Facts and Brief Biography of the Navigator and Explorer John Cabot

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John Cabot is famed for discovering Newfoundland

John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto in Italian, Zuan Chabotto in Venetian) was an Italian explorer and navigator commissioned by Henry VII of England to explore the coast of North America. He was the first European to reach the coast of North America since the Norse visits to Vinland in the XI century.

To mark the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s expedition, both the Canadian and British governments elected Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland as representing Cabot’s first landing site.

Several hypotheses have been formulated on the origins of Caboto, some of which are not supported by historical data. Son of Giulio or Egidio, it is known that on March 28, 1476, he received Venetian citizenship for having lived there for fifteen years. The Spanish ambassador in England, Pedro de Ayala, in a report of 1498 defines him as “Genoese like Columbus”.

Related article: The Roman Expeditions of the Nile River

The Venetian Republic was not interested in the exploration of oceanic trade routes, preferring to focus on the trade in the Mediterranean Sea and along the northern European routes (Flanders, Baltic), which led Caboto to move to Valencia, where he directed the work of enlarging the port commissioned by King Ferdinand II of Aragon, which, however, was blocked in 1493 due to a serious financial crisis. In that same year, Christopher Columbus returned from his first transatlantic voyage. Caboto realized that his compatriot had not reached the Far East and proposed to Ferdinand II and Isabella of Castile to entrust him with an exploratory voyage along a more northerly route.

The house of Giovanni Caboto in Venice
The house of Giovanni Caboto in Venice

Having received a refusal, he moved in 1496 to England, to convince King Henry VII to support his project. The king, who had already missed the opportunity to have Christopher Columbus at his service, hastened to grant permission to Giovanni Caboto and welcomed his travel project with letters patent, a published written order issued by the monarch, dated March 5, 1496. An expedition of five ships was organized, armed at Caboto’s expense, but financed mainly by the Welsh merchant Richard Ameryk and the Florentine bankers Bardi.

However, for reasons still to be clarified, on May 20, 1497, sailed only one of them, the Matthew, ship of fifty tons with a crew of eighteen men: most likely, also embarked his son Sebastian.

On June 24, 1497, John landed on the island of Cape Breton and touched Nova Scotia, sighting the island of Newfoundland and, under the illusion of having touched the North Eastern extremity of Asia, he took possession in the name of Henry VII. On the newly discovered land, Caboto planted the English and papal flags. According to some sources was raised the banner of the Cross of St. George and according to others also that of the Republic of Venice. On August 6, after an absence of about three months, Matthew returned to Bristol and the news of the new discoveries was welcomed in England with great jubilation even among the population. Henry VII granted to the discoverer a prize of ten pounds and later an annual pension of twenty pounds.

Route of John Cabot’s 1497 voyage on the Matthew of Bristol posited by Jones and Condon: Evan T. Jones and Margaret M. Condon, Cabot and Bristol’s Age of Discovery: The Bristol Discovery Voyages 1480-1508

The following year Henry VII, with letters patent of February 3, 1498, authorized Giovanni Caboto to prepare an expedition of six ships and at least two hundred men of the crew, in order to colonize the discovered lands and continue the search for other lands, in the hope of reaching the incredible Cipangu (today Japan). The ships set sail in the summer of 1498: with his son Sebastian, Cabot probably touched the Labrador and coasted southern Greenland. It is not certain what happened to this expedition, nor if Giovanni Caboto returned alive. If his son Sebastian was actually with him, it is clear that at least someone from that expedition came back: Sebastian would also have had a great career as a navigator.

There are several hypotheses. According to one of them, most of his fleet would have been shipwrecked in the Atlantic, and only one ship was saved with a few survivors. Another argues that after reaching the coast of Labrador, the floating ice would have forced the ships to bend to the south, even to Cape Hatteras. From here on they would have returned to England in the autumn of the same year and Giovanni Caboto would have died during the journey or more likely shortly after the return. Another hypothesis is that pursuing the hypothetical passage north to Japan, Caboto would have reached Greenland, where the crew would have mutinied for the unbearable cold, forcing him to bend to the south, with uncertain results. Finally, according to some historians, Caboto would have reached the coast of North America and would have begun to proceed in a south-westerly direction as planned. This would be supported by the fact that three years later, in 1501, the explorer Gaspar Corte-Real received from the natives of North America, with whom he had come into contact, some objects, probably belonged to the men of Caboto’s expedition.

Despite the mysterious end of the 1498 expedition and the blocking of further English explorations during the reign of Henry VII, Giovanni Caboto’s expedition laid the foundation for the future English colonization of North America. Moreover, Giovanni Caboto’s explorations provided European geographers with the first scientific indications about the vastness of the American continent and stimulated the search for a north-west passage to the Far East.


Last Updated on 2022/01/11

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