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John Cabot

John Cabot (also known as Giovanni Caboto) was born in Geona, Italy during the age of exploration. No one really knows when Cabot was born but people are guessing somewhere in the mid 1500s. The age of exploration was a period in time when Europe's people started exploring the Americas and other places. John Cabot's family moved to Venice, Italy. (Venice was a famous trading port). Many of the people who lived in Venice were famous explorers. As Cabot grew up, he seemed to follow their example. Cabot became a mapmaker and a captain of a trading ship.

John Cabot went on his most famous voyage because of the Turk's taxes. The Turks were wealthy people with a lot of land. They taxed people who were coming back from China with goods such as silks and spices. The goods were expensive to buy so Cabot wanted to get them cheaper by sailing across the ocean and finding a northwest passage. Cabot was also planning to find some riches for himself.

King Henry VII gave Cabot permission to go test out his theory about the Northwest Passage. Cabot's ship was called the "Matthew." The Matthew was an old trading ship and had mice, rats, and roaches. The Matthew was used for trading tar and wool a long time ago so the ship smelled like it. Cabot set foot on land on June 24, 1497. Cabot planted a flag for the English but he was also proud for his homeland, Venice, so he planted a flag for them also. Cabot thought that he and his crew were in China, but he was really on an island near southern Canada. No one knows specifically where Cabot landed but some people think he claimed land in Maine and then sailed further up into Canada. After Cabot claimed the land, he wanted to go on, but they did not have enough supplies. After that, he sailed back to Europe.

Cabot helped discover the U.S. because he was the first person to set foot on Canada (or Maine) for the English. He gave people the knowledge to look at the globe in a different way, and found new ways to travel around the world. John Cabot died in 1498. When Cabot went on his second voyage, he was never found or heard from again. It is a fair chance that Cabot died. Some people think that the Spanish captured Cabot, along with his crew. They think this because the Spanish knew of the routes that Cabot had sailed--journeys that the Spanish had never made. Another theory is that the ship sank and everyone drowned.

After being turned down by the monarchs of Spain and Portugal, Cabot was granted a charter to explore by Henry VII of England. He was given one small ship less than 70 feet long called the Matthew and a crew of 18 men. The expedition set sail from Bristol, England, on [May 2, 1497]. His heading was farther north than the Columbus routes and well out of the way of Spanish-held territories. Five weeks later on June 24, his crew sighted land somewhere in Newfoundland. Even though the distance was shorter than Columbus' was, it took longer because the winds were not as favourable up in the north. It was the first documented landing in Newfoundland since the Viking voyages centuries before. Cabot was convinced he would found an island off the coast of Asia and he named the island "new found land." He returned to England on August 6, 1497. Although he brought no spices or treasure back with him, he was able to map out the first details of the North American coast. King Henry approved a second voyage and financed one ship. Merchants hoping to cash in on the new route to the Orient financed four other ships. In May 1498, the five and never returned. Ships set sail. One returned for repairs and the other four, with John Cabot as captain, disappeared.

John Cabot's son, Sebastian, was an accomplished mapmaker and navigator. In 1508 with King Henry VII's support, he set sail to discover western lands. He took a northern route looking for a strait to take him to the Orient. When his crew threatened mutiny, Sebastian headed back to England. He was certain he had found a northwest passage to the East. On the way back, he explored the coast of North America. He arrived in England in 1509 only to find King Henry VII had died and Henry VIII was in power. The new king was not as supportive of Cabot's exploration as his predecessor was. So young Sebastian moved to Spain and secured the Spanish ruler's support to find an easier and safer strait than Magellan's way. In 1526, he set sail with four ships. He spent four years sailing off the east coast of South America. He did not find a better passage around the continent and returned to Spain in 1530 in disgrace. He eventually returned to England and lived as a mapmaker until his death in 1557.

On 24 June land was sighted, which he believed to be part of the dominions of the Grand Chain, but which was really the coast of Labrador. This shore he coasted for 300 leagues, finding no evidences of human habitation, and then set sail for home, reaching Bristol in August. At this time, owing mainly to the discoveries of Columbus, the theory that the earth is a sphere had gained general acceptance among advanced thinkers, and it was believed that the shortest route to the Indies lay westward. Cabot's discovery therefore caused much excitement among the adventurous spirits of the day, and on 3 Feb., 1498, the king issued a special charter, granting to John Cabot authority to impress six English ships at the rates then current for vessels required by the royal navy, to enlist crews, and to follow up his discoveries of the preceding year. Under this charter Cabot made no voyages. It has erroneously been called a second charter, but did not in any way set aside that of 1496, which still remained valid. It is, however, the last record of his career, and it is uncertain when or where he died. He was probably a Venetian by birth, as he is named in the charter of 1498 "Kabotto, Venecian," and his wife was a Venetian. Had there been any possibility of proving him an Englishman, the claim would undoubtedly have been pressed.

When John and his crew sailed past the tip of Ireland they headed northward for a short while. Then they headed westward for about 5 weeks. He first sighted land on June 21, 1497. When John and his crew got ashore they went a short distance into the forest, where they found evidence of Indians. After they had gathered a few items, they turned around and went straight to their ship. As John was turning around he noticed how full the ocean was of fish. He thought it was amazing just to be able to lower a basket and it would fill with fish. John decided to sail the coast of this new land. With his crew John Cabot set sail back to England on July 20, 1497. On his way back to Bristol John decided to sail back again the following year. He reached Bristol sometime in early August and was greeted warmly in Bristol Harbour. When the merchants heard his story, they named him the great admiral. King Henry was pleased and gave him an award of 10 pounds. John Cabot left on his second voyage sometime in the year of 1498. He had with him 4 or 5 ships and about 300 men. Little was known about this voyage but more than likely John was shipwrecked and drowned. One thing is known, Cabot failed to return from his second voyage to the "New Founde Land".

In 1497, John Cabot (Giovanni Cabotto) set off on a voyage to Asia. On his way he, like Christopher Columbus, ran into an island off the coast of North America. As a result, Cabot became the second European to discover North America, thus laying an English claim which would be followed up only after an interval of over one hundred years. With such an interlude, his voyage seems mainly of academic interest. Although it is true that prior discovery was often used as a justification for colonization,1 the great amount of time between discovery and colonizing reduces Cabots importance to a minimum in this regard. However, this is not at all to say that Cabot was unimportant. In becoming the first European to land on these shores since the time of Leif Erikson, Cabot opened up the Grand Banks to a steady encroachment of European fishermen, thus paving the way for eventual colonization.2 His voyage marked Englands first foray into the new age of discovery, and served as a foundation for Englands later claims to North America, albeit at some remove. With his importance so established, it is natural that scholars continue to study Cabots heroic travels and try to pinpoint them. Sadly, the vagueness of the evidence makes this effort futile except in a very general way. John Cabot knew the world was much bigger around than Columbus claimed, and that it thus would be impossible to sail straight from Spain to Asia. He had a simple yet ingenious plan, to start from a northerly latitude where the longitudes are much closer together, and where, as a result, the voyage would be much shorter. Sailing west in the bark Mathew, he could reach land comparatively quickly, revictual, and coast southward until he found "Cipango," or Japan.3

This scheme might have succeeded were it not for Canada; and it is at the point when Cabot reached the unwanted continent that the historians dispute begins. Historians have advanced a number of theories concerning his landfall: some say that Cabot landed in Labrador; others say it was in Nova Scotia or Cape Breton Island; still others support a landing in Newfoundland; and a minority argue for a landing all the way in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or as far south as Maine. Each of these theories is based on some evidence and it is impossibleto refute any of them completely. The weight of the evidence seems to support the Nova Scotian landfall, an hypothesis which had been generally accepted since William F. Ganong argued persuasively for it in 1929.4 However, the discovery of a new document in the 1950s reopened the debate, which has continued with unabated fervor since that time.5

Unfortunately, it is simply impossible to establish firmly and without doubt the place where Cabot landed because of the paucity and inspecificity of the extant documents. Many writers make the mistake of taking their evidence entirely too literally in attempting to establish an airtight case, as in the example of John T. Juriceks 1967 article supporting Ganong. Too often, these writers ignore broad evidential trends which contradict their specific, but tenuous, proofs. Also, few writers give sufficient attention to evidence which does not relate directly to navigation, thus using only half of the available data. The Nova Scotia landing does seem to be the most reasonable hypothesis, but on the basis of considerably different support than other writers have suggested, and with much less a degree of certainty.

Briefly, the extant documents are of three types: government records, letters, and maps. The government documents include the letters of patent from the king permitting Cabot to sail and establishing the legal status of discoveries, and the records of payment to Cabot for his discovery. Five letters provide the most detailed description of the voyage. One was from Pasqualigo, a Venetian residing in London, to his brothers at home; the Duke of Milan received the second and third letters, the first anonymous and the other from Raimondo Soncino; John Days correspondence with Christopher Columbus, discovered only in 1956, provide the fourth; and last was a letter from Pedro de Ayala to Ferdinand and Isabella. As one might expect, these letters provided varying degrees of detail and reliabilty. The most informative tend to be those of Soncino and especially Day.

The two maps provoke continuing controversy. The first, drawn by Juan de La Cosa in 1500, unquestionably included information gleaned from Cabots voyage because no one else sailed to North America in the ensuing three years. The problem surrounding this map is in its interpretation--that is, in determining how closely it reflected Cabots own map, and how closely Cabots map conformed to the area he actually discovered. The second map probably was drawn by Cabots son, Sebastian, in 1544. Much more detailed and accurate than La Cosas, it undoubtedly incorporated information unknown at the time of Cabots voyage. Even permitting that Sebastian Cabot sailed with his father in 1497, a questionable claim, the maps value remains dubious because of the great length of time which separated that voyage from the creation of the map. After too many intervening trips Sebastians memory of a half-century old event clearly was coloured by more recent discoveries.6

From these sources, basically two lines of evidence emerge from which to deduce the area Cabot discovered: first, the navigation of the voyage that we can glean from letters and maps, combined with our knowledge of the navigational methods of the time; and second, phenomena which Cabot observed on or near the land, such as flora and tides, as reported in the letters. Historians typically focus on navigation, almost to the exclusion of the observed natural phenomena. This is unfortunate because, from this great a temporal distance, it is impossible to draw precise conclusions concerning the navigation of the voyage and the geography of the lands discovered. Cabot himself held only a rough idea of what he discovered and the cartographers who put his ideas into map form only rendered a more generalized and imprecise picture. While admitting that navigational records cannot be ignored in recreating a general outline of the voyage (and in places yields specific crucial information), the observed phenomena deserve a greater place in the historians attempt to understand Cabots voyage. These phenomena can be relied upon with greate, if not absolute, certainty; unfortunately, there are fewer references to sightings than to navigation in the documents. Sightings especially are valuable when used in conjunction with geography, for in joining the two we are presented with a much clearer picture of the voyage. A number of generalities combine to form a specific and coherent, if far from certain, picture of Cabots voyage.

The navigational evidence can be divided further into two parts, what is known about the crossing, and what is known about the exploration. Of the trip to North America, Soncino stated that Cabot left Bristol, rounded Ireland, and turned northward, finally turning to the west and "leaving the north on his right hand after some days." Pasqualigo wrote that Cabot "says he has discovered mainland 700 leagues away, which is in the country of the Great Khan." By contrast, the anonymous letter to the Duke of Milan stated that Cabot "has also discovered the Seven Cities, 400 leagues from England," and Pedro de Ayala told Ferdinand and Isabella, "I believe the distance is not 400 leagues." Finally, Day wrote to Columbus that the cape nearest Ireland [in the New World] is 1800 miles west of Dursey Head . . .They left England toward the end of May, and must have been on the way thirty-five days before sighting land; the wind was east and north-east and the sea calm going and coming back, except for one day when he ran into a storm two or three days before finding land.7