May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Five Hundred Years Ago
On June 24 John Cabot, a Genoaborn English mariner, became the first European since Viking days to set foot in North America, when he landed on what is now called Newfoundland.
Or something like that. An event resembling the one in the preceding paragraph did take place in 1497, but virtually every detail is subject to question. Cabot left no written record of his journey, and the few surviving secondhand sources contradict one another. Even basic biographical facts are skimpy. Records show that John Cabot (or Caboto, Cabotto, Kaboto, Calbot, Caboote, Cabote, or Talbot) was a naturalized citizen of Venice, but his place of birth is uncertain—most likely Genoa, possibly Gaeta. He may or may not have lived in Valencia, Spain, in the early 149Os. In 1496 King Henry VII of England granted him a charter to sail west and monopolize trade, presumably in spices, from what he thought would be eastern Asia. After an abortive journey that spring, Cabot’s ship, the Mathew (or Matthew ) departed from Bristol the following year.
Bristol was the natural choice because, according to local tradition, ships had been sailing from there to Newfoundland since the 148Os. Does this mean Cabot was scooped? Some historians dismiss such tales as mere gossip, asking why Cabot would bother to discover something that was already well-known. Yet documents show local merchants outfitting a number of westward excursions before Cabot. Why would they keep going if they hadn’t found anything? Perhaps the North Atlantic’s rich fisheries were the lure.
In any case, the Mathew left Bristol on May 20—probably (a few shaky sources say May 2). It arrived in North America on June 24—probably. Authority for the latter date is an inscription on a map made by Cabot’s son Sebastian, a notorious truth stretcher, forty-seven years after the fact. Nonetheless it is widely accepted, with occasional grumbling about the unlikely speed of crossing it would have required. (A few scholars assert that the year was actually 1494, to general derision.)
Cabot’s point of disembarkation elicits the most controversy. Based on a few scraps of maddeningly vague description, historians have located the site everywhere from Labrador down to Maine, with Newfoundland the most popular choice. Wherever they were, upon landing Cabot and his crew planted English and Venetian flags and then looked around a bit. Seeing cut trees, the remains of a fire, and some dung, which they somehow decided was from domesticated animals, they deduced that the land was inhabited. Pausing to pilfer a few game traps and a double-pointed stick probably used to make nets, they collected fresh water and went back to their ship.
Maybe they hadn’t intended to tarry, or maybe the signs of inhabitants scared them away. One historian suggests it was the mosquitoes. At any rate, once back on board, they spent four more weeks exploring the coast without leaving their ship. They then headed for home, arriving in Bristol on August 6. The king gave cash and a pension to Cabot, who styled himself an admiral, dressed in silks, and was mobbed by well-wishers as he strolled through Bristol.
Cabot’s season of fame was brief. He left on another transatlantic voyage in 1498, and no further record of him exists. A contemporary chronicler says his ship sank, though one conjectural account has Cabot surviving the crossing, trading with Labrador residents, and sailing down to Cape Cod, only to return home empty-handed. Another has him exploring the Greenland coast. As with so much else about John Cabot, the facts will probably never be established, thAigh that won’t stop historians from reshuffling the pieces and coming up with fresh versions of the truth.