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John Cabot

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Cabot, JOHN (GIOVANNI CABOTA or GABOTA), a celebrated navigator and the discoverer of the American mainland, b. in the first half of the fifteenth century at Genoa; date of death unknown. In 1461 he went to Venice and, after living there fifteen years, the prescribed residence for obtaining citizenship, was naturalized, March 28, 1476. For this reason he is generally called a Venetian. On his commercial journeys, which took him to the shores of Arabia, he heard of the countries rich in spices which lay to the far East. This may have led him to conceive the plan of a great voyage of discovery. About 1490 he went to England with his three sons, Ludovico, Sebastiano, and Sancto, and settled there as an experienced seaman. He may have inspired the expedition that sailed from Bristol in 1491 to find the fabulous Isles of the West. When the success of Christopher Columbus became known, Cabot acquainted himself most carefully with the theories and opinions of his countryman, and finally offered to do for England what Columbus had done for Spain. By letters patent of March 5, 1496, King Henry VII granted Cabot and his three sons the right to seek islands and countries of the heathen towards the west, east, and north, with five ships under the English flag. Cabot began his preparations for the voyage at once and sailed from Bristol early in May, 1497, on the ship Matthew, with eighteen men, among whom may have been his son Sebastian. After sailing for fifty days, mainly in a westerly direction, they reached the American mainland, June 24, 1497, that is, before Columbus. According to the chart of Sebastian Cabot (1544), the land was in the vicinity of Cape Breton Island. Some investigators, however, assert that this entry of the younger Cabot is a falsification to support the English claim to possession, and they place the spot where the landing was made in Labrador. On June 26 Cabot began his return voyage; towards the end of July or the first week of August he reached England, where he received a warm welcome. Letters patent of February 3, 1498, empowered him to undertake a second expedition. This was made up of five ships and three hundred men, and set sail some time before July 25, 1498. They first went north, apparently as far as 67° N. lat.; drifting ice forced them to turn, and they sailed along the east coast of America past Newfoundland, which Cabot named Bacallaos, as far as the latitude of Cape Hatteras, as is learned from the chart of Juan de la Cosa (1500). No further information has been preserved of Cabot, even as to his return from this expedition. Nevertheless, existing data, although scanty, suffice to assure John Cabot. a place among the greatest discoverers.

SEBASTIAN, son of John Cabot, b. probably in Venice c. 1474; d. 1557, or soon after. As already stated, he may have taken part in the first expedition of his father. In 1512 he was in the employ of Henry VIII of England as cartographer; in the same year he accompanied Willoughby to Spain, where he received the rank of Captain from King Ferdinand V. After Ferdinand’s death he returned to England, where, in 1517, he tried in vain to win the favor of Vice-Admiral Perte for a new expedition. In 1522, although once more in the employ of Spain and holding the rank of pilot-major, he secretly’ offered his services to Venice, undertaking to find the northwest passage to China. Finally he received the rank of captain general from Spain, and was entrusted, March 4, 1525, with the command of a fleet which was to find Tarshish, Ophir, and the far eastern country of Cathay, and also to discover the way to the Moluccas. The expedition consisted of three ships with 150 men, and set sail from Cadiz, April 5, 1526, but only went as far as the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. Cabot here went ashore and left behind his companions, Francisco de Rojas, Martin Mendez, and Miguel de Rodas, with whom he had quarrelled; he explored the Parana. River as far as its junction with the Paraguay, and built two forts. In August, 1530, he returned to Spain, where he was at once indicted for his conduct towards his fellow-commanders and his lack of success, and was condemned, February 1, 1532, to a banishment of two years to Oran in Africa. After a year he was pardoned and went to Seville; he remained pilot-major of Spain until 1547, when, without losing either the title or the pension, he left Spain and returned to England, where he received a salary with the title of great pilot. In the year 1553 Charles V made unsuccessful attempts to win him back. In the meantime Cabot had reopened negotiations with Venice, but he reached no agreement with that city. After this he aided both with information and advice the expedition of Willoughby and Chancellor, was made life-governor of the “Company of Merchant Adventurers”, and equipped (1557) the expedition of Borough. After this, nothing more is heard of him; he probably died soon afterwards.

The account of his journeys written by himself has been lost. All that remains of his personal work is a map of the world drawn in 1544; one copy of this was found in Bavaria, and is still preserved in the National Library at Paris. This map is especially important for the light it throws on the first journey of his father. The character of Sebastian Cabot does not leave a favorable impression; restless and unscrupulous, he busied himself with the most varied projects, and was ready to enter into relations with any country from which he might hope to gain the realization of his schemes. The country most indebted to him is England, where he roused enthusiasm for great undertakings; with his father he laid the foundation of the English supremacy at sea.

The accounts of the journeys of John and Sebastian Cabot were collected by Richard Hakluyt in his work “The Principal Navigations, Voyages” etc., and have been recently published in an extra series of the Hakluyt Society (Glasgow, 1904), VII, 141-158. In the same series appears “Ordinances, Instructions, and Advertisements of and for the Direction of the intended. Voyage for Cathay, compiled, made and delivered by Sebastian Cabota” (Glasgow, 1903), II, 195-205. Cabot’s picture, apparently by Holbein, appears on page 240 of this latter volume.


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