John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

An Intrigue with Venice


The further doings of Sebastian Cabot seem to throw light upon what would otherwise appear to be an unaccountable transaction. It would appear, in fact, that the pilot major of Spain was capable of "playing "one government against the other, in order to enhance his reputation with both. Notwithstanding that he had excused himself to Cardinal Wolsey on the ground that he could not accept a commission under English colors without the permission of King Charles of Spain, he himself states that he wrote to the king requesting his recall, as great pressure was being brought to bear upon him to re-enter England's service as an explorer, etc.

He thus makes himself out the one great navigator whose services two powerful nations are very anxious to obtain; but even this does not satisfy his vanity, for the next year he may be found intriguing with Venice, to whose ruling power, the "Council of Ten," he represented himself as acquainted with a northwest passage to the Indies. He informed them that "Cardinal Wolsey had made great efforts to induce him to take command of an important expedition for the discovery of new countries, having actually provided 30,000 ducats for the furnishing of a fleet."

His imagination, we may note, was kinder to him than the merchants of London, who had refused to advance the funds, upon the ground that the proposed commander, "one Sebastyan," was a foreigner, and acquainted with the islands to be sought only by hear-say. But Venice did not know of this, and his astounding proposition, to sail in her service, was respectfully entertained by the Council of Ten. Its members were versed in all the wiles of diplomacy, and maintained spies in every capital of Europe; yet for a time Sebastian Cabot succeeded in mystifying them completely as to his motive, or motives, in conducting an intrigue with Venice, while holding a responsible and an honorable position under the government of Spain. His cunning was eventually outmatched, for he had no dull-witted Britons to deal with now, but the keenest, subtlest politicians that the land of Machiavelli could boast.

On a day in I522 the Venetian ambassador Signor Caspar Contarini, a man of great and varied accomplishments, who represented his government at the Spanish court, received a letter of which the following is the substance:

"September 27th.

To our Orator near the Caesarean and Catholic Majesty:

"Not long ago, one Don Hierolamo de Marin de Bucignolo, a Ragusan, who came into the presence of the chiefs of our Council of Ten, said that he was sent by one Sebastian Cabotto, who declares that he belongs to this our city, and now resides in Seville, where he has the appointment from the Caesarean and Catholic Majesty as his chief pilot for the discovery and navigation of new regions. And, in his name, he referred to an accompanying disposition as his credential, touching which, although we do not see that we can place much trust in it, yet as it may be of some importance, we have not thought fit to reject the offer of the said Sebastian to come into our presence and say what he has in his mind respecting this matter. . . . We therefore desire, and we, the said Heads of our Council of Ten, instruct you that, with all diligence, but with due caution, you shall take means to find out if the aforesaid Sebastian is in the court, or about to come there shortly, in which case you are to procure that he shall come to you, and you are to deliver to him a letter written by the said Hierolamo, which we have arranged to send by another way to your very faithful servant, that it may reach you presently.

"You should endeavor to find out something of the matter in hand, in the event of his being disposed to be open with you, in which case we are well content to leave it to you to ascertain his sentiments. When you see him you should move him with sound reasoning and encourage him to come here; for we are not only desirous, but anxious, that he should come to us securely. If he should not be at court, nor about to come, but returned to Seville, take care to send all letters by a safe channel, so that they may reach him. Let him know by whom they are sent that they come from his own friends here, and under any circumstances report everything to the said Heads of the Council of Ten."

It seems that Sebastian had met and contracted a close friendship with the Ragusan, Hierolamo, to whom he had confided, under a pledge of secrecy, his desire to communicate with the Council of Ten, and inform them of the knowledge he possessed as to a north-western passage to the Indies. The Ragusan soon after went to Venice and delivered his message, with the result as shown above. A letter purporting to have been written by him was sent to the ambassador, informing Sebastian that it would give the Council of Ten great pleasure to receive him. The ambassador was to pretend ignorance of its contents, though he had already been informed by the Council, but he was to have an interview with Sebastian and try to draw him out as to his schemes. The artful plan succeeded perfectly, and perhaps it cannot be better shown than by the letter written by the ambassador on the last day of December, 1522.

"Most serene Prince and most Excellent Lords:

"On the third vigil of the nativity, with due reverence, I received the letter from your Lordships dated the 27th September, by which is explained to me the proposal of Hierolamo the Ragusan, in the name of Sebastian Caboto. In order to execute these instructions, I dexterously ascertained whether he was at court, and this being so, I sent to say that my secretary had to deliver a letter sent by a friend of his, and that if he wished to receive it he should come to my lodgings.

"He understood this from my servant who went to him, and came on Christmas eve, at the hour of dinner. I withdrew with him, and gave him the letter, which he read, and when he read turned pale. Having read it he put it in his pocket without speaking, and looked frightened and amazed. I then said to him that, when he should desire to answer that letter, he should tell me what he wished, and I would write to those who had sent it, for that I should be prompt in making the business end well. Having been reassured he spoke to me thus:

"'I had already spoken to the ambassador of the most illustrious seigneury in England, owing to the affection I have for the fatherland, when those newly found lands could be made of such great utility to my country; and now, as regards what has been written to me, you ought to know all; but I pray you that it may be kept secret, for it is a matter on which my life depends.'

"I then told him that I knew about it very well; but, as some gentlemen were coming to dine with me, it was not convenient to discuss the business matter further at that time. It would be better if he would return in the afternoon, when we might confer more fully. He then went away and returned at night, when I received him alone in my room. He said to me: 'My Lord Ambassador, to tell you all, I was born in Venice, but was brought up in England, and afterwards entered the service of Spain and was made captain by King Ferdinand, with a salary of 50,000 maravedis. I was then made chief pilot by this king [Charles] with another 50,000 maravedis, and to help my expenses was given 25,000 more, making in all 125,000 maravedis, which may be reckoned at nearly 300 ducats.

"'Having returned to England three years ago, that most reverend Cardinal wished that I would undertake the command of a fleet of his to discover new countries, which fleet was nearly ready, he being prepared to expend upon it 30,000 ducats. I replied that, being in the service of this Majesty, I was not able to undertake it without his permission. At that time, conversing with a Venetian friar, named Stragliano Collona, with whom I had a great friendship, he said to me: "Messer Sebastian, you are very anxious to do great things for foreigners, why do you not remember your own country?  Is it not possible that you might also be useful to it?"

"'I felt this in my heart at the time and replied that I would think it over. On the following day I said to him that I had a way by which the city of Venice might participate in these voyages, and I showed him a way which would be of great utility. As by serving the King of England I should not be able to serve my country, I wrote to the Caesarean, Majesty that he should not, on any account, give me permission to serve the King of England, because there would result great injury to his service; but that he should recall me. Having returned to Seville, I formed a great friendship with this Ragusan, who now writes, telling me that I ought to transfer my services to Venice. I have opened myself to him, and charged him that the affair should not be made known to any one but the Heads of the Ten, and he swore this to me on the sacrament.'

"I answered him first by praising his affection for his native land and then said that the time was come for him to present himself before your most excellent chief lords, and that he must therefore proceed to Venice. He replied that it would first be necessary to obtain permission from the Emperor, on the plea that he wished to recover the dowry of his mother, on which affair he would speak to the Bishop of Burgos, if I would write in his favor to your Serenity."

In the encounter between Sebastian Cabot and the Venetians, the advantage was with his opponents from the first. He had handicapped himself with false statements, and they, knowing this, pressed him to the wall with demands for a motive. They fell in with his plan to obtain permission from the Emperor for a visit to Venice, on the plea that in no other way could he collect his mother's dowry. There was no dowry; of course, nor did the Council of Ten see any possible way of utilizing Cabot's services, even were he to separate from Spain and lay his talents at their feet; but they wished to involve this servant of King Charles in a net of his own weaving, and they were successful in their endeavors.

"I answered," said the ambassador, "that, as he wished to go to Venice, I commended the way in which he proposed to obtain leave. As I did not wish to expose his scheme, however, I thought it well to say this much: that in any deliberation he ought to consider two things one was, that the proposal should be useful; and the other that its utility should be secured. But with regard to the possibility of such an issue "—continues the ambassador in confidence to his superiors—" I am doubtful, for I have some slight knowledge of geography [he was, in fact, very well read] and, considering the position of Venice, I see no way whatever by which she can undertake these voyages. It would be necessary to sail in vessels built at Venice, or else they must be built outside the strait. If they are built at Venice, they will have to pass the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the ocean, which would not be possible in face of the opposition of the kings of Portugal and Spain. If they are not built at Venice, they can only be built on the shore of the western ocean, for they cannot be constructed in the Red Sea without infinite trouble. First, it would be necessary to make an agreement with the Turk; and secondly, the scarcity of timber would make it impossible. Even if they were built, the forts and armed vessels of the Portuguese would make it impossible to continue that navigation. Nor can I see any possibility of building ships on the western ocean, Germany being subject to the Emperor [Charles V.]; so that I can perceive no way by which merchandise could be brought to Venice from those ships, or from the ships to Venice; but, he being an expert in these matters, I merely made these observations, I said, in deference to him.

"He replied that there was much in what I said, and that truly nothing could be done with vessels built at Venice or in the Red Sea. But there was another way, which was not only possible but easy, by which ships might be built, and merchandise carried from the port of Venice, and from Venice to the port, as well as gold and other things. He added: 'I know, because I have navigated to all those countries, and am familiar with them all. I told you I would not undertake the voyage for the King of England, because that enterprise would in no way benefit Venice.'

"I shrugged my shoulders, and, although the thing appeared to me impossible, I would not dissuade him further, so as not to discourage him from presenting himself to your Highnesses; and I considered that the possibilities are much more ample than is often believed, for the man has great renown. We parted for the present, but on the evening of St. John's Day he came to see me, and reasoning with him on the principal business, I dexterously repeated my objections; but he repeated that the way was easy. 'I will go to Venice at my own expense,' he said; 'they will hear me and be pleased with the plan I have devised; I will return at my own expense '; and he urged me to keep the matter secret. Such is the arrangement I have made. Your Serenity shall hear, and your wisdom will decide on what shall appear to be the best."

"VALLADOLID, SPAIN, December, 31, 1522."

On March 7, 1523, the ambassador wrote, somewhat contemptuously: "That Sebastian Cabot, with whom your Excellencies instructed me to speak on the subject of the spice countries, and respecting whom I reported, has been to me several times, always giving me to understand that his wish is to go to Venice, and to work in the interests of your Highnesses in that matter of the spiceries. At length he sought me to say that he could not now seek permission to go, as he doubted whether it might not be suspected that he wished to go to England, and that he would be absent three months. After that he would throw himself at the feet of your most illustrious Lordships; praying that meanwhile a letter might be written in the form of the other that was sent, asking him to come to Venice to expedite his private affairs. Thus leave could be more easily obtained. I write to your Highnesses to report what this Sebastian has said, respecting which steps will be taken as seems desirable."

In accordance with the ambassador's suggestion, at Sebastian's request, a letter was forged, with reference to the fictitious property in Venice; and here it is, under date of April 28, 1523:

"Respectable Master Sebastian:

"It is some months since I came to Venice, and I wrote you an account of what I had done to enquire where your goods are to be found, that I received good words on all hands, and was given hope that I should recover the dower of your mother, so that I have no doubt that if you could come, you would obtain all your desires. For the love I bear you, and for your own welfare and benefit, I exhort you not to be false to yourself, but to come here to Venice, where, I doubt not, you will obtain everything. So do not delay, for your aunt is very old, and, failing her, there will be very great trouble in recovering your property. Set out as soon as possible; so no more at present from,

"Yours always,

And that precious document was the upshot of all this visiting, corresponding, intriguing, lying, for nothing more ever came of it. The only outcome was that Sebastian Cabot convicted himself of deceiving the king of Spain, frustrating the plans of England's cardinal—lying to both; of duplicity in the matter of his birthplace, calling himself an Englishman in England, but a Venetian when desirous of securing the confidence of people of that nationality. He also created distrust in the minds of the ambassador and the Council of Ten as to the knowledge which he professed respecting the northwest passage and navigation in general.

On the other hand, though the Venetians as had been deceived by him, it cannot be said that they did not enjoy the game and had not profited by their experience. Anything that savored of mystery and duplicity they relished most zestfully; and, again, they had accumulated a body of evidence against the grand pilot of Spain which might sometime serve them well. He had sought to aggrandize himself (at least to amplify his pretensions and consequence) by representing himself possessed of information which, he assumed, the Venetians might desire to acquire; but throughout all the interviews and correspondence they had held him in his place, with many a slight to his dignity and self-importance. He was outwitted, humiliated, and forced to assume the defensive, with a possible threat hanging over his head that sometime the king of Spain might be informed of his outrageous perfidy.