Above: Explorer John Cabot. Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Right: Painting Christopher Columbus taking possession of San Salvador, Watling Island by L Prang and Co., 1893. Images courtesy Library of Congress.
Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1400s
Columbus and Cabot
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1496 - Detail
March 5, 1496 - King Henry VII signs an agreement with John (Giovanni) Cabot to explore the western hemisphere under the flag and authority of England. It is thought likely that the British King was in disagreement with the Treaty of Tordesillas, as well as a prior Papal decision, to effectively split the riches and exploration of the New Worlds between Spain and Portugal. He would attempt a first voyage with one ship, but be unsuccessful, and turn back.
England did not like it, that agreement between Spain, Portugal, and prior decisions by the Pope. How much didn't the King like it? In 1496, he hired a Venetian born in Italy to set out for North America, well, via a desire to get to the Orient, and claim some land for the kingdom. King Henry VII would not infringe on the lands already discovered by the Spanish or Portuguese, as stated in the patent letter to Cabot, but he was perfectly willing to claim territory not yet known to Christians, and take one fifth of the spoils that Cabot would bring back to England.
John Cabot had been involved in Mediterranean maritime trade for some time, got into trouble with his finances, and eventually sought, in Portugal and Spain, funding for an expedition to explore the Atlantic. They turned him down. He moved on to England in mid 1495, headed to Bristol and sought the funding to explore a northern Atlantic route to China. By March 1496, he had recieved the ultimate support, a letter of patent from the King.
King Henry VII was a formidable backer. The victor in the War of the Roses, the Civil War between the English houses of Lancaster (Henry's side) and York, he had become King after the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. He then married into the House of York, cementing his reign. Henry VII had been a proponent of ship building, strengthening the navy, and improving trade. So when King Henry VII agreed to the letters of patent with the Venetian Cabot, it came as no great surprise.
The Voyages of Cabot
1496 - First voyage in the summer of 1496 is little known. Thought to include one ship, which encountered bad weather and turned back.
1497 - Cabot left the port of Bristol in the Mathew (Matthew) of Bristol, 50 ton ship with 18-20 crewmen, on May 2, 1497, arriving in America (Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland) on June 24, 1497. Some believe that landfall was in Nova Scotia, Labrador, or Maine. Cabot stayed on land a short period of time, claimed it for England, then explored the coast further, arriving back in Bristol on August 6.
1498 - Cabot's third voyage was a larger expedition with five ships, which headed out, reportedly with merchandise to trade, in May. One of the ships was forced by storm to stay in Ireland. Supposedly, the other four ships continued. Here's where the story gets murky. For centuries it was believed that Cabot was lost at sea and never returned to England. Historians now suggest that he did return. A reported shipmate is recorded as living in London in 1501. Cartographer Juan de la Cosa of Spain recorded the voyage of an "English between 1497 and 1500" that included visits to the Chesapeake Bay, and perhaps the Caribbean. He has been mentioned as participating in his son Sebastian's expedition of 1508-9. Research continues into what happened to the third voyage and Cabot.
Text of Patent from King Henry VII to John Cabot and his Sons, March 5, 1496.
For John Cabot and his Sons.
The King, to all to whom, etc. Greeting: Be it known and made manifest that we have given and granted as by these presents we give and grant, for us and our heirs, to our well beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice, and to Lewis, Sebastian and Sancio, sons of the said John, and to the heirs and deputies of them, and of any one of them, full and 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 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. We have also granted to them and to any of them, and to the heirs and deputies of them and of any one of them, and have given licence to set up our aforesaid banners and ensigns in any town, city, castle, island or mainland whatsoever, newly found by them. And that the before-mentioned John and his sons or their heirs and deputies may conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered that they may be able to conquer, occupy and possess, as our vassals and governors lieutenants and deputies therein, acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same towns, castles, cities, islands and mainlands so discovered; in such a way nevertheless that of all the fruits, profits, emoluments, commodities, gains and revenues accruing from this voyage, the said John and sons and their heirs and deputies shall be bound and under obligation for their every voyage, as often as they shall arrive at our port of Bristol, at which they are bound and holden only to arrive, all necessary charges and expenses incurred by them having been deducted, to pay to us, either in goods or money, the fifth part of the whole capital gained, we giving and granting to them and to their heirs and deputies, that they shall be free and exempt from all payment of customs on all and singular the goods and merchandise that they may bring back with them from those places thus newly discovered.
In witness whereof, etc.
Witness ourself at Westminster on the fifth day of March.
By the King himself, etc.
Photo above: Discovery of North America engraving showing John and Sebastian Cabot, 1855, Ballou's Pictorial, Volume 8, Page 216. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Portrait of a young King Henry VII, 1470-1480, French artist, Musee Calvet, Avignon, Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Info source: Patent Granted by King Henry VII to John Cabot and his Sons, March 1496. Reproduced from H.P. Biggar, ed., The Precursors of Jacques Cartier 1497-1534: A Collection of Documents relating to the Early History of the Dominion of Canada (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau 1911) 7-10. Original document housed in the Public Record Office, London, via cvuha.org; heritagenf.ca; Wikipedia Commons; G.E. Weare, Cabot's Discovery of North America, (London, 1897).