Who was John Cabot?

The name of our company, John Cabot®, links us with the spirit of the tireless search to establish communication links with others and to explore new frontiers using the latest technology. Read on to find out more about the explorer.
Statue of John Cabot in Bristol

From the earliest days of the Tudor period to links with the present day, this is the story of John Cabot

Personal Life           1497 Voyage

John Cabot (c. 1450 – c. 1500) was an Italian ocean explorer and navigator. He represented England by the authority of King Henry VII and was granted letters patent in 1496 to look for lands to the north, east and west. From 1496 to 1498 — less than a decade after Christopher Columbus — he set sail three times for the New World. He is most known for his 1497 voyage to North America, where he claimed land in Canada for England in the earliest known European exploration of North America’s coast and became one of the most famous Italian explorers in history.

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.

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.

The entrepreneur

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.

A map of John Cabot's sea route voyage on the Matthew to Newfoundland
(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)

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.

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.


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The Matthew Ship, Bristol - side shot

John Cabot Statue, Bristol - Front

The ship The Matthew sailing

Photo from Inside The Matthew

The Matthew's Ship Mast

The Matthew Moored

John Cabot Statue Bristol - front shot

The Matthew Ship Moored in Bristol

John Cabot statue Bristol - side shot

Video: Tom Cunliffe explores John Cabot’s Voyage on The Matthew

Video Transcript

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. Hard line Ottomans controlled the trade routes. And for a Christian explorer, a journey over land 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 bares 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 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 are 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 sailor men. 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 change 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 sea worthy. But judged 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 rigg 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.”