John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Sebastian Goes to Spain


What doubts, what perplexities assail the historian when he endeavors to trace the wanderings (if he had any) of Sebastian Cabot during the first decade of the sixteenth century. He still refuses to emerge from his cave of obscurity, except that, like the mythical "Flying Dutchman," he makes mysterious voyages hither and yon; but voyages preserved only in posthumous chronicles. It was mentioned in the previous chapter that he was deprived of one venture by ambitious Portuguese, who were John Gonzalvez, and two brothers named Fernandes, natives of the Azores. Associating themselves with three merchants of Bristol, Thomas Ashurst, Richard Warde, and John Thomas, they obtained a patent from King Henry dated March 19,1501, and in all probability sailing and returning that year.

On December 9, 1502, the same Portuguese gentlemen secured a patent in their favor, in connection with Thomas Ashurst and Hugh Elliot; while in 1503, 1504, and 1505 Henry made small gifts of a few pounds to Bristol merchants who had been engaged in similar adventures into the northern ocean. These are quaintly set forth as follows: "1502, Jan. 7, to men of Bristoll that founde the isle; 1503, Sept. 30, to the merchants of Bristoll that have been in the Newfounde Lande; 1503, Nov. 17, to one that brought hawkes from the Newfounded Island; 1504, April 8, to a preste [priest] that goeth to the new Ilande." And finally: "1505, Sept. 25, To portyngales [Portuguese] that brought popyngais [popin-jays] and catts of the mountaigne [probably wild-cats] with other Stuf, to the Kinges grace."

Mention having been made of all these ventures, why, then, was nothing said of Sebastian Cabot, who was probably pining for employment, and, according to his eulogists, of all men the best fitted to navigate and explore? No answer can be given to this question; but, in order to find employment for energies so super-eminent, some of his biographers have made him sail on a voyage in search of Cathay, in the year 1508. He sailed, they say, into the north until his progress was arrested by icebergs and field ice, between 58 and 60 degrees north latitude, and then was forced to turn back and keep on westerly, until he reached a coast-line which he followed southward a long distance.

This voyage, doubtless, is the one he, or his father, made in 1498, for the description of what he saw tallies with that. The Venetian author, Giovanni Ramusio (1485-1557), who corresponded with Cabot but whose information on the subject of his voyages is considered unreliable gives a long description of his experiences, mainly compiled from Martyr's Decades. Writing in 1553, he says:

"We are not yet sure whether that land [New France, or Canada] is joined on to the main-land of the province of New Spain, or is all divided into islands. And if by that way it were possible to go to Cathay, as was written by Signor Sebastian Cabot, our Venetian, a man of great experience and rare in the art of navigation and science of cosmography he had sailed above this land of New France, at the expense of King Henry VII. of England. And he told me that having gone a long distance towards the west and a quarter to the northwest behind these islands situated along the said land, as far as sixty-seven and a half degrees under our pole, he firmly believed he could pass by that way towards eastern Cathay, and would have done so if the malice of the master and insurgent mariners had not forced him to turn back."

This reference to a mutiny on the part of Cabot's crew carries us forward to a voyage that is said to have taken place in 1517, during the reign of Henry VIII., instead of in that of his father, Henry VII. It was under the command of Sir Thomas Pert, "whose faint heart," says Richard Eden, "was the cause that the voyage took none effect." Whatever happened, and whenever the voyage was made, Sebastian Cabot blamed Pert for its failure, owing to his cowardice and lack of energy. Whether Cabot the younger, then or at a previous date, penetrated as far north as latitude 67 or 68, and discovered Hudson Bay, in his search for a northwest passage to Cathay, is still a moot question. As has been remarked, if he had but kept a journal of his voyages, or had communicated some of his adventures and alleged discoveries to some one living at the time, posterity might have been so much the richer; whereas, for generations it has been doubtful whether to accept or reject the treasure which, in his old age, Sebastian Cabot pretended to have garnered from his earlier days.

In the year 1512, however, Sebastian Cabot stands forth revealed as one who, by sterling worth or high emprise, must have won the attention of his sovereign. He went to Spain, that year, as a member of that famous expedition sent by Henry VIII. to. aid his brother monarch, King Ferdinand, against Louis XII. of France. Henry had then been three years on the throne, and had shown himself the direct opposite of his father, the penurious Henry VII., whose hoarded treasures he was already dissipating with a lavish hand. Having entered into the Holy League formed by Pope Julius II. and Ferdinand against King Louis, he, by a treaty signed November 7, 1511, agreed to furnish six thousand troops, which were to be embarked in Spanish ships. Early the following spring, the fleet, forty sail in all, arrived at Southampton, and the soldiers sailed for Port Pasage, near San Sebastian, where they disembarked in June. They proved faithless to the trust imposed in them, for they mutinied before they had struck a single effective blow, either for Henry or his ally King Ferdinand.

This may not have been so very displeasing to Henry, who, though he was a son-in-law of Ferdinand (having married his brother Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon), had no great relish for the alliance. He would like to be known as "Most Christian King," and doubtless his Spanish wife egged him on to join with her father, dangling the tempting bait before his eyes; but he was ease-loving rather than valiant. By the invasion of France the following year he partially effaced the impression made upon Europe by the disgraceful action of his troops in Spain, but was glad enough to get back to England again, where tidings of new victories awaited him.

It is not, however, with Henry VIII. that we have to do, but with his subject, Sebastian Cabot, who, in the train of Lord Willoughby, one of the generals of the Spanish expedition, went with him to that country. In what capacity we know not, but certainly not in that of a soldier; nor, so far as we know, was he engaged as a navigator on this voyage, which was but a short one, and over a route well known. There is nothing to show that Henry VIII. held Cabot in esteem; though as to that, even if he had been worthy above all men, the base Henry could not have appreciated him at his value, If, as recorded, King Ferdinand sent for him, desiring to avail of his knowledge as navigator and explorer, Henry's suspicions would not thereby have been aroused, for his mind was not great enough to grasp the full meaning of that knowledge. He let him go without demur, therefore, and thus King Ferdinand acquired the services of one who had the reputation of being muy sabio, or very wise, as to matters of seafaring.

From the Port of Pasage, Sebastian went to the city of Burgos, where, it is said, he had a conference with the secretary of "Juana Loca," Ferdinand's afflicted daughter, by whom he was introduced to the bishop of Palencia, who was empowered to arrange with him as to his service under the king. Sebastian must have been reckoned as of consequence, it would seem, for shortly after Lord Willoughby had landed on Spanish soil he was written to in the name of the king, who requested that he come to him at once. He wished to consult with him about some matters relating to his new duties, and probably desired to ascertain the exact amount of his knowledge respecting the great country lying northward from his dominions, in North America. From Burgos, therefore, Sebastian went by the king's command to Castile, where he was satisfactorily received by the sovereign and obtained royal sanction to the agreement already concluded with the bishop of Palencia. He may have resided near the court all that summer, for, though King Ferdinand had shown great celerity in drawing him within his sphere of personal influence, it was not until the next October that an official decree was issued respecting the Anglo-Venetian navigator.

By a decree of October 20, 1512, his Catholic Majesty, King Ferdinand of Spain, conferred upon Sebastian Caboto the rank of a sea-captain in his service, with an annual salary of fifty thousand maravedis. This might seem an immense amount of money; but as the maravedi was worth about a quarter of a cent only, being the smallest coin current in Spain, it will be seen that the salary was not so very large, even for those times. Still, to a poor mariner like Sebastian Cabot, who had for years, in all probability, relied for his support upon the making of charts that were not in high esteem or great demand, it must have appeared munificent. His duties were not arduous; in fact, merely nominal, for it appears that King Ferdinand cared more for getting Sebastian into his service than for any real labor he might perform. He had noted, perhaps, that he possessed information of value which his English son-in-law, Henry VIII., might turn to account in his own employ, unless checked in time. There were few eminent navigators and cosmographers then living, for Columbus, Vespucci, and La Cosa had passed away, and scarcely any had arisen to take their places.

Soon after his arrival at Castile, Sebastian found himself domiciled in Seville, where a house was assigned him, in which he lived at ease, in the enjoyment of his salary of fifty thousand maravedis. This was paid him promptly; and, in truth, it is only from the records of these schedules of payments, by the king's orders, that we can inform ourselves as to his movements at this time. By means of these records we are enabled to account for him during the years 1512 to 1515, in which, according to the receipts he signed, he received payments quarterly. On March 6th, for instance, there was paid to "Sebast. Caboto, Ingles  [Englishman], fifty ducats on account of his salary, and advanced him for going to court to consult with His Majesty about the voyage of discovery which he was about to undertake." On the 26th of that month he received the balance of the year's salary due "from the time he had come [probably to Spain] up to the present."

In April, 1514, it is shown by the schedules that he received an advance of 44,250 maravedis from Don Luis Carros, ambassador at London, for expenses incurred by a return to England for the purpose of closing up affairs and bringing away his wife. This is the first intimation that Sebastian Cabot had a wife, of whom, as in the case of his mother, casual mention only is made. She was a native of Spain, it is related, and her name was Catharine Medrano; but nobody knows whether Sebastian met and won her in England or in Spain. It is most probable that he met her while living in Seville, as his predecessor, Amerigo Vespucci, met the lady who became his wife, and who, after his death, received a pension from the Spanish government, part of which was a charge against Cabot's salary as chief pilot. Catharine Medrano seems to have held no more prominent position in the scheme of her husband's life-work than the wife of Columbus or of Vespucci; for, like them, she merely makes her appearance once or twice, courtesies to posterity, then disappears, never to be seen or heard of again. Such was the fate of great men's wives at the period of which we are writing—to live in obscurity, while their husbands were crowning themselves with imperishable glory. They shared their trials, their poverty, their disappointments, but were denied participation in their triumphs.

In the year 1515, relying upon the account kept by Dr. Sancho de Matrenzo, treasurer of the Casa de Contratacion  in Seville, the pilots of his majesty on salary were: Sebastian Cabot, Andres de San Martin, Juan Vespucci, Juan Serrano, Andres Garcia de Nino, Francisco Coto, Francisco de Torres, and Vasco Gallego. Sebastian's name appears first in the list, and this is significant, when we reflect upon his situation in Spain, surrounded by rivals in the race for promotion to the high office of chief pilot, All the rest, judging from their names, were Spaniards; all save Juan Vespucci, the since-famous Amerigo's favorite nephew, who was by birth a Florentine.

We have already mentioned the dispersion of Italy's sons in search of employment under foreign flags, and the great assistance they rendered to Spain in exploration and discovery. "It cannot but be remarked," says an historian, "how Italy, in Columbus, Cabot, and Vespucius, not to name others, led in opening the way to a new stage in the world's progress, which, by making the Atlantic the highway of a commerce that had mainly nurtured Italy on the Mediterranean, conduced to start her republics on that decline which the Turk, sweeping through that inland sea, confirmed and accelerated."

Juan Vespucci was one of those who abandoned his native land at the commencement of her decline, and, in company with his uncle Amerigo, swept the seas in search of new isles and continents for Spain. He was trained under the eye of the man after whom America was named, and became an expert cosmographer and pilot. It is a matter of wonder that, when his uncle died, in 1512, he was not appointed his successor in the office of chief pilot; and it may not be considered strange if he had some heart-burnings on account of this oversight. Still, it does not appear that he was other than friendly to Cabot, who had already distanced him; but the same cannot be said of some others, former companions of Columbus, who regarded the Anglo. Venetian as a usurper, who had gained his precedence unfairly. When, in 1515, Sebastian was appointed a member of a commission charged with revising and correcting all the maps and charts used in Spanish navigation, "a duty of the greatest importance and delicacy, at a time when the principal activity of Spain was directed to navigation and discovery"—when this came about, the Spanish pilots were greatly incensed.