John Cabot, also known by Giovanni Caboto or Juan Cabotto or Zuan Chabotto, was born in Genoa, Italy (c. 1450) and later moved to Venice where he became a citizen in 1476. He was a merchant dealing in animal skins and, after citizenship, oriental goods. He married in 1474 to wife Mattea and was father to three sons – Lewis, Sebastian and Sancio. In 1488, they fled Venice to escape huge debts and made a fresh start in Valencia and Seville for several years, although his creditors still tried to have him arrested. John then built himself a new career as a maritime engineer.
It was the Age Of Discovery
John Cabot moved to England in 1490 – where the first monarch of the House of Tudor, Henry VII, had been on the throne for five years. John Cabot and his family settled in the port of Bristol which would play a significant role for England during the age of discovery.
Few periods in history capture the imagination like the Tudor Age. It was a time of adventure and exploration, power and glory. And as the imposing portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I suggest, they were not interested, as before, in the power and glory of heaven, but in power and glory here and now on Earth, and that meant exploring every inch of it that they could.
Like Columbus, John Cabot was not only an adventurer but also an entrepreneur. He wanted to find a direct route to China and Japan. If he was successful, he would make his fortune by reducing the distance travelled to transport oriental goods to Europe and cutting out margins added by intermediaries. The letters patent granted to John Cabot and his sons by King Henry VII meant that the family and their deputies would benefit from profits of any lands occupied and trade established. King Henry VII of England would receive one-fifth of all profits made from the enterprise.
The voyage to Newfoundland
John Cabot’s most successful expedition was his second voyage in 1497, which resulted in Europe’s discovery of North America. He set sail from Bristol in a single British ship, The Matthew of Bristol, where his chief aim was to find a direct route to Asia.
Leaving on the 2nd May, he reached land across the Atlantic Ocean on the 24th June (St. John the Baptist’s Day) and explored North America’s coast at Newfoundland. He claimed the land with a flag for England, one for the Pope and one for Venice. The exact location of his landing, however, is uncertain and has been claimed be Cape Bonavista and St. John’s in Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and even Labrador and Maine.
Cabot returned to England on the 6th August after a return journey of just 15 days, which was the fastest on record. Here the English king awarded him with a £10 reward and then a pension of £20 per year for the discovery.
The ship was only 50 tons and it sailed with only eighteen to twenty men. The crew of the Matthew included Cabot and his son, Sebastian, just 12 years old at the time, as the ship’s boy, along with seamen from England, France and Italy, Bristol merchants and an Italian doctor.
(Map of Cabot’s sea route west, aboard The Matthew, from Bristol, England pass Ireland and sailing north before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. John and Sebastian Cabot’s voyage ran roughly parallel to the route taken by Christopher Columbus)
Video 1: Tom Cunliffe explores John Cabot’s Voyage on The Matthew
Tom Cunliffe explains: “Britain is an island, surrounded by a cold and unforgiving sea. Britain needed brave men, willing to adventure out into the unknown. And she needed good boats to take them there. Now, I am sailing on The Matthew. The ship that discovered North America and launched Britain on a maritime adventure - the like of which, the world had never seen.
I’ve come to Bristol to see this remarkable boat. Over 500 years ago, 18 men cramped in here with explorer and map maker John Cabot to set sail on a voyage that many of the onlookers must have thought was suicidal.
The year was 1497, only five years earlier Columbus had discovered the islands of the Caribbean. But his friend, John Cabot, was convinced he could find an alternative route to the East, and make a fortune of his own. Instead, Cabot discovered North America and changed the course of British and World History forever.
[In Bristol] This is an exact replica of The Matthew. The craft he chose for their seemingly impossible mission. A common cargo ship. She was more used to coastal trading than crossing oceans. Only 78 feet long. She feels a tiny vessel for such a momentous journey into the unknown. But what she lacked in space and sophistication she more than made up for in strength and reliability. And in 1497, she was the best boat for the job.
So crowded in, with no real idea of where they were going or how long they would be at sea, Cabot and his crew of 18 men pushed off into the abyss.
I want to know more about this boat that changed the world, and sail her for myself. In particular, I want to see the world as a 15th-century sailor would have understood it. I want to get inside their heads, and find out what exactly what they thought they were doing. And what it must have been like to sail beyond the limits of the known world in this tiny little ship.
But to understand The Matthew and her voyage, we need to go back 200 years to when Marco Polo made a momentous overland trip to Asia. His book, The Marvels of the World, talks of roofs - tiled with gold, chests – filled with pearls, and spices – by the sack load.
As Europe emerged from the uncertainties of the Medieval Period, curiosity about the world grew, and John Cabot was given a copy of the book by non-other than the explorer Christopher Columbus. And Polo’s tales of Eastern riches convinced him that he too, could make his fortune and secure a name for himself.
But the problem was getting there. Hardline Ottomans controlled the trade routes. And for a Christian explorer, a journey overland was more likely to end in a nasty death than untold riches.
If Cabot was to make his fortune, he needed to find another way - across the sea.
[Church bells ringing] In the 15th century, understanding of the world’s oceans was extremely limited, and map-making was the preserve of the monasteries. The resulting world view, more superstition than science, can be seen in all its glorious confusion here at Hereford Cathedral - on the famous Mappa Mundi.
The map bears almost no relationship to the round world we now know. But is based on myths and legend. Drawn up by Monks, it only shows how they imagined distance lands, with no proper understanding of where they really were. And for many people, the belief was that beyond the edge of a map like this lay untold horrors. But I for one, believe that Medieval Seamen had a more sophisticated sense of the shape of our world.
As children, we were all shown images of Medieval Seamen sailing over the edge of a flat earth, and plunging down to destruction with expressions of despair. Well, from the Medieval Seamens’ point-of-view that was a load of absolute tosh. They never thought that at all. You see, they knew that the world was round. When you see a ship coming over the horizon, the first thing you see is the top sails. As she comes closer, the hull comes up. First, she’s hull-down. Then, she’s hull-up. That’s the old phrase, and it is nothing to do with her being too far away to see. It’s to do with her coming up over the edge of the world. They knew that full well. They also knew when they looked at the horizon, they could see a tiny bit of curvature on it. It all stacked up.
For explorers to succeed, they needed maps based on sound science that backed up the observations of sailormen. And towards the end of the 15th century, just such maps were appearing. Hungry for knowledge, scholars were scouring library shelves and discovering that The Greeks and Romans had known a lot more about the world than they did. But for explorers, one work stood out – Ptolemy. The great Roman mathematician had already mapped most of Europe and Asia. And when his maps were printed for the first time in 1477, they caused a sensation. The maps showed the extent of the known world. A world that started in Spain and ended in China. For anyone wanting to find a shortcut to the riches of the East, the maps offered a tantalising idea – an idea that changing the world forever.
[Holding a piece of paper with a map] Here’s a flat world map. If you are going to put it on a piece of paper, it is the only way you are going to do it really. But if you are a sailor, or a world traveller, or perhaps a scholar who understands that the world is round, all you got to do is that [folds the paper round, to make the world round] and suddenly, you can go the other way. There is another route altogether, and it goes across this unknown ocean, which is yet, nobody has mapped or even sailed across.
The idea was brilliantly simple. If Cabot was right, he’d of found a shortcut to the treasures of the East. But it was a huge gamble, and to prove his point he’d need to find a wealthy backer willing to pay for the boat and men for the voyage.
So Cabot arrived here in Bristol to bring his plan to life. And I’ve come here to meet Dr Evan Jones who has spent years studying Cabot’s voyage. I want to ask him more about the man behind this historic journey.”
Dr Evan Jones: “Well Cabot’s proper name is Juan Chabboto. He was a Vancian merchant, but by 1489 he’d gotten into trouble, and he left Venice as an insolvent debtor, then to be pursued by his creditors in Spain. He goes to Valencia, and he, first of all, proposes he is going to build a new harbour there, but he doesn’t get funding for that, so he moves on with his creditors just behind him. Moves on to Seville. There, he proposes building a bridge over the Guadalquivir river. But, the whole thing falls through, and it seems the only after that, around 1494/1495 he starts getting this new idea. What he is going to do is lead this expedition across the Atlantic. So first of all he tries to persuade people in Seville to fund it. Doesn’t get any joy. He moves onto Lisbon, tries to persuade the Portuguese to fund it, but again no success. It’s only after that, in 1495, that he comes to London and tries to get backing there from Henry VII and his court.”
Tom: “Turned down all over Europe, Cabot had finely found a willing patron in Henry VII. A monarch, desperate to play colonial catch-up with Spain and Portugal. He immediately issued Cabot with a charter, giving him the power to claim whatever land he found as British.
[Reading the charter] 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.
Well that’s pretty non-PC these days, what does it mean?”
Evan: “It means, wherever Cabot went with his ship, as long as territories hadn’t been found by Christians, which in practice meant the Spanish or the Portuguese, anything that is non-Christian that’s fair game, these are heathens, you can do what you want.”
Tom: “Cabot had his theory, he had a royal backer, what he needed now was a boat.
When Cabot walked the Bristol waterfront, with the King’s charter in one hand and the King’s schilling in the other, he was looking for a ship. A ship, capable of a voyage of indeterminate length through some of the roughest seas in the known world. When he saw The Matthew, he knew he had found her.
As an Italian, Cabot would have recognised The Matthew’s lines immediately. She was a caravel. A type of cargo ship popular in Southern Europe and Portugal. But as well as carrying cargo, the caravel was starting to make a name for herself in the world of exploration. Two of the three boats Columbus sailed to the Caribbean five years earlier were caravels. And by the standards of the 15th century, they were considered excellent sailing vessels. Tough, versatile and seaworthy. But judging by today’s thinking, The Matthew leaves a lot to be desired.
Looking around with a seaman’s eye, I can see that this vessel has some serious limitations. For a start, she is not going to be able to sail properly to windward in our terms. That means she’ll go across the wind either way and down-wind. And if the wind is coming from where you want to go, then tough luck mate, you’ll have to wait.
And for her crew, 18 men assembled from the dockside. A ragged tag mixture of able seamen, fortune hunters, a priest and a cook. It was going to be an uncomfortable ride because she is built like a barrel with a gently rounded hull designed to take the ground in rivers and harbours. At sea though, that means she’ll roll from side-to-side - a sickly motion in any sort of a swell.
But she gives a feeling of being strong and reliable. Even the rig feels pretty bulletproof actually. And for the guys going off across the Western ocean – that was probably the single most important thing.
When the crew stepped on this boat, they may not all have been convinced by Cabot’s theories, but the boat certainly looked up to the job.”
His last adventure
In May 1498, John Cabot set out on a further voyage with a fleet of four or five ships, aiming to discover Japan. While the fate of the expedition is uncertain and Cabot’s final days remain a mystery; it is thought that they eventually reached North America but never managed to make the return voyage across the Atlantic.
After John’s death, his son Sebastian Cabot followed in his father’s footsteps as an explorer, seeking the Northwest Passage through North America for England and sailed to South America for Spain. Eventually, he set sail in search of silver along Argentina’s Rio de la Plata.
Video 2: Tom Cunliffe explores John Cabot’s Voyage on The Matthew
Tom Cunliffe explains: “So Cabot has got his charter, he’s got his money, and he’s got his men - and now, we’re going to go to sea on The Matthew and find out what it really felt like out there.
Seeing her out in the water for the first time, it’s obvious that she is definitely not built for speed. But she feels like an honest boat, and she is all Cabot had, and for better or worse - from now on his fate and The Mathew’s would be inextricably linked.
So in May 1497, Cabot and his men pushed off into the unknown. And with good weather ahead of them, the crew hoisted sail in the hope of catching a fair wind westward.
[On the deck of The Matthew]
Up here now, the guys are preparing the foresail for hoisting. There’s something really interesting about this. A) it’s taking half a dozen guys to hoist what is quite a small sail. Probably always was like that - this is a labour-intensive rig and there were plenty of men available. But the second thing that is really interesting is that the sail is being hoisted from the deck.
Modern square-riggers tend to keep their yards permanently aloft. But on The Matthew, the yards are stored on deck. The sails are prepared down there, and then the whole shooting match is hoisted up the mast.
It’s tough, heavy work. But with a new crew keen to get going and put on a good show for their captain, they’d have been no shortage of willing hands - motivated to ring every knot of speed from their boat.
Once the sails were set, The Matthew would be hoping for strong easterly winds. Because of her rig, her progress is limited to sailing with the breeze. If the weather was coming from the wrong direction, the crew would be struggling to make any headway.
Even more frustrating would be no wind at all. That’s how the sea deals with you very often, looking up aloft at these sails slashing against the mast - how many times have I sat mid-ocean looking at that? Just praying for God to send me some wind. It absolutely drives you nuts. Everything is crashing and banging about because there are always waves slopping around - leftover from the last bit of breeze that you had. The sea is never quiet, the sails are banging, the ropes are chafing, you can’t get a moment’s sleep. Plus you’re going nowhere. And actually, if you are trying to get to Newfoundland or Nova Scotia across the North Atlantic, you are going backwards at 20 miles a day because that is where the current is taking you. So that is the sort of frustration and sheer agony that Cabot must have gone through when his ship was short of a breeze.
That agony would have been felt throughout the crew. And to make matters worse, compared to today’s comfort on the high seas, living conditions would have been pretty gruesome. And Rob Salvage who looks after this perfect replica of The Matthew has a good idea of what life was like.
Rob Salvage: “We have these canvas cots where we sleep now very basic, but actually it wouldn’t have been like this. This would have been chocked full of stores and provisions. There would have been barrels, lots of sacks of grains and some root vegetables they would have brought - everything they needed for the voyage, and certainly, the foodstuff would have been down here."
Tom: “They really didn’t live down here at all?”
Rob Salvage: “No I don’t think so, they would have lived mostly on deck. They would have been working hard so they would have all been up on deck for many hours at a time, they would have been getting exhausted. Once they got on this ship, and once they were up-and-running, and once they got into the routine of flattening things down, going through some heavy weather, drying out, getting things sorted out, mending - that routine of daily life on board would have been all they would have thought about."
Tom: “Working in ships night and day, the men would need proper rest. But with the only real cabin of the ship taken by Cabot, the ship’s master and a priest, the sleeping arrangements would have been far from comfortable. And not only that, but the crew would have been bedding down with the livestock.
As you can see, there’s enough space for me up here - I could doss down I suppose on a quiet night, but if I had ten or a dozen shipmates it would be no joke at all. But that is how it was. You can’t imagine really, how these chaps managed to survive with this. There was absolutely no comfort at all. Let alone luxury.
If the sleeping quarters were this rough, I wasn’t holding out too much hope for the food. Bill Jones, The Matthew’s chef, has researched they’d have taken on the voyage. He’s preparing me a dish that is typical to what they would have tucked into five hundred years ago. What’s cooking Bill?"
Bill Jones: “Well I’ve got you a bit of gruel, a bit of Medieval gruel. That will be nice, won’t it?"
Tom: "I don’t know, I don’t like the sound of that. What’s in it?
Made from oat grains called groats, the ships cook would have added salt and anything else he had to hand. Stirring the whole lot into a savoury mush.
They needed ingredients that would keep for months, and in those days there wasn’t much around."
Bill: “Well of course that hadn’t discovered a lot of ingredients that we use. They didn’t have potatoes, they didn’t have tomatoes, they didn’t have chillis, capsicums and things like that. But they did have spices because they had got them from the Middle East. Things like cloves, pepper they used a lot of."
Tom: "Anything to disguise the taste of the bland ingredients."
Bill Jones: "They liked sweet stuff as well as savoury. A lot of honey was used in cooking."
Tom: "Today, The Matthew is fitted with a modern galley, complete with gas and running water. But back in 1497, cooking facilities would have been far more basic."
Bill: "They would have cooked everything on deck, and they would have had an open fire in what was called a firebox, which was a metal box that they would have had the fire in. So it would have been on the open deck, they would have had some cover if it was bad weather - everything would be done outside."
Tom: "The proof is in the porridge you might say. I’ve eaten some dire concoctions on long voyages before, so I wonder how I’ll fair this time? Well, it’s lunchtime, and despite Bill’s assurances, non of the hands up there seem to be up for having the real thing. Here goes...I’ve never had anything quite like that in my life. In texture, it’s a cross between a risotto and porridge, but in taste - it tastes great. Not too salty. I reckon if the lads ate this all the way across the Atlantic, they would have arrived well-fed, happy, and as long as the chef kept his duties going morale would have been sky high.
Keeping morale up would have been crucial on a small boat like The Matthew. When the monotony and uncertainty could drive even a season sailor round the bend.
With all the preparation in the world they really were playing a waiting game. Day after day, it would be the same old horizon, an unchanged sea, a familiar cloud pattern, and the constant motion of this lumbering boat.
[on The Matthew] These guys most have been sat mid-ocean just rolling about like this.
My first lesson in 15th-century seamanship is definitely patience, and I’m slowly beginning to understand how this ship sails.
So here we are, the guys wrestling to get the last tiniest little fraction of a knot out of the vessel - as they are taking an inch or two on the sheet here, slacking away on a brace, doing their level best to see what they can get out of the boat. And actually what they are getting is about a knot and a half. What’s that? A mile and a half an hour. You see in landman’s terms that is nothing. But look at it like this, a day at sea is 24 hours, and a knot and a half in 24 hours is 36 miles.
And that is how The Matthew crossed The Atlantic. On a bad day, she’d do 36 miles. On a good day, 100 plus. And inch by inch, mile by mile - she’d clawed her way across an unknown ocean.
When I am sailing an ocean myself I always like to show our progress on the chart to keep morale up. But The Matthew didn’t have a chart, because nobody knew where they were going. So just how did Cabot and his crew record The Matthew’s progress?
This is a traverse board. This is a method for recording the distances they were running and the courses they were steering. So every half hour they would have been putting a peg in one of the concentric rings on the board for direction, and putting a peg in the board down here for speed. There are eight rows of holes for potential one to eight(ish) knots. Many of the guys on the ship wouldn’t have been able to read or write, except for guys like Cabot, maybe the priest, educated people - and so the rest of the watchers and crew, would have been recording that critical information of course and speed on this board.
As The Matthew sailed West, the mood must have grown tenser by the day. 18 tough Bristol seamen, and one increasingly nervous Italian who had sold them his wild theory about the land to the West. But then, somebody would have given the shout that got Cabot off the hook, and makes every navigator’s heart soar...“Land ahoy!”.
Landfall after an ocean passage in a small sailing boat is an absolutely magical experience. You’re a long time out there. It might be for two weeks but it could easily be five or six. Sometimes more for guys like Cabot. They weren’t even sure where they were going to get to until they arrived. Finally, he sees a coast like that [looking at Newfoundland], and he thinks to himself have I made it? Is this it? Is this where I make my name? He wasn’t to know. But what he did know was the wind was perhaps dying on him like this, so often does at the end of the day when close to land. He could settle down, let the boat drift, let her roll. Be at peace, knowing at least for now, he’s arrived somewhere new.
After 2000 miles, a month at sea, The Matthew arrived somewhere that is now known as Eastern Canada. They then sailed along the coast only to find an endless wilderness that stretched out for miles in either direction. They ventured ashore just once, but there was no sign of the Native Americans whose lives would ultimately be so disaster affected by the discovery.
Cabot decided to call it Newfoundland, a name which still stands today. With suppliers running out, he still wanted to make sure he could make it back to Britain with the triumph news that he discovered a new continent. So just after three days, the order was given to bring the ship around. This boat, The Matthew, has bravely brought them all this way and now they were ready to return home. Having claimed what would become North America for Britain, as Columbus had claimed the Caribbean for Spain.
By the time Cabot and his crew got back to Bristol, I wondered just what their mood would have been? They’d discovered the country that would one day be Britain’s most influential colony. But they weren’t exactly weighed down by the spices, gold and silver Cabot had promised.
Well, I’ve been for a sail on The Matthew. I’ve stepped off her and have some incline now to what it must have been like to cross The Atlantic on her. But, he didn’t come home ladened with the pearls of the Orient did he? I wonder if by the standards of his day if the voyage was considered a bit of a damp squib?"
Dr Evan Jones: “Well yes. As you say, they were looking for China, they came back and all they found was North America. I’m mean what use was that? So, it didn’t make any money at the time but by the end of the 16th century the British Empire was being founded, the voyage began to be recognised as England’s first attempt to establish a maritime empire. Later on, 16th century, 17th-century people became very interested in these voyages as an example of that.
And today, we’re standing here by Cabot Tower. This was built in 1897, just one of the monuments built to celebrate what at that time was seen as a great imperial achievement."
Tom: “Looking out over the harbour from which The Matthew set sail, today Cabot Tower is only one of the landmarks commemorating Bristol’s favourite adopted son.
But what happened to Cabot?
Having found the land he wanted to learn more about this great continent to the west and set out on another far bigger expedition. This time, he was never heard of again.
But his discovery was the beginning of a new era, and it was The Matthew that took him there. This boat opened the door to an unknown continent. A voyage showed Britain a world beyond her shores and started a thirst for knowledge and exploration that would change this island and the people that live here forever."
Today, it’s difficult to avoid John Cabot, from paintings and statues of the explorer and Cabot Tower, built for the 400th anniversary, to replicas of The Matthew, plus street names, parks and squares. Like our company, many other organisations share the name John Cabot, such as a large shopping area in the centre of Bristol called Cabot Circus, high-tech school, John Cabot Academy, American university based in Rome, John Cabot University, and there are even golf courses named in celebration of the Italian explorer.
Recently, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol. As far as we know John Cabot had no connection whatsoever with the Atlantic/African slave trade, which Bristol only became involved with in the late 17th century – almost 200 years after his death.
Statues of Christopher Columbus have also been dismounted across the North America for his violent treatment of the Indigenous communities he encountered. There is also no record that John Cabot even met any native American people, let alone slaughtered them. Unlike Spain and Portugal, after 1497 England didn’t then follow through with the exploration of America until the 1600s.
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