Find out how Cabot helped kick-start England's transatlantic voyages of discovery
Italian explorer, John Cabot, is famed for discovering Newfoundland and was instrumental in the development of the transatlantic trade between England and the Americas.
Although not born in England, John Cabot led English ships on voyages of discovery in Tudor times. John Cabot (about 1450–98) was an experienced Italian seafarer who came to live in England during the reign of Henry VII. In 1497 he sailed west from Bristol hoping to find a shorter route to Asia, a land believed to be rich in gold, spices and other luxuries. After a month, he discovered a 'new found land', today known as Newfoundland in Canada. Cabot is credited for claiming North America for England and kick-starting a century of English transatlantic exploration.
Why did Cabot come to England?
Born in Genoa around 1450, Cabot's Italian name was Giovanni Caboto. He had read of fabulous Chinese cities in the writings of Marco Polo and wanted to see them for himself. He hoped to reach them by sailing west, across the Atlantic.
Like Christopher Columbus, Cabot found it very difficult to convince backers to pay for the ships he needed to test out his ideas about the world. After failing to persuade the royal courts of Europe, he arrived with his family in 1484, to try to persuade merchants in London and Bristol to pay for his planned voyage. Before he set off, Cabot heard that Columbus had sailed west across the Atlantic and reached land. At the time, everyone believed that this land was the Indies, or Spice Islands.
Why did King Henry VII agree to help to pay for Cabot's expedition?
If Cabot’s predictions about the new route were right, he wouldn’t be the only one to profit. King Henry VII would also take his share. Everybody believed that Cathay and Cipangu (China and Japan) were rich in gold, gems, spices and silks. If Asia had been where Cabot thought it was, it would have made England the greatest trading centre in the world for goods from the east.
What did Cabot find on his voyage?
John Cabot's ship, the Matthew , sailed from Bristol with a crew of 18 in 1497. After a month at sea, he landed and took the area in the name of King Henry VII. Cabot had reached one of the northern capes of Newfoundland. His sailors were able to catch huge numbers of cod simply by dipping baskets into the water. Cabot was rewarded with the sum of £10 by the king, for discovering a new island off the coast of China! The king would’ve been far more generous if Cabot had brought home spices.
What happened to Cabot?
In 1498, Cabot was given permission by Henry VII to take ships on a new expedition to continue west from Newfoundland. The aim was to discover Japan. Cabot set out from Bristol with 300 men in May 1498. The five ships carried supplies for a year's travelling. There is no further record of Cabot and his crews, though there is now some evidence he may have returned and died in England. His son, Sebastian (1474–1577), followed in his footsteps, exploring various parts of the world for England and Spain.
View a replica of John Cabot's ship, which is open to the public in Bristol
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By: History.com Editors
Updated: June 6, 2023 | Original: November 9, 2009
John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto, as he was known in Italy) was an Italian explorer and navigator who was among the first to think of sailing westward to reach the riches of Asia. Though the details of his life and expeditions are subject to debate, by the late 1490s he was living in England, where he gained a commission from King Henry VII to make an expedition across the Atlantic. He set sail in May 1497 and made landfall in late June, probably in modern-day Canada. After returning to England to report his success, Cabot departed on a final expedition in 1498, but was allegedly never seen again.
Giovanni Caboto was born circa 1450 in Genoa, and moved to Venice around 1461; he became a Venetian citizen in 1476. Evidence suggests that he worked as a merchant in the spice trade of the Levant, or eastern Mediterranean, and may have traveled as far as Mecca, then an important trading center for Oriental and Western goods.
He studied navigation and map-making during this period, and read the stories of Marco Polo and his adventures in the fabulous cities of Asia. Similar to his countryman Christopher Columbus , Cabot appears to have become interested in the possibility of reaching the rich gold, silk, gem and spice markets of Asia by sailing in a westward direction.
Did you know? John Cabot's landing in 1497 is generally thought to be the first European encounter with the North American continent since Leif Eriksson and the Vikings explored the area they called Vinland in the 11th century.
For the next several decades, Cabot’s exact activities are unknown; he may have been forced to leave Venice because of outstanding debts. He then spent several years in Valencia and Seville, Spain, where he worked as a maritime engineer with varying degrees of success.
Cabot may have been in Valencia in 1493, when Columbus passed through the city on his way to report to the Spanish monarchs the results of his voyage (including his mistaken belief that he had in fact reached Asia).
By late 1495, Cabot had reached Bristol, England, a port city that had served as a starting point for several previous expeditions across the North Atlantic. From there, he worked to convince the British crown that England did not have to stand aside while Spain took the lead in exploration of the New World , and that it was possible to reach Asia on a more northerly route than the one Columbus had taken.
First and Second Voyages
In 1496, King Henry VII issued letters patent to Cabot and his son, which authorized them to make a voyage of discovery and to return with goods for sale on the English market. After a first, aborted attempt in 1496, Cabot sailed out of Bristol on the small ship Matthew in May 1497, with a crew of about 18 men.
Cabot’s most successful expedition made landfall in North America on June 24; the exact location is disputed, but may have been southern Labrador, the island of Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island. Reports about their exploration vary, but when Cabot and his men went ashore, he reportedly saw signs of habitation but few if any people. He took possession of the land for King Henry, but hoisted both the English and Venetian flags.
Cabot explored the area and named various features of the region, including Cape Discovery, Island of St. John, St. George’s Cape, Trinity Islands and England’s Cape. These may correspond to modern-day places located around what became known as Cabot Strait, the 60-mile-wide channel running between southwestern Newfoundland and northern Cape Breton Island.
Like Columbus, Cabot believed that he had reached Asia’s northeast coast. He returned to Bristol in August 1497 with extremely favorable reports of the exploration. Among his discoveries was the rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks off the coast of Canada, where his crew was allegedly able to fill baskets with cod by simply dropping the baskets into the water.
John Cabot’s Final Voyage
In London in late 1497, Cabot proposed to King Henry VII that he set out on another expedition across the north Atlantic. This time, he would continue westward from his first landfall until he reached the island of Cipangu ( Japan ). In February 1498, the king issued letters patent for the second voyage, and that May Cabot set off once again from Bristol, but this time with five ships and about 300 men.
The exact fate of the expedition has not been established, but by July one of the ships had been damaged and sought anchorage in Ireland. Reportedly the other four ships continued westward. It was believed that the ships had been caught in a severe storm, and by 1499, Cabot himself was presumed to have perished at sea.
Some evidence, however, suggests that Cabot and some members of his crew may have stayed in the New World; other documents suggest that he and his crew returned to England at some point. A Spanish map from 1500 includes the northern coast of North America with English place names and the notation “the sea discovered by the English.”
What Did John Cabot Discover?
In addition to laying the groundwork for British land claims in Canada, his expeditions proved the existence of a shorter route across the northern Atlantic Ocean, which would later facilitate the establishment of other British colonies in North America .
One of John Cabot's sons, Sebastian, was also an explorer who sailed under the flags of England and Spain.
John Cabot. Royal Museums Greenwich . Who Was John Cabot? John Cabot University . John Cabot. The Canadian Encyclopedia .
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Explorer John Cabot made a British claim to land in Canada, mistaking it for Asia, during his 1497 voyage on the ship Matthew.
Who Was John Cabot?
John Cabot was a Venetian explorer and navigator known for his 1497 voyage to North America, where he claimed land in Canada for England. After setting sail in May 1498 for a return voyage to North America, he disappeared and Cabot's final days remain a mystery.
Cabot was born Giovanni Caboto around 1450 in Genoa, Italy. Cabot was the son of a spice merchant, Giulio Caboto. At age 11, the family moved from Genoa to Venice, where Cabot learned sailing and navigation from Italian seamen and merchants.
In 1497, Cabot traveled by sea from Bristol to Canada, which he mistook for Asia. Cabot made a claim to the North American land for King Henry VII of England , setting the course for England's rise to power in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Like Columbus, Cabot believed that sailing west from Europe was the shorter route to Asia. Hearing of opportunities in England, Cabot traveled there and met with King Henry VII, who gave him a grant to "seeke out, discover, and finde" new lands for England. In early May of 1497, Cabot left Bristol, England, on the Matthew , a fast and able ship weighing 50 tons, with a crew of 18 men. Cabot and his crew sailed west and north, under Cabot's belief that the route to Asia would be shorter from northern Europe than Columbus's voyage along the trade winds. On June 24, 1497, 50 days into the voyage, Cabot landed on the east coast of North America.
The precise location of Cabot’s landing is subject to controversy. Some historians believe that Cabot landed at Cape Breton Island or mainland Nova Scotia. Others believe he may have landed at Newfoundland, Labrador or even Maine. Though the Matthew 's logs are incomplete, it is believed that Cabot went ashore with a small party and claimed the land for the King of England.
In July 1497, the ship sailed for England and arrived in Bristol on August 6, 1497. Cabot was soon rewarded with a pension of £20 and the gratitude of King Henry VII.
Wife and Kids
In 1474, Cabot married a young woman named Mattea. The couple had three sons: Ludovico, Sancto and Sebastiano. Sebastiano would later follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming an explorer in his own right.
Death and Legacy
It is believed Cabot died sometime in 1499 or 1500, but his fate remains a mystery. In February 1498, Cabot was given permission to make a new voyage to North America; in May of that year, he departed from Bristol, England, with five ships and a crew of 300 men. The ships carried ample provisions and small samplings of cloth, lace points and other "trifles," suggesting an expectation of fostering trade with Indigenous peoples. En route, one ship became disabled and sailed to Ireland, while the other four ships continued on. From this point, there is only speculation as to the fate of the voyage and Cabot.
For many years, it was believed that the ships were lost at sea. More recently, however, documents have emerged that place Cabot in England in 1500, laying speculation that he and his crew actually survived the voyage. Historians have also found evidence to suggest that Cabot's expedition explored the eastern Canadian coast, and that a priest accompanying the expedition might have established a Christian settlement in Newfoundland.
- Name: John Cabot
- Birth Year: 1450
- Birth City: Genoa
- Birth Country: Italy
- Gender: Male
- Best Known For: Explorer John Cabot made a British claim to land in Canada, mistaking it for Asia, during his 1497 voyage on the ship Matthew.
- Interesting Facts
- John Cabot was inspired by the discoveries of Bartolomeu Dias and Christopher Columbus.
- Cabot's youngest son also became an explorer in his own right
- Death Year: 1500
- Sayled in this tracte so farre towarde the weste, that the Ilande of Cuba bee on my lefte hande, in manere in the same degree of longitude.
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Last Edited May 19, 2017
Early Years in Venice
John Cabot had a complex and shadowy early life. He was probably born before 1450 in Italy and was awarded Venetian citizenship in 1476, which meant he had been living there for at least fifteen years. People often signed their names in different ways at this time, and Cabot was no exception. In one 1476 document he identified himself as Zuan Chabotto, which gives a clue to his origins. It combined Zuan, the Venetian form for Giovanni, with a family name that suggested an origin somewhere on the Italian peninsula, since a Venetian would have spelled it Caboto. He had a Venetian wife, Mattea, and three sons, one of whom, Sebastian, rose to the rank of pilot-major of Spain for the Indies trade. Cabot was a merchant; Venetian records identify him as a hide trader, and in 1483 he sold a female slave in Crete. He was also a property developer in Venice and nearby Chioggia.
Cabot in Spain
In 1488, Cabot fled Venice with his family because he owed prominent people money. Where the Cabot family initially went is unknown, but by 1490 John Cabot was in Valencia, Spain, which like Venice was a city of canals. In 1492, he partnered with a Basque merchant named Gaspar Rull in a proposal to build an artificial harbour for Valencia on its Mediterranean coast. In April 1492, the project captured the enthusiasm of Fernando (Ferdinand), king of Aragon and husband of Isabel, queen of Castille, who together ruled what is now a unified Spain. The royal couple had just agreed to send Christopher Columbus on his now-famous voyage to the Americas. In the autumn of 1492, Fernando encouraged the governor-general of Valencia to find a way to finance Cabot’s harbour scheme. However, in March 1493, the council of Valencia decided it could not fund Cabot’s plan. Despite Fernando’s attempt to move the project forward that April, the scheme collapsed.
Cabot disappeared from the historical record until June 1494, when he resurfaced in another marine engineering plan dear to the Spanish monarchs. He was hired to build a fixed bridge link in Seville to its maritime centre, the island of Triana in the Guadalquivir River, which otherwise was serviced by a troublesome floating one. Though Columbus had reached the Americas, he believed he had found land on the eastern edge of Asia, and Seville had been chosen as the headquarters of what Spain imagined was a lucrative transatlantic trade route. Cabot’s assignment thus was an important one, but something went wrong. In December 1494, a group of leading citizens of Seville gathered, unhappy with Cabot’s lack of progress, given the funds he had been provided. At least one of them thought he should be banished from the city. By then, Cabot probably had left town.
Cabot in England
Following the demise of Cabot’s Seville bridge project, the marine engineer again disappeared from the historical record. In March 1496 he resurfaced, this time as the commander of a proposed westward voyage under the flag of the King of England, Henry VII. Although there is no documentary proof, during Cabot’s absence from the historical record, between April 1493 and June 1494, he could have sailed with Columbus’s second voyage to the Caribbean. Most of the names of the over 1,000 people who accompanied Columbus weren’t recorded; however, Cabot could have been among the marine engineers on the voyage’s 17 ships who were expected to construct a harbour facility in what is now Haiti. Had Cabot been present on this journey, Henry VII would have had some basis to believe the would-be Venetian explorer could make a similar voyage to the far side of the Atlantic. It would help explain why Henry VII hired Cabot, a foreigner with a problematic résumé and no known nautical expertise, to make such a journey.
On 5 March 1496, Henry awarded Cabot and his three sons a generous letters patent, a document granting them the right to explore and exploit areas unknown to Christian monarchs. The Cabots were authorized to sail to “all parts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns,” with as many as five ships, manned and equipped at their own expense. The Cabots were to “find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.” The Cabots would serve as Henry’s “vassals, and governors lieutenants and deputies” in whatever lands met the criteria of the patent, and they were given the right to “conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever towns, castles, cities and islands by them discovered.” With the letters patent, the Cabots could secure financial backing. Two payments were made in April and May 1496 to John Cabot by the House of Bardi (a family of Florentine merchants) to fund his search for “the new land,” suggesting his investors thought he was looking for more than a northern trade route to Asia.
First Voyage (1496)
Cabot’s first voyage departed Bristol, England, in 1496. Sailing westward in the north Atlantic was no easy task. The prevailing weather patterns track from west to east, and ships of Cabot’s time could scarcely sail toward the wind. No first-hand accounts of Cabot’s first attempt to sail west survive. Historians only know that it was a failure, with Cabot apparently rebuffed by stormy weather.
Second Voyage (1497)
Cabot mounted a second attempt from Bristol in May 1497, using a ship called the Matthew . It may have been a happy coincidence that its name was the English version of Cabot’s wife’s name, Mattea. There are no records of the ship’s individual crewmembers, and all the accounts of the voyage are second-hand — a remarkable lack of documentation for a voyage that would be the foundation of England’s claim to North America.
Historians have long debated exactly where Cabot explored. The most authoritative report of his journey was a letter by a London merchant named Hugh Say. Written in the winter of 1497-98, but only discovered in Spanish archives in the mid-1950s, Say’s letter (written in Spanish) was addressed to a “great admiral” in Spain who may have been Columbus.
The rough latitudes Say provided suggest Cabot made landfall around southern Labrador and northernmost Newfoundland , then worked his way southeast along the coast until he reached the Avalon Peninsula , at which point he began the journey home. Cabot led a fearful crew, with reports suggesting they never ventured more than a crossbow’s shot into the land. They saw two running figures in the woods that might have been human or animal and brought back an unstrung bow “painted with brazil,” suggesting it was decorated with red ochre by the Beothuk of Newfoundland or the Innu of Labrador. He also brought back a snare for capturing game and a needle for making nets. Cabot thought (wrongly) there might be tilled lands, written in Say’s letter as tierras labradas , which may have been the source of the name for Labrador. Say also said it was certain the land Cabot coasted was Brasil, a fabled island thought to exist somewhere west of Ireland.
Others who heard about Cabot’s voyage suggested he saw two islands, a misconception possibly resulting from the deep indentations of Newfoundland’s Conception and Trinity Bays, and arrived at the coast of East Asia. Some believed he had reached another fabled island, the Isle of Seven Cities, thought to exist in the Atlantic.
There were also reports Cabot had found an enormous new fishery. In December 1497, the Milanese ambassador to England reported hearing Cabot assert the sea was “swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone.” The fish of course were cod , and their abundance on the Grand Banks later laid the foundation for Newfoundland’s fishing industry.
Third Voyage (1498)
Henry VII rewarded Cabot with a royal pension on December 1497 and a renewed letters patent in February 1498 that gave him additional rights to help mount the next voyage. The additional rights included the ability to charter up to six ships as large as 200 tons. The voyage was again supposed to be mounted at Cabot’s expense, although the king personally invested in one participating ship. Despite reports from the 1497 voyage of masses of fish, no preparations were made to harvest them.
A flotilla of probably five ships sailed in early May. What became of it remains a mystery. Historians long presumed, based on a flawed account by the chronicler Polydore Vergil, that all the ships were lost, but at least one must have returned. A map made by Spanish cartographer Juan de la Cosa in 1500 — one of the earliest European maps to incorporate the Americas — included details of the coastline with English place names, flags and the notation “the sea discovered by the English.” The map suggests Cabot’s voyage ventured perhaps as far south as modern New England and Long Island.
Cabot’s royal pension did continue to be paid until 1499, but if he was lost on the 1498 voyage, it may only have been collected in his absence by one of his sons, or his widow, Mattea.
Despite being so poorly documented, Cabot’s 1497 voyage became the basis of English claims to North America. At the time, the westward voyages of exploration out of Bristol between 1496 and about 1506, as well as one by Sebastian Cabot around 1508, were probably considered failures. Their purpose was to secure trade opportunities with Asia, not new fishing grounds, which not even Cabot was interested in, despite praising the teeming schools. Instead of trade with Asia, Cabot and his Bristol successors found an enormous land mass blocking the way and no obvious source of wealth.
- Newfoundland and Labrador
Douglas Hunter, The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and a Lost History of Discovery (2012).
Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador A biography of John Cabot from this site sponsored by Memorial University.
Dictionary of Canadian Biography An account of John Cabot’s life from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Giovanni da verrazzano, jacques cartier.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert: Elizabethan Explorer
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John cabot and the first english expedition to america.
During Tudor times Italian explorer John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto to give him his Italian name) led English ships on voyages of discovery and is credited with prompting transatlantic trade between England and the Americas. In an attempt to find a direct route to the markets of the orient, the Italian seafarer became the first early modern European to discover North America when he claimed Newfoundland for England, mistaking it for Asia.
Who was john cabot.
The son of a spice merchant, Giovanni Caboto (meaning either coastal seaman or ‘big head’, depending on who you ask) was probably born in Genoa in 1450, although he may have been from a Venetian family. At the age of 11, his family moved to Venice where Cabot became a respected member of the community and started learning sailing and navigation from the Italian seamen and merchants. He later married a girl named Mattea (the female version of Matthew) and eventually became the father of three sons: Ludovico, Sancto and Sebastiano. (Following in his father’s footsteps Sebastiano later became an explorer in his own right and went on to the Governor of The Muscovy Company).
In 1476 Cabot officially became a Venetian citizen and, now eligible to engage in maritime trade, began trading in the eastern Mediterranean. It is whilst working as merchant trader that Cabot may have developed the idea of sailing westward to reach the rich markets of Asia. Venetian sources also contain references to Cabot being involved in house building in the city around this time.
By the late 1480s, however, Cabot appears to have gotten into financial trouble and he left Venice as an insolvent debtor. Although little is known about Cabot’s exact activities over the next few years it is believed he travelled to Valencia, where he proposed plans for improvements to the harbour, and Seville, where he was contracted to build a stone bridge over the Guadalquivir river although the project was later abandoned.
Cabot sets his sights on England
Having continued his studies in map-making and navigation and, inspired by the discoveries of Bartolomeu Dias and Christopher Columbus, Cabot attempted and failed to persuade the royal courts of Europe to pay for a planned voyage west across the Atlantic. Still expecting to reach China, his idea was to depart to the west from a northerly latitude where the longitudes are much closer together on a shorter, alternative route.
After hearing of opportunities in England, Cabot and his family arrived there around 1495 to seek funding and political support for his planned voyage. Cabot immediately set about trying to persuade merchants in the major maritime centres of London and Bristol (the second-largest seaport in England and the only to have served as a point for previous English Atlantic expeditions) to help.
Cabot receives a royal commission
In Tudor times Cathay and Cipangu (China and Japan) were believed to be rich in silks, spices, gold and gems. If Cabot’s predictions about a new route were right and Asia was where Cabot thought it was, then the whole country stood to profit as it would have made England the greatest trading centre in the world for goods from the east. On 5 March 1496 Tudor King Henry VII issued letters patent to John Cabot and his sons, authorising them to explore unknown lands, with the following charge:
‘Be it known and made manifest that we have given and granted...to our beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice...free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns, with five ships or vessels of whatsoever burden and quality they may be, and with so many and with such mariners and men as they may wish to take with them in the said ships, at their own proper costs and charges, to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.’
After a first, aborted, attempt, Cabot sailed out of Bristol on a small 70-foot long ship named Matthew in May 1497 with a crew of 18 men, sailing past Ireland and across the Atlantic. On 24 June 1497 Cabot sighted land and called it ‘New-found-land’, believing it to be Asia and claiming it in the name of King Henry VII. Although the logs for Matthew are incomplete, it is believed that John Cabot went ashore with a small party. The exact location of the landfall has long been disputed, but most believe it to be one of the northern capes of modern-day Newfoundland off the coast of Canada. Only remaining on land long enough to claim the land and fetch some fresh water, the crew did not meet any natives during their brief visit but apparently they came across some tools, nets and the remnants of a fire and were able to catch huge numbers of cod just by lowering baskets into the seawater.
In the following weeks Cabot and his crew continued to explore and chart the Canadian coastline, before turning back and sailing for England in July.
The return to England
Matthew and its crew arrived back in Bristol on 6 August 1497 to the welcome of church bells ringing out across the harbour. Cabot then rode to London to report to the King, where he was initially rewarded with the sum of £10 (equivalent to around two years’ pay for an ordinary labourer or craftsman) for discovering a new island off the coast of China – had Cabot brought back some spices then the king may have been more generous. At that point the king’s attention was increasingly being occupied by the Cornish Uprising led by Perkin Warbeck. Once his throne was secure, the king gave more thought to Cabot, who was already planning his next expedition. In September the King made an award of £2 to Cabot, followed by a pension of £20 a year in the December. The following February Cabot was given new letters patent for the voyage and to help him prepare for a second expedition.
In May 1498 Cabot set out with a fleet of four or five ships and 300 men aiming to discover Japan. Carrying ample provisions for a year’s worth of sailing, the fate of the expedition is uncertain as there is no further record of Cabot and his crews, except for one storm-damaged ship which is believed to have sought anchorage in Ireland. It is most widely thought that either the expedition perished at sea or that Cabot eventually reached North America but was unable to make the return voyage across the Atlantic.
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