Although not born in England, both John and Sebastian 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, gems and other luxuries. After a month, he discovered an unknown land – he called it 'new found land', today still known as Newfoundland in Canada. His son, Sebastian Cabot, may also have been on this voyage.
Find out more about John Cabot's ship the Matthew.
Why did John Cabot come to England?
Probably born in Genoa around 1450, and later a citizen of Venice, 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, who also planned to sail west, Cabot found it very difficult to convince rich 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 decided to come to England. He arrived with his family in 1484, to try to persuade merchants in Bristol to pay for his planned voyage. Before his voyage set off, Cabot heard the news 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 was proved right about the new route, he would not be the only one to become rich. The king 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.
The king wrote that he gave his permission to his
well-beloved John Cabot... to seeke out, discover and finde whatsoever isles, countries, regions or provinces... which before this time have been unknown to all Christians.
What did Cabot find on his voyage?
John Cabot's ship, the Mathew, sailed from Bristol with a crew of eighteen in 1497. After a month at sea, he landed and took the area in the name of King Henry VII. The king had agreed to his voyage and helped to pay for it. Cabot had landed on 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 have been far more generous if Cabot had brought home spices.
How did John Cabot die?
In 1498, John Cabot was given permission by Henry VII to take ships on a new expedition to continue west from the point he had reached on his first voyage. The aim was to discover Japan. Cabot made a visit to Spain and Portugal to try to recruit men who had sailed with Columbus, but without much success. He set out from Bristol with 300 men in May 1498. The five ships carried supplies for a year's travelling. Cabot and his crews were never heard of again.