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John Cabot

John Cabot (known in Italian as Giovanni Caboto; c. 1450 c. 1499) was an Italian navigator and explorer whose 1497 discovery of parts of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is commonly held to have been the first European encounter with the continent of North America since the Norse Vikings in the eleventh century. The official position of the Canadian and United Kingdom governments is that he landed on the island of Newfoundland.


Name and origins

Cabot's birthplace is in Italy. In Italy he is known today as Giovanni Caboto, in England as John Cabot, in France as Jean Cabot, and in Spain as Juan Caboto. The non-Italian forms reflect references to him in the related 15th-century documents. Only one set of documents has been found bearing his signature. These are Venetian testamentary documents of 1484, on which he signed as "Zuan Chabotto", Zuan being a form of John typical to Venice.[1] That he continued to use this form in England, at least among Italians, is supported by two letters referring to him that were written by others in London in 1497. One, from a London-based Venetian, gives Cabot's first name as Zuam.[2] Another, from the Milanese Ambassador, spells his name Zoane.[3] In a document identified in October 2010, he is described by his Italian banker in London as 'Giovanni Chabbote', this being the only known contemporary document to use this version of his first name.[4]

Gaeta (in the Province of Latina) and Castiglione Chiavarese (in the Province of Genoa) have both been proposed as birthplaces.[5] The main evidence for Gaeta are records of a Caboto family dwelling there until the mid-15th century, but ceasing to be traceable after 1443.[6] Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish envoy and Cabot's contemporary in London, described him in 1498 as "another Genoese like Columbus".[7] John Cabot's son, Sebastian, appears to have believed that his father originally came from Genoa. What is certain is that in 1476 Cabot was made a Venetian citizen, which required a minimum of fifteen years' residency in the city. He must have lived in Venice since at least 1461.[8]

Life until 1495

John Cabot appears in the Venetian records in 1471 when he was accepted into the religious confraternity of St John the Evangelist. Since this was one of the city's prestigious confraternities, this suggests that he was already a respected member of the community. He may have been born slightly earlier than 1450, which is the approximate date most commonly given for his birth.

Following Cabot's acquisition of full Venetian citizenship in 1476, he would have become eligible to engage in maritime trade, including the trade to the eastern Mediterranean, which was the source of much of Venice's wealth. He presumably became engaged in this trade shortly thereafter. He is mentioned in a document of 1483 selling a slave in Crete whom he had acquired while in the territories of the Sultan of Egypt, which then comprised most of what is now Palestine, Syria and the Lebanon.[9] This is not sufficient to prove Cabot's later assertion that he had visited Mecca, which he said in 1497 to the Milanese ambassador in London.[3] He may have acquired better knowledge of the origins of the oriental merchandise he would have been dealing in (such as spices and silks) than most Europeans at that time.

"Zuan Cabotto" (i.e. John Cabot) is mentioned in a variety of Venetian records of the 1480s. These indicate that by 1484 he was married to Mattea and already had at least two sons.[10] Cabot's sons are named in his 1496 royal patent as Ludovico, Sebastian, and Sancto.[11] The Venetian sources also contain references to Cabot's being involved in house building during his time there. This may be the experience on which he later promoted himself as a civil engineer in Spain.[12]

Cabot appears to have gotten into financial trouble in the late 1480s and had left Venice as an insolvent debtor by 5 November 1488. He moved to Valencia where his creditors attempted to have him arrested by sending a lettere di raccomandazione a giustizia ("a letter of recommendation to justice") to the authorities.[13] While in Valencia, "John Cabot Montecalunya" (as he is referred to in local documents) proposed plans for improvements to the harbour. These proposals were rejected, however.[14] Early in 1494 he moved on to Seville, where he proposed, was contracted to build and, for five months, worked on the construction of a stone bridge over the Guadalquivir river. This project was abandoned following a decision of the City Council on 24 December 1494.[15] After this Cabot appears to have sought support for an Atlantic expedition in Seville and Lisbon, before moving on to England.[7] It therefore seems likely that he would have arrived in England around the middle of 1495.


Like other Italian explorers, including Christopher Columbus, Cabot was commissioned by another country, and in Cabot's case it was England. Once Henry the Navigator began searching for a route around Africa, the Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain) began to attract Italian navigational talent, especially after Columbus's discovery of "the Indies" (as all Asia was called at the time) by sailing west. After that voyage, a number of explorers headed in that direction; Cabot had a simple plan, to start from a northerly latitude where the longitudes are much closer together, and where, as a result, the voyage would be much shorter.[16]

Historians have generally assumed that, on arrival in England, Cabot went straight to Bristol to seek backers.[17] This seemed logical, given that his expeditions did, indeed, set out from this port and it was the only English city to have had a prior history of undertaking exploration expeditions out into the Atlantic. Moreover, since Cabot's royal patent (issued in 1496) stated that all expeditions should be undertaken from Bristol, it seemed that his primary supporters were likely to have come from that city. Yet, while Bristol may have seemed like the logical place for Cabot to go to seek funding, Dr Alwyn Ruddock claimed to have found evidence that Cabot actually went first to London and received backing from the Italian community there. In particular, she suggested he found a patron in the form of Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, an Augustinian friar who was also the deputy to the papal tax collector Adriano Castellesi. Ruddock suggested that it was Carbonariis, who certainly accompanied Cabot's 1498 expedition and who was on good terms with the King, who introduced the explorer to Henry VII. Beyond this, Ruddock claimed that Cabot received a loan from an Italian banking house in London 'to go and discover new lands'. Determining the basis of Ruddock's claims is difficult, since she ordered the destruction of all her research notes on her death in 2005.[18] However, since that time, researchers on what has now become The Cabot Project , have been engaged in a hunt to relocate her evidence. On the matter of Cabot's sponsorship, Dr Evan Jones (University of Bristol) reported to the Canadian press in October 2010 that Dr Francesco Guidi Bruscoli (University of Florence), had now found the ledger which contains the loan made to Cabot in 1496.[19] The sum involved was significant, albeit not enough to have completely financed even a single expedition.

On 5 March 1496 King Henry VII of England gave Cabot letters patent with the following charge:


Cabot Tower]] in St. John's, Newfoundland. Monument at Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland.

Cabot went to Bristol to make the preparations for his voyage. Bristol was the second-largest seaport in England, and during the years from 1480 onwards several expeditions had been sent out to look for Hy-Brazil, an island said to lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean according to Celtic legends.[20] Bristol may have been particularly interested in seeking this island because it appears to have been believed that Bristol men had discovered the island at earlier date but then lost it. Since it was said to be a source of brazilwood (from which a valuable red dye could be obtained) the merchants had a sound economic motive for seeking the isle.[21]

First voyage

All that is known about Cabot's first voyage is contained in a letter from John Day (a Bristol merchant) to Christopher Columbus. The letter, written in the winter of 1497/8, mostly concerns the 1497 voyage. However, by way of an aside, Day notes that: "Since your Lordship wants information relating to the first voyage, here is what happened: he went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back."[22] Since Cabot only received his patent in March 1496, it is generally assumed that this voyage took place in the summer of that year.

Second voyage

Nearly everything that is known about the 1497 voyage comes from four short letters and a brief chronicle entry. The chronicle entry, which dates from 1565, states in its entry for 1496/7 that "This year, on St. John the Baptist's Day [24 June 1497], the land of America was found by the Merchants of Bristow in a shippe of Bristowe, called the Mathew; the which said the ship departed from the port of Bristowe, the second day of May, and came home again the 6th of August next following."[23] Although the source is late, some of the details can be corroborated from sources that the Bristol chronicler cannot have known about. It is thus generally considered that he had copied the main details from some earlier chronicle entry, perhaps merely replacing "new found land", or something similar, with "America", which had become a common term by 1565. Given that various of the details in the chronicle can be corroborated, it is generally assumed to be reliable.

~ The Matthew ~
In 1897, on the 400th anniversary of Cabot's discovery of North America, the Newfoundland Post Office issued a commemorative stamp honoring Cabot and his discovery.

If the 1565 chronicle is helpful when it comes to the key dates and the name of the ship, the four letters add more colour. The first is a letter from a Venetian merchant on 23 August 1497.[24] The letter has a slightly gossipy air to it, written by a man who may or may not have talked to Cabot directly.

The author of the second letter is unknown, but would appear from the general content to be from a diplomatic source. It was written on 24 August, apparently to the Duke of Milan.[25] Cabot's voyage is only mentioned very briefly.

The third letter is from Raimondo de Raimondi de Soncino, Milanese ambassador in London to the Duke of Milan on 18 December.[3] It is more serious in tone than Pasqualigo's and is clearly based on conversations the ambassador had with both Cabot, whom the writer claims to have "made friends with" and his Bristol compatriots, who are said to be the "leading men in this enterprise...and great seamen".

The fourth letter is the "John Day letter", which was written during the winter of 1497/8 by a Bristol merchant, John Day (alias Hugh Say of London) to a man who can almost certainly be identified as Christopher Columbus.[26] The letter is useful in that it is written by a man who would presumably have had access to all the key players and had assembled all the detail of the voyage that he could. Columbus was presumably interested in the voyage because, if the lands Cabot had discovered lay west of the meridian laid down in the Treaty of Tordesillas, or if the Venetian intended to sail further west, then the English voyages would have represented a direct challenge to the monopoly rights Columbus possessed for westwards exploration.

In addition to these letters, Dr Alwyn Ruddock claimed to have found another, written on 10 August 1497 by the London-based bankers of Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis. This letter has yet to be found, since the archive in which Ruddock located it is unknown. From various comments made by Ruddock, the letter did not appear to contain a detailed account of the voyage.[27] On the other hand, she did claim that it contained "new evidence supporting the claim that seamen of Bristol had already discovered land across the ocean before John Cabot's arrival in England."[28] This would make the letter a valuable find. If the letter demonstrated that the bankers believed that Cabot had re-discovered a land previously found by men from Bristol, it does not mean that their belief was correct.

As is often the case, the known sources do not agree with each other on all aspects of the events and none can be assumed to be entirely reliable. The main points suggest that Cabot had only one "little ship",[3] of 50 tons burden,[29] called the Matthew of Bristol (according to the 1565 chronicle). It was said to be laden with sufficient supplies for "seven or eight months".[29] The ship departed in May (the sources do not agree on the precise date), with a crew of either eighteen men according to Soncino[3] or twenty, according to the John Day letter.[29] The crew included Cabot, an unnamed Burgundian and a Genoese barber,[3] who had presumably accompanied the expedition as the ship's surgeon, rather than as a hairdresser. There were also Bristol companions who were of sufficient status to join Cabot at court in London,[3] which suggests that at least two Bristol merchants had accompanied the expedition. One of these was probably William Weston, given that he received a reward from the King in January 1498 and Weston is known to have undertaken an independent voyage to the New Found Land, probably under Cabot's patent, in 1499. The typical working crew for a fifty-ton vessel in this period would have been about ten men, although extra mariners may have been taken for such a long voyage.

Leaving Bristol, the expedition sailed past Ireland and across the Atlantic making landfall somewhere on the coast of North America on June 24, 1497. The exact location of the landfall has long been a matter of great controversy, with different communities vying for the status of being the location of the landing. At various times historians have proposed Bonavista, St. John's in Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Labrador, and Maine as possibilities. Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland is the location recognised by the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom as being Cabot's "official" landing place. As such, it was chosen, as the place where Queen Elizabeth II along with members of the Italian and Canadian governments greeted the replica Matthew of Bristol, following its celebratory crossing of the Atlantic in 1997.[30] Wherever Cabot landed, it is believed that his expedition were the first Europeans to set foot in North American since the Vikings, whose voyages half a millennium earlier were probably unknown to the Bristol explorers.

Cabot is only reported to have landed once during the expedition and did not advance "beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow".[29] Both Paqualigo and Day agree that no contact was made with any native people, but they found the remains of a fire, a human trail, nets and a wooden tool. The crew only appeared to have remained on land long enough to take on fresh water and to raise the Venetian and Papal banners and claim the land for the King of England, while recognising the religious authority of the Roman Catholic Church.[31] After this landing, Cabot spent some weeks "discovering the coast".[29] Day's letter suggests that "most of the land was discovered after turning back", which suggests the landfall was some way to the west / south of the most easterly point of North America. Both Day's letter and that of Soncino comment on the vast multitude of codfish in the sea, Soncino reporting that "the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water."[3] John Day's letter states that the expedition left the New World once they reached a cape said to lie "1800 miles west of Dursey Head, which is in Ireland".[29] Given that the latitude of Dursey Head is 51 35' N, this implies that, wherever Cabot made landfall, his departure point was at the northern tip of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland (51 36' N). On the homeward voyage Cabot's crew incorrectly thought they were going too far north, so they took a more southerly course, reaching Brittany instead of England. On August 6 the expedition returned to Bristol.

Matthew]] in Bristol.

Final voyage

Back in England, Cabot appears to have ridden directly to see the King. On 10 August, he was given a reward of 10 equivalent to about two years' pay for an ordinary labourer or craftsman.[32] The explorer was initially feted; Soncino wrote on 23 August that Cabot "is called the Great Admiral and vast honour is paid to him and he goes dressed in silk, and these English run after him like mad".[3] Such adulation was short-lived, for over the next few months the King's attention was occupied entirely by the Second Cornish Uprising of 1497, led by Perkin Warbeck. Once Henry's throne was secure he gave some more thought to Cabot. In December 1497 the explorer was awarded a pension of 20 per year, and in February 1498 he was given a patent to help him prepare a second expedition.[33] In March and April, the King also advanced a number of loans to Lancelot Thirkill of London, Thomas Bradley and John Cair, who were to accompany Cabot's new expedition.[34] The Great Chronicle of London reports that Cabot departed with a fleet of five ships from Bristol at the beginning of May, one of which had been prepared by the King. Some of the ships were said to be carrying merchandise, including cloth, caps, lace points and other "trifles".[35] This suggests that the expedition hoped to engage in trade. The Spanish envoy in London reported in July that one of the ships had been caught in a storm and been forced to land in Ireland, but the other ships had kept on their way.[7]

No other records have been found (or at least published) that relate to this expedition; it has been assumed that Cabot's fleet was lost at sea. At least one of the men scheduled to accompany the expedition, Lancelot Thirkill of London, is recorded as living in London in 1501.[36] More recently the historian Alwyn Ruddock found evidence to suggest that Cabot and his expedition returned to England in the Spring of 1500. She claimed their return followed an epic two-year exploration of the east coast of North America, into the Spanish territories in the Caribbean. Ruddock suggested that a religious colony was established in Newfoundland by Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis and the other friars who accompanied the 1498 expedition. That Carbonariis accompanied the expedition has long been known. If Ruddock is correct in thinking that Carbonariis founded a settlement in North America, it would have been the first Christian settlement on the continent, and may have included a church. The church may have been named after San Giovanni a Carbonara in Naples, which was the mother church of the Carbonara, a group of reformed Augustinian friars.[37]

The Cabot Project at the University of Bristol has been organized to search for the evidence on which these claims rest, as well as to undertake related studies.[38] The lead researchers on the project, Dr Evan Jones and Margaret Condon, claim to have found further evidence to support aspects of Ruddock's case, particularly in relation to the return of the 1498 expedition, with documents having been located that appear to place John Cabot back in London by May 1500. They have yet to publish their documentation. The Project is to begin an archeological excavation in the fall of 2011 at the community of Carbonear, which Ruddock believed the likely location for Carbonariis' mission settlement.

Ruddock claimed that William Weston of Bristol, a supporter of Cabot, undertook an independent expedition to North America in 1499, sailing north from Newfoundland up to the Hudson Strait.[39] If correct, this was probably the first North West Passage expedition. Jones has confirmed that William Weston (who was not previously known to have been involved in the expeditions) led such a voyage to the "new found land" in 1499, making him the first Englishman to lead exploration of America.[40][41]

Sebastian's voyage

John's son, Sebastian Cabot, later made at least one voyage to North America, looking for the hoped for Northwest Passage (1508), as well as another to repeat Magellan's voyage around the world, but which instead ended up looking for silver along the R o de la Plata (1525-8).

Reception and memorialisation

Examples of the memorialisation of John Cabot and his expeditions include:

  • A 1762 painting of "Giovanni Caboto" on the walls of the Ducal Palace in Venice.[42]
  • Cabot Tower in St. John's, Newfoundland, constructed in 1897 to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of Cabot's voyage.
  • Cabot Tower, in Bristol, England. This is a 30-metre tall red sandstone tower begun in 1897 to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing. It is located on Brandon Hill near the city centre and was begun as a fraternal response to the earlier decision of Newfoundland to construct their tower.
  • A 1910 painting in the Houses of Parliament[43]
  • The Giovanni Caboto Club, an Italian club located in Windsor, Ontario, established in 1925.[44]
  • A 1952 statue of the explorer at the entrance to Bristol's Council House albeit one that the city council decided in 1956 to designate as a "symbolic figure of an Elizabethan seaman". This was despite the fact that the sculptor Charles Wheeler exhibited the work in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1952 as "Number 1423, John Cabot sketch model for the statue on the New Council House, Bristol". In addition, it may be noted that the figure is dressed in fifteenth-century clothing, has a fifteenth-century navigational instrument (astrolabe) hanging from his belt and is clutching what is clearly meant to be John Cabot's letters patent. Despite all this, the Council still "maintains that the statue does not represent the city's renowned explorer, John Cabot."[45] The reason for the Council's "re-designation" of the statue is not recorded, but may be related to its decision to name the new council house after Elizabeth II, who opened the building in April 1956.[46]
  • John Cabot University is an American university established in 1972 in Rome, Italy.
  • A 1985 bronze statue of the explorer by Stephen Joyce, located on the Bristol Harbour side .
  • A replica of the Matthew of Bristol built to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the 1497 voyage.
  • The scenic Cabot Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands is named after the explorer.
  • John Cabot Academy is an independent school in Bristol.
  • Cabot Links - a golf course in Inverness, Nova Scotia
  • Cabot Ward is an electoral district in Bristol, albeit one that gets its name from Cabot Tower, which lies in the ward, rather than directly from the explorer.
  • Cabot Square in London and the smaller Cabot Square, Montreal.
  • Cabot Circus, a shopping mall opened in Bristol in 2008 was named following a city-wide poll, thus demonstrating the enduring popularity of the explorer in Bristol
  • John Cabot Road in north Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Cabot Street in St. John's Newfoundland.
  • A bronze statue of the explorer is located at St. John's front of the Confederation Building.
  • A bronze statue of the explorer is located at Cape Bonavista
  • A second replica of the Matthew located at Cape Bonavista
  • John Cabot Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga, Canada is named after the explorer.


  • Evan T. Jones, Alwyn Ruddock: John Cabot and the Discovery of America, Historical Research Vol 81, Issue 212 (2008), pp. 224 254. This 15,000-word article provides the most up-to-date introduction to Cabot's life and voyages currently available.
  • Evan T. Jones, Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to North America: the Condon documents, Historical Research, 27 Aug 2009 relates primarily to the 1499 voyage of William Weston.
  • J.A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII (Hakluyt Society, Second Series, No. 120, CUP, 1962). This is the essential source-book for those interested in researching Cabot and his voyages. However, it does not contain reference to any of the documents that have been unearthed since 1962 in the Italian, Spanish and English archives.
  • R. A. Skelton, "CABOT (Caboto), JOHN (Giovanni)", Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (1966). A short and sensible introduction from a good scholar, which is freely available online. However, it is quite dated.
  • H.P. Biggar (ed.), The Precursors of Jacques Cartier, 1497-1534: a collection of documents relating to the early history of the dominion of Canada (Ottawa, 1911). Remains a useful addition to Williamson, in that it contains transcriptions of many of the original documents in their original languages - i.e. Latin, Spanish and Italian.
  • O. Hartig, "John and Sebastian Cabot", The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908). Freely available but very dated.
  • P D'Epiro, M.D. Pinkowish, "Sprezzatura: 50 ways Italian genius shaped the world" 1st Anchor Book Edition, later printing edition Oct 2 2001), pp. 179 180.


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