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John Cabot

John Cabot (Italian Giovanni Caboto) was an Italian navigator and explorer. He was born Giovanni Caboto, but later made England his base of operations and is best known as John Cabot for his explorations made under the British flag. Most notably, in 1497, he set sail from Bristol on his ship the Mathew looking for a sea route to Asia. He ended up in North America, he and his men being the first Europeans since the Vikings verifiably known to have done so.

Cabot was born in Genoa, around 1451, but moved to Venice in his youth, and later became a Venetian citizen.

It was probably on hearing of Columbus's discovery of 'the Indies' that he decided to find a route to the west for himself. He went with his plans to England, because:

  1. He incorrectly thought spices were coming from northern Asia
  2. A degree of longitude is shorter the further one is from the equator, so the voyage from western Europe to eastern Asia would be shorter at higher latitudes.

King Henry VII of England gave him a grant "full and free authoritie, leave, and power, to sayle to all partes, countreys, and seas, of the East, of the West, and of the North, under our banners and ensignes, with five ships ... and as many mariners or men as they will have in saide ships, upon their own proper costes and charges, to seeke out, discover, and finde, whatsoever iles, countreyes, regions or provinces of the heathen and infidelles, whatsoever they bee, and in what part of the world soever they be, whiche before this time have beene unknowen to all Christians."

Cabot went to Bristol to make the preparations for his voyage. Bristol by then was the second-largest seaport in England, and during the years from 1480 onwards several expeditions had been sent out to look for Hy-Brasil, an island that would lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean according to Celtic legends. Some people think Newfoundland may have been found on (one of) these voyages.

Cabot left with only one vessel, the Matthew, a small ship (50 tons), but fast and able. The crew consisted of only 18 people. He departed on either 2 May or 20 May, 1497 (he had also made a voyage in 1496, but got no further than Iceland). He sailed to Dursey Head, Ireland, from where he sailed due west to Asia - or so he thought. He landed on the American east coast at 24 June, 1497. His precise landing-place is a matter of much controversy. He went ashore to take possession of the land, and explored the coast for some time, probably departing on 20 July. On the homeward voyage his sailors thought they were going too far north, so Cabot sailed a more southerly course, reaching Brittany instead of England. On 6 August he arrived back in Bristol.

The location of Cabot's first landfall is still unknown, because of lack of evidence. Many experts think it was on Cape Breton Island or Nova Scotia, but others look for it in Newfoundland, Labrador or Maine. We might never know the truth. His men may have been the first Europeans on either American continent since the Vikings: Christopher Columbus did not find it until his thirth voyage, in 1498, and letters referring to a voyage by Amerigo Vespucci in 1497 are generally believed to have been forgeries or fabrications.

Back in England, Cabot was well rewarded (a pension of 20 pounds a year), and a patent was written for a new voyage. The next year, 1498, he departed again, with 5 ships this time. Except for one of the ships, that soon after departure made for an Irish port because of distress, nothing was heard from the expedition, or of John Cabot, ever since.

John's son Sebastian Cabot later made a voyage to North America, looking for the Northwest Passage (1508), and one to repeat Magellan's voyage around the world, which ended up looking for silver along the River Plate (1525-8).

In 1498-1500 a few Portuguese travelers, Miguel and Gaspar Corte-Real being the most famous participants, visited Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland. In 1501-1505 an English syndicate, consisting of 3 Azoreans and 2 English traders, made voyages to Newfoundland. From 1504, if not before, Breton, Basque, Portuguese and English fishermen crossed the ocean to catch fish on the Newfoundland banks.

The Cabot Tower in the centre of Bristol, England.

Cabot is remembered in Bristol by the Cabot Tower, a 30m tall red sandstone tower of 1897 (the 400th anniversary of the landing) on Brandon Hill near the city centre, and by a replica of the Matthew which is moored in the city docks.

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