The son of a spice merchant, Giovanni Caboto (meaning either coastal seaman or ‘big head’, depending on who you ask) was probably born in Genoa in 1450, although he may have been from a Venetian family. At the age of 11, his family moved to Venice where Cabot became a respected member of the community and started learning sailing and navigation from the Italian seamen and merchants. He later married a girl named Mattea (the female version of Matthew) and eventually became the father of three sons: Ludovico, Sancto and Sebastiano. (Following in his father’s footsteps Sebastiano later became an explorer in his own right and went on to the Governor of The Muscovy Company).
In 1476 Cabot officially became a Venetian citizen and, now eligible to engage in maritime trade, began trading in the eastern Mediterranean. It is whilst working as merchant trader that Cabot may have developed the idea of sailing westward to reach the rich markets of Asia. Venetian sources also contain references to Cabot being involved in house building in the city around this time.
By the late 1480s, however, Cabot appears to have gotten into financial trouble and he left Venice as an insolvent debtor. Although little is known about Cabot’s exact activities over the next few years it is believed he travelled to Valencia, where he proposed plans for improvements to the harbour, and Seville, where he was contracted to build a stone bridge over the Guadalquivir river although the project was later abandoned.
Having continued his studies in map-making and navigation and, inspired by the discoveries of Bartolomeu Dias and Christopher Columbus, Cabot attempted and failed to persuade the royal courts of Europe to pay for a planned voyage west across the Atlantic. Still expecting to reach China, his idea was to depart to the west from a northerly latitude where the longitudes are much closer together on a shorter, alternative route.
After hearing of opportunities in England, Cabot and his family arrived there around 1495 to seek funding and political support for his planned voyage. Cabot immediately set about trying to persuade merchants in the major maritime centres of London and Bristol (the second-largest seaport in England and the only to have served as a point for previous English Atlantic expeditions) to help.
In Tudor times Cathay and Cipangu (China and Japan) were believed to be rich in silks, spices, gold and gems. If Cabot’s predictions about a new route were right and Asia was where Cabot thought it was, then the whole country stood to profit as it would have made England the greatest trading centre in the world for goods from the east. On 5 March 1496 Tudor King Henry VII issued letters patent to John Cabot and his sons, authorising them to explore unknown lands, with the following charge:
‘Be it known and made manifest that we have given and granted...to our beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice...free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns, with five ships or vessels of whatsoever burden and quality they may be, and with so many and with such mariners and men as they may wish to take with them in the said ships, at their own proper costs and charges, 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.’
After a first, aborted, attempt, Cabot sailed out of Bristol on a small 70-foot long ship named Matthew in May 1497 with a crew of 18 men, sailing past Ireland and across the Atlantic. On 24 June 1497 Cabot sighted land and called it ‘New-found-land’, believing it to be Asia and claiming it in the name of King Henry VII. Although the logs for Matthew are incomplete, it is believed that John Cabot went ashore with a small party. The exact location of the landfall has long been disputed, but most believe it to be one of the northern capes of modern-day Newfoundland off the coast of Canada. Only remaining on land long enough to claim the land and fetch some fresh water, the crew did not meet any natives during their brief visit but apparently they came across some tools, nets and the remnants of a fire and were able to catch huge numbers of cod just by lowering baskets into the seawater.
In the following weeks Cabot and his crew continued to explore and chart the Canadian coastline, before turning back and sailing for England in July.
Matthew and its crew arrived back in Bristol on 6 August 1497 to the welcome of church bells ringing out across the harbour. Cabot then rode to London to report to the King, where he was initially rewarded with the sum of £10 (equivalent to around two years’ pay for an ordinary labourer or craftsman) for discovering a new island off the coast of China – had Cabot brought back some spices then the king may have been more generous. At that point the king’s attention was increasingly being occupied by the Cornish Uprising led by Perkin Warbeck. Once his throne was secure, the king gave more thought to Cabot, who was already planning his next expedition. In September the King made an award of £2 to Cabot, followed by a pension of £20 a year in the December. The following February Cabot was given new letters patent for the voyage and to help him prepare for a second expedition.
In May 1498 Cabot set out with a fleet of four or five ships and 300 men aiming to discover Japan. Carrying ample provisions for a year’s worth of sailing, the fate of the expedition is uncertain as there is no further record of Cabot and his crews, except for one storm-damaged ship which is believed to have sought anchorage in Ireland. It is most widely thought that either the expedition perished at sea or that Cabot eventually reached North America but was unable to make the return voyage across the Atlantic.