John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

The Second Voyage


The home-coming of Captain Cabota and his crew was a great event for ancient Bristol, and made the most of by the mariners; albeit the discovery was a barren one, so far as substantial reminders of the new region's products were concerned. No inhabitants had been seen, nor specimens of their handiwork, save a few paltry snares and needles, such as might have been made by men in the lowest stages of savagery. Yet both the king and Cabot seemed to be satisfied, for the miserly monarch took from his treasury the sum of ten pounds and gave it to "hym that founde the new Isle," with the injunction to go and amuse himself with it. This munificent gift, coming from one who has been styled the "most unscrupulous money-grabber" that ever sat a throne, made a deep impression upon the discoverer, and, some think, "went to his head," moving him to bestow islands upon his sailors, and indulge in reckless extravagances.

There is no direct evidence to show that King Henry made any large contribution towards the expenses of the voyage, either in fitting out the vessel or paying the seamen's wages. But his subjects were accustomed to his parsimony, for he had been squeezing them many years, increasing the store of gold in his treasury at their expense, in order, as he expressed it, that they should not be vain and proud on account of their wealth.

The king may have possessed the perspicacity to see that, even if the new country was barren, the seas contiguous, full of fish as they were, might prove a source of profit to the crown in the near future. Iceland and Norway, at that time, are said to have almost subsisted upon the trade they carried on with England in their fish, without which, indeed, they would have been reduced to sorry straits. By possessing a sea of his own, so abundantly stocked—according to the reports of the sailors—that vessels could hardly force their way through the water, King Henry would become independent of the northern nations and be able to supply others, perhaps, with a food product which his people then imported in immense amounts.

Some mighty impulse must have moved the penurious king (though his subsequent acts do not show that he appreciated the potentialities of the great discovery) for in December, 1497, he granted an annuity to John Cabot of twenty pounds sterling per annum. The document is dated December 13, 1497, in which this annuity is made incumbent upon the port charges of Bristol, and reads as follows:

"Henry, by the grace of God King of England and of France, and Lord of Ireland to the most reverened father in God, John, Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury, prymate of all England and of the apostolic see legate, our chancellor, greeting: We late you with that for certaine consideracions us specially mooing have giuen and granted vnto Welbiloved Iohn Calbot of the parties of Venice an anuitie or anuel rent of twenty pounds sterling.

To be had and yerely perceyued from the feast of the annunciation of our Lady last past [March 25, 1497] during our pleasur, of our costumes and subsidies comying and growing in our poort of Bristowe, by the hands of our customs ther for the tyme beyng, at Michelmas and Easter, by even portions. Wherfor, we will and charge you that vnder our grete seal ye do make heruppon our lettres patent in good and effectuall forme.

"Giuen vnder our Pryue Seal at our Paloys of Westminster, the xiijth day of Decembre, the xiijth yere of our Reigne."

The popular superstition that the number thirteen is an unlucky one would seem to receive confirmation by the experience of Messrs Cabota in collecting his pension, authority for which was granted the "xiijth of December, in the xiijth year of our reign," since he had such trouble in doing so that another warrant was issued, on February 22, 1498, on account of "the said Iohn Caboote, who is delaied of his payement." It is doubtful if he received the full twenty pounds sterling, by the king's document granted him; but that he was paid half the sum, or up to and inclusive of March 25, 1498, appears from the sworn report of the Bristol collectors for that year, in which, after giving the sum total of receipts, they add—"10 paid by them to Iohn Calbot, a Venetian, late of the said town of Bristol, for his annuity of 20 a year, granted to him by the said lord the king, by his letters patent, to be taken at two terms of the year, out of the customs and subsidies forthcoming and growing in the said port of the town of Bristol, . . . . by an acquittance of the said Iohn, to be shown thereof upon this view, and remaining in possession of the said collectors."

Messer Caboto obtained a portion of his pension, but it is believed that this payment was the last, for soon after he slipped out of sight, not only of the king, but of all men who ever knew him. He was determined to accomplish another voyage, and the month previous, or in February, 1498, in response to a petition similar to the first, King Henry issued the second letters patent in his favor. In it, as may be seen, no mention is made of Cabot's sons, nor allusion to the previous patent by which John, his sons, and their deputies were authorized to discover and explore.

"To all Men to whom theis Presentis shall come send greeting:

"Knowe ye that we of our Grace especiall, and for divers causes us mouing, We haue giuen and graunten and by theis Presentis giue and graunte, to our well-beloved Iohn Kabotto, Venician, sufficiente auctorite and power, that he, by hym his deputie or deputies sufficient, may take at his pleasure VI Englisshe shippes in any porte or portes, or other place within this our Realme of England, and if the said shippes be of the bourdeyn of CC tonnes or under, with their appareil requisite and necessarie for the safe conduct of the said shippes, and theym convey and lede tq the Lande and Iles of late founde by the seid Iohn in oure name and by oure commandemente, paying for theym and every of theym as and if we should do in or for oure owen cause paye and noon otherwise.

"And that the seid Iohn by hym his deputie or deputies sufficiente maye take and receyve into the seid shippes and every of theyme all suche maisters, maryners, pages, and our subjects, as of theyr owen free wille woll go and passe with hym in the same shippes to the seid Lande or Iles withoute any impedymente, lett, or perturbance of any of officeis or ministres or subjectes whatsoever they be by them to the seid subjectes or any of theyme passing with the seid Iohn in the seid shippes to the seid Lande or Iles to be doon or suffer to be doon or attempted. Yeving in commaundement to all and every our officers, ministres and subjectes seyng or heryng their our lettres patents, without anye ferther commaundemente by vs to theym or any of theym to be gevyn, to perfourme and socour the seid Iohn, his deputie and all our seid subjectes to passynge with hym according to the tenour of this our lettres patentis. Any Statute, acte or ordenaunce to the contrarye made or to be made in any wise notwithstanding."

Is it at all strange that, with such a "patent" for exploration, obscure as to its meaning, and involved as to its phraseology—with such a paper only as their guide—the biographers of the Cabots should have been at odds as to the part taken by King Henry in this enterprise? Some have held that he generously granted all that his subject asked, furnished the ships, and paid all the bills; but others, having in mind the king's penuriousness, deny this. A great English historian has written of him: "Avarice was, on the whole, his ruling passion; and he remains an instance, almost singular, of a man placed in high station, and possessed of talents for great affairs, in whom passion predominated above ambition.... By all these arts of accumulation, joined to a rigid frugality in his expense, he so filled his coffers that he is said to have possessed in ready money the sum of one million eight hundred thousand pounds; a treasure almost incredible, if we consider the scarcity of money in those times."

"It may be well to recall here," says one of Cabot's biographers, Francesco Tarducci, "that when John Cabot had roused the whole people of England to enthusiasm by his discovery, and was generally believed to have opened to them a new era of incalculable wealth, King Henry, in token of the royal participation in the general rejoicing, and of his munificent recognition of so great an event, sent him a present of ten pounds sterling! What wonder is it that this miserly disposition, which on every grave occasion had often induced him to forget all regard for the majesty of his throne and his own personal decorum, should make him loath to draw out of his securely locked coffers the gold he had sought and guarded with such industry and care, to venture it on an uncertain undertaking like that which Cabot was preparing for? It must also be borne in mind that he was in constant necessity of money for combating external and internal enemies who kept him in trouble more or less during the whole of his long reign, and obliged him to incur fresh expenses at the very time when this expedition was fitting out.

"Henry VII., hesitating between the avarice and necessity which held him back, and the advantage which urged him on, did as such characters usually do under such circumstances. He made a show of acting, and urging others, turned the merit of their movement in his favor, remaining meanwhile in the comfort of his own repose."

Whether the expenses were borne by King Henry VII., by the merchants of Bristol, or by Cabot himself, in whole or in part, it is beyond doubt that the voyage was made. It is thought that five ships sailed in company, two alone comprising the expedition proper, and three others furnished by Bristol merchants. Hakluyt says: "The king, vpon the third of February, in the 13th yeere of his reigne, gaue licence to Iohn Cabot to take flue English ships in any hauen or hauens of the realme of England, being of the burden of 200 tonnes or vnder, with all necessary furniture, and to take, also, into said ships all such masters, mariners and subjects of the king as willingly will go with him."

Henry VII


From an ancient chronicle which, in Hakluyt's time, was "in the custodie of Mr. John Stow, a diligent preseruer of antiquities "this reference to the voyage is found:

"In the 13 yeere of K. Henry the 7. (by means of one Iohn Cabot, a Venetian, which made himself very expert and cunning in knowledge of the circuit of the world and Ilands of the same, as by a sea card and other demonstrations reasonable he sheaved) the King caused to man and victuall a ship at Bristow, to search for an Iland which he said hee knew well was rich and replenished with great commodities: Which ship thus manned and victualled at the king's cost, diners marchants of London ventured in her small stocks, being in her as chief patron the said Venetian. And in the company of said ship sailed also out of Bristow three or foure small ships fraught with sleight and grosse marchandizes, as course cloth, caps, laces, points, and other trifles. And so departed from Bristow in the beginning of May."

This account might appear to refer to the first, rather than to the second voyage, except for the statement that it took place in the thirteenth year of King Henry's reign, which coincided with the year 1498. But there are other witnesses yet to be summoned. One of them is the same Spaniard, Ruy Gonzales de Puebla, whom we have already quoted. On July 25, 1498, writing to the court of Spain, he says: "The King of England sent five armed ships, with another Genoese like Columbus, to search for the island of Brasil, and others near it. They were victualled for a year, and are expected back in September. By the direction they take, the land they seek must be the possession of your Highnesses. The King has sometimes spoken to me about it, and seems to take a very great interest in it. I believe that the distance from here is not 400 leagues."

On the same date, in a long despatch to the court, Puebla's colleague, Don Pedro de Ayala, also ambassador from Spain, conveyed the following information respecting the sailing of Cabot's fleet:

"July 25, 1498.

"I well believe that your Highnesses have heard how the King of England has equipped a fleet to discover certain islands and mainland that certain persons who set out last year for the same have testified to finding. I have seen the chart which the discoverer has drawn, who is another Genoese like Columbus, and has been in Seville and in Lisbon, seeking to find those who would help him in this enterprise. It is seven years since those of Bristol used to send out, every year, a fleet of two, three, or four caravels, to go and seek for the isle of Brasil and the seven cities, according to the fancy of this Genoese. The king determined to despatch an expedition, because he had the certainty that they had found land last year. The fleet consisted of five ships provisioned for one year. News has come that one, on board of which there was one friar Buil, has returned to Ireland in great distress, having been driven back by a great storm. "The Genoese, however, went on his course. I, having seen the course and distance he takes, think that they have found or seek is that which your Highnesses possess, for it is at the end of that which belongs to your Highnesses by the convention with Portugal. It is hoped that they will return by September. . . . The King has spoken to me about it several times, and I told him I thought they were the islands discovered by your Highnesses, and I even gave him a reason; but he would not hear of it. As I believe that your Highnesses now have intelligence of all, as well as the chart or mappe-monde that this Genoese has made, I do not send it now, though I have it here; and to me it seems very false, to give out that they are not the said islands."

This was a courtier's letter, as is apparent on the face of it, written with the intent of showing his sovereigns how very alert he was to detect any infraction of their rights and infringement of their territory. But, doubtless, the information was correct, for the ambassador was very near the king, at times, and, together with Puebla, used to dine with him quite frequently. The chart, however, which he says was made by Cabot and exhibited in proof of his voyage having been taken to an unknown country, has never been seen in modern times. Chart, log-book, and journals (if there were any), have disappeared, together with the maker of them, from whom nothing was ever heard after he sailed out of Bristol harbor, at the commencement of his second voyage, in 1498.