Though the exact details of his life and expeditions are the subject of debate, John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto, as he was known in Italian) may have developed the idea of sailing westward to reach the riches of Asia while working for a Venetian merchant. By the late 1490s, he was living in England, and gained a commission from King Henry VII to make an expedition across the northern Atlantic. He sailed from Bristol in May 1497 and made landfall in late June. The exact site of Cabot’s landing has not been definitively established; it may have been located in Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island or southern Labrador. After returning to England to report his success, Cabot departed on a second expedition in mid-1498, but is thought to have perished in a shipwreck en route.
John Cabot’s Early Life
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 (similarly to his countryman Christopher Columbus) appears to have become interested in the possibility of reaching the rich markets of Asia by sailing in a westward direction.
For the next several decades, Cabot’s exact activities are unknown; he may have spent several years in Valencia and Seville, Spain, and 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 western 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 claimed most of the New World, and that it was possible to reach Asia on a more northerly route than the one Columbus had taken.
Cabot’s First Voyage
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, Cabot sailed out of Bristol on the small ship Matthew in May 1497, with a crew of 18 men. The 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. When Cabot went ashore, he reportedly saw signs of habitation but no 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, and returned to Bristol in August 1497 with extremely favorable reports of the exploration.
Cabot’s Second Voyage
In London in late 1497, Cabot proposed to King Henry VII that he set out on a second 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 from Bristol with about five ships and 200 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. 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. 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.