisdiction in the Spice Islands; and they had tried to excite an insurrection in Seville. It was not unlikely that the discomfited Portuguese, when they discovered Spain's intention of sending, not one expedition, merely, for conquest, but another for commercial exploitation, should have endeavored to stay the latter by resort to violence.

One thing is certain: the dissensions between the merchants and Sebastian Cabot delayed the expedition until the following year, and eventually brought it to an inglorious termination. It should have started in August, in order to avail of the best weather prevailing in the tropics after crossing the line, but was delayed until April, 1526, on the 3d of which month the fleet sailed out of San Lucar de Barrameda. Sebastian Cabot, who had for years been fretting against the chains that held him to the routine of office on dry land, was at last afloat upon the sea which he had charted for others but himself had never sailed.

He commanded the flag-ship of the fleet, containing three vessels and two hundred men, with the title of captain-general. He left Spain in the confidence of the government, but at variance with the merchants, who had supplied all the funds for commercial purposes, and had staked them upon a successful voyage to the far-distant Moluccas. Failing to make that voyage, the captain-general would cause those merchants great losses, to some of them bring ruin and disaster; and this fact may partially account for their hostility to him at the outset, for some of them held grave doubts as to his ability to accomplish the undertaking. Their animosity was intense, but not greater than that of the various officers serving under Cabot, who leagued themselves together against him, it was said, before the sailing of the fleet. According to testimony taken after the expedition had returned, Martin Mendez, Rojas, captain of the Trinidad  (a ship of the fleet), and other chief officers, held a secret meeting in St. Paul's church, Seville, where and when they bound themselves by solemn oaths to unite on every occasion "for the purpose of depriving Cabot of the command, and putting Rojas in his place." The removal of Cabot was decided upon before the fleet left Spain; and as there was but one way to effect that removal, when at sea, it was, doubtless, murder that the conspirators intended.

As if to further the nefarious scheme, the government had furnished each ship with sealed orders, in triplicate, which were to be opened after the fleet was at sea. They must have been given without Cabot's knowledge, for, as one of his admirers remarks, "It would be difficult to imagine a scheme better fitted to nurse disaffection. . . . Cabot's death, or his retirement, for whatever cause, from command of the fleet, must ever stand as an attractive prospect before the fancy of the privileged persons whose names were inscribed on that list."

In case of Cabot's death, the chief command was to devolve upon one of eleven persons named in the orders; and in case of their deaths, on the one chosen by a general vote, provided that, on an equality of votes, the candidate himself should cast lots. The first person named in the list was Francisco de Rojas, captain of the Trinidad;  the second, Michael de Rodas, who was without position, but had accompanied the fleet by the king's orders; and so on.

Taking together the internal evidence afforded by this paper, and the secret meeting at the church, a deep and dastardly plot seems to have been concocted by the enemies of Sebastian Cabot for his undoing. Its promoters included, not only officers and sailors of the fleet, but Spanish officials high in authority. If Cabot had received any intimation of the manner in which he was to be treated, he would have been justified in resigning his position; but it is probable that he had no inkling of it, and, having haggled so long over the minor appointments under him, was anxious to be away at any cost.

The route from Spain to South America was open, and easy to sail, after Columbus, Vespucci, Da Gama, and Pinzon had shown the way. First the navigators shaped their course for the Canaries, thence sailing to the Cape de Verde, and from them stretching across the comparatively narrow neck of the Atlantic that separates Africa and South America. Any navigator of experience could sail the course and make no mistakes, the men of Cabot's fleet averred; yet their commander showed a woeful lack of knowledge respecting the proper route, and especially the conflicting currents. The chief complaint, however, comes from one who was charged with having been sent by the Portuguese as a spy upon his movements, and must be taken with a grain of allowance. Speaking of the adverse currents flowing from the Gulf of Guinea, he says: "Sebastian Cabot did not know how to take them, for he was not a sailor, and did not know how to navigate."  He also charged him with sailing from Spain at the wrong season. "Every navigator and pilot," he says, "who wants to sail to these parts, must know enough to sail at the time when the sun makes summer there, . . and Sebastian Cabot, with all his astrology, did not know enough for that."

But knowing, as we do, that the sailing of his fleet was a matter beyond his control, having been delayed by the controversy with the merchants, we must acquit the unfortunate Sebastian of blame, so far as that is concerned. True it is, he should have known sufficient of meteorological conditions—having the observations of mariners during more than thirty years to guide him to make the start at the right time, and have used his influence to that end.

We now know that Sebastian's nature was stubborn, that he was opinionated, self-conceited, and inflexible of purpose. He started out with the intention of having his way, and he had it, so far as he was able to control things, to the last. He made no pretence of conciliating the disaffected aboard ship, and, long after he must have discovered that the majority of officers and crew were scheming to cause his overthrow, he held to his course against Martin Mendez. He set him aside altogether, as if he were not a member of the company, neither giving him orders nor asking his advice. When the fleet was at Palmas, in the Canaries, Mendez prepared a letter to the king, informing him of the manner in which Cabot was conducting the expedition; but this letter was intercepted by the captain-general, and never reached its destination. At Palmas, also, the conspirators met openly, in the house of one Santa Cruz, for the purpose of perfecting their scheme against the commander; but, though he was probably aware that something dire wag threatening, he took no cognizance of the proceedings. Thus the crews were emboldened by his apparent carelessness, and as the coast of South America was reached began to complain. The captain-general had not laid in sufficient stores at Palmas and the Cape, they said, and most of the provisions were stored in his own ship, anyway, and reserved from general distribution. Martin Mendez mingled with the crews, and made numerous partisans for himself and the Rojas brothers, who also were complaining that Cabot made no effort to allay the ill-feeling which his obstinacy had caused at Seville.

The embers of the Seville imbroglio were smouldering all the way down the African coast and across the Atlantic; by the time Pernambuco was reached they were ready to burst into flame. This port, at which was a Portuguese factory, or trading establishment, was reached ire June, and after fresh supplies had been laid aboard an attempt was made to proceed. But the winds were contrary and drove the vessels back every time they tried to gain open sea again, so that three months passed away before the voyage was resumed. These three months were very trying to all, especially to the commander, who was now thoroughly alive to the perils surrounding him. The idle life at Pernambuco, while they were confined there by the winds, was conducive to insubordination, and the crews were with difficulty held in restraint.

Cabot, though generally careless in demeanor and gentle with his associates, had kept his eye upon the ringleaders of the mutinous movement, and one day he suddenly descended upon Mendez and Rojas, imprisoned them both, and seized their papers for inspection. While this proceeding may have been warranted by well-grounded suspicions, it could not be, Cabot soon found, sustained by evidence collected from among the crews; and after keeping the twain confined for several days aboard his ship, he released them with merely a reprimand. It was a mistaken policy, he found, to deal leniently with these offenders, for one of them at least, Rojas, though restored to his command without loss of authority, blustered and fumed, demanded that his detractors should be punished, and at a later period declared that Don Sebastian had hired two men to murder him. If Cabot had thought to placate the malcontents by kindness, after showing them that he knew of their offences, he soon found out his error, and later profited by it.

After leaving Pernambuco, which was not until the last week in September, the fleet was struck by a gale and the flag-ship lost her small-boat, which, after the storm had abated, the commander sought to replace by another to be constructed of timber cut on the coast. A mountain loomed ahead of them, covered with forest, and in front of it was a deep bay, so that the place appeared all that could be desired. But the entrance to the bay was obstructed by islands and the channel seemed shoal, so Cabot ordered soundings to be taken. To this the pilot, Michael Rodas, objected, and pledged his own head for the safety of the ship. "You may have my head., commander," said he, "if anything goes amiss with our good ship." But he had hardly uttered the words when the vessel grounded on a submerged bank, with a terrible shock. It was then of no avail for Pilot Rodas to tear his hair and his beard, and to shout, as he did: "Hang me, captain, hang me; here is my head, for our good ship is lost forever!"

It was too true, alas, for the ship went down, carrying with her most of the marine stores, guns, ammunition, provisions, spare sails, shrouds, anchors, etc., with which she was laden. As she was the largest vessel of the fleet, and carried the bulk of the stores upon which the crews depended, as well as the articles intended for trade with the Moluccas, her loss was indeed irreparable. It could not be repaired, and poor Cabot was forced, by the terrible situation, to consider whether it would be possible to continue the voyage to and through the Pacific. His first efforts were directed towards saving what portion of the cargo could be rescued, and we have reason to believe that he exerted himself; though Rojas subsequently testified that Cabot escaped from the ship as soon as she struck on the bank, thinking only of himself. How he escaped, when the small boat was lost, does not appear; but he adds that the ship could have been saved and floated if the commander had but attended to his duty.

In justice to Cabot, however, it should be said that another eye-witness of the accident declared that the "merit of saving most of the cargo was wholly due to his prompt orders and activity." It was, of course, his misfortune, and in a manner his fault, that the ship was lost, and he could not but expect to be held accountable for it on his return to Spain.

Just previous to the shipwreck he had named the bay in which the accident befell him after his wife, St. Catharine, thus showing that he held her in remembrance. It lies in south latitude 2 7 351, and though Sebastian Cabot named it, he was not the first white man to discover it, as he found seventeen Spaniards already living there with the Indians. Fifteen of them had been left by Loayasa, whose fleet had rendezvoused there when it encountered a storm; and two, Melchior Ramirez and Henry Montes, had been with Solis when he discovered the Rio de la Plata. These men, and the friendly Indians with whom they resided, informed Cabot that by ascending the Rio de la Plata, or River of Silver, he would find great treasures buried in the soil, for there was a mountain ridge abounding in gold and silver to such an extent that he might fill all his vessels. When asked how it was they themselves had none of this treasure in their possession, they replied that they had secured a vast quantity, but when on the way with it to the coast they were attacked by the Guaranis, who not only took it all, but also the slaves who were bearing it on their backs. They had sent what little they had since gathered to Spain, about fifty pounds in weight, save a few pieces of gold, which had been reserved as an offering to the Virgin of Guadelupe.

Among other slanders which the traitor Rojas circulated in Spain about Sebastian Cabot was an accusation that the Portuguese at Pernambuco had told him of the rich treasure to be found in the mountains above La Plata, and that in consequence the commander then formed the resolution of tarrying there, instead of prosecuting his voyage to the Moluccas. This is evidently false, for it was not until, by the loss of his flag-ship, with all its stores and ammunition, he was incapacitated from pursuing the voyage, that he decided to go no farther until his losses had been repaired. When, indeed, the Spaniards at St. Catharine offered to pilot him to the region of gold up the Plata, he informed them that his road did not lie that way. He still intended to proceed on the voyage to the Spice Islands, though he had already suffered so grievously; but when he came to take stock of his equipment, and found that he had not provisions enough for half the distance, let alone vessels and men to sail them, he faltered. The climate of St. Catharine was inimical to the Spaniards, for many fell sick and died. Provisions became so scarce that "when they wanted to ascertain the fertility of the soil they could only collect, from all the vessels, fifty-two grains of wheat for sowing."

Unless a prompt departure was made from St. Catharine, it seemed indeed that Cabot would not have men enough left to work the remaining vessels; but he tarried long enough to build a galiot, in which to carry the salvage from the flag-ship, and then sailed to the southward though not for the Moluccas. He had called a council of his officers, and with their concurrence decided to sail for the Plata, not far distant. In the River of Silver they would make a temporary stopping-place, and while exploring it, perchance, relief might reach them of such a nature that the voyage could be prosecuted to the Spice Islands, as originally intended.