John Cabot (1450 - 1500) – The greatest geopolitical issue of these days was trade; to be more specific, the Spice Trade between Europe and Asia. While some controlled the Mediterranean Sea, others, such as Portugal, had permission by the Pope to explore the southern hemisphere, including Africa, and the ability to navigate around its most southern cape and into the Indian Ocean (where they would find their way to India, China, and Indonesia). This brought them many riches, but it also took a very long time traveling there and back. So, some traveled south around Africa, and others west, towards a New World. Cabot, a Venetian, was able to sail throughout the Mediterranean and visit parts of the Middle East, trading with very experienced merchants. Born Giovanni Caboto in Italy, either from Genoa (like Columbus), or Venice, he was made a citizen of Venice at age 16. Due to this citizenship and high status, he was given the opportunity for maritime trade, including meeting with the Sultan of Egypt, who controlled most trade within Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. Later, he even claimed he had accompanied the Sultan on his visit to the Islamic city of Mecca. During this time, he worked as a merchant, selling and trading for spices and silks. In 1480, while living in Italy, he fell into deep debt; so, he moved to Spain and changed his name, to avoid his debtors. It didn’t take long before they found him, and tried to have him arrested. He then moved to Seville, Spain, and asked the crown to attempt an Atlantic expedition. When that failed, he moved to London.
Most explorers who crossed the Atlantic presented their idea to that country’s crown and, if accepted, were rewarded with a patent for their idea. Most Spanish ships sailed across the Atlantic, near the equator, where Christopher Columbus had sailed, but that journey took a very long time, as the two continents were so far apart. Cabot desired to travel the northern route, thinking that the American continent must be much closer, and his travels much shorter, as he would be closer to the northern pole. This proposal was presented to him by an Augustinian friar, much like how Columbus received the idea he presented to the King and Queen of Spain. The friar then introduced Cabot to the King of England, Henry VII. With the tails of Columbus’s success spreading throughout Europe, the king accepted Cabot’s proposal, and allowed him to sail west to find a faster route.
Note: The Catholic Church funded most universities and scientific exploration during the Renaissance. A myth is that the church was against science, but instead, facilitated most of it, including Galileo Galilei, the father of Astronomy; Nicolas Copernicus, with his Heliocentric Solar System; Georges Lemaître, who first theorized the big bang theory; Louis Pasteur, and his discovery of vaccinations. It is no wonder why both Columbus and Cabot would have received these ideas of traveling west from friars who studied science and theorized that the earth was round, not flat, like others.
Now just because the king accepted Cabot’s patent does not mean that he gave Cabot funding or any vessels to explore the new world. Instead, he merely allowed him to sail there under the English flag. Though the Pope had issued the Treaty of Tordesillas, giving the Spanish the Americas and Portugal Africa and Asia, the King of England, a practicing Catholic, decided to send his own expedition and claim part of the New World for his crown. So, in this sense, the King of England was giving Spanish -financed Columbus some competition. Cabot finished finding financing for this trip - which he would have to pay back through treasures from the New World - and set sail across the Atlantic. Soon the weather turned on him, and he was forced to return.
He was better known for his second attempt, even though neither journey was well documented, (only a few letters, and an article in the Bristol Chronicle, where he set sail). Note: while Columbus was a passionate writer, and also had others record his success, Cabot was not, and did not have scribes among his sailors. Most sailors at the time were illiterate, or without the needed time to put their thoughts to paper. It is said that he left with a small vessel, 8 months of provisions, and only about 20 men, including William Weston - the first Englishman to lead an expedition to North America.
Where he landed is not certain, but Canada has now deemed Cape Bonavista to be the official landing place. He did not explore much beyond the shoreline, but took time to claim the land for the King of England and the Roman Catholic Church, take on fresh water, and quickly explore the coast, before heading home. Cabot reported back to the king and was given a cash award that was equivalent to 2 years pay for a laborer (and twice that as a yearly salary), but Cabot only wanted the recognition of his importance. In 1498, he set sail on his final voyage, this time with five ships. There are no other records of Cabot and any future expedition. It is said that he was lost at sea, either sailing to the New World, or returning. The friars who came on this expedition are believed to have started a mission in Newfoundland. William Weston led his first expedition to the New World in 1499. Activity: Map Making – To better understand exploration of the New World, let us map out the voyages of the map makers, by drawing out their expeditions: where they may have set sail from, and where they may have landed. This will take additional research. Find the sailing routes of Leif Erickson, Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Ferdinand Magellan, and at least two other explorers (including Amerigo Vespucci, Hernan Cortez, Francisco Pizarro, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Juan Ponce de Leon, and/or Alonso Álvarez de Piñeda). It is understood that a lot of Spanish explorers took similar routes, but try to make it look as legible and organized as possible when you draw it: Question: Does drawing each of their voyages help you understand the exploration of the Americas?