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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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John Cabot (? - c. 1498)

Image: Letters patent granted to John Cabot by King Henry VII

Naturalized as a citizen of the Republic of Venice (now Italy) in 1476, the experienced navigator Giovani Caboto  --  known to the English as John Cabot  --  was hired by King Henry VII of England in the mid-1490s to make a voyage of discovery westward, looking for a route to Asia.

Cabot left Bristol in May 1497. One month later, he saw land and disembarked briefly. He then skirted the shore for some 30 days without seeing anyone, and returned to England at the beginning of August, full of enthusiasm and convinced that he had reached Asia.

In fact, Cabot was the first to report on a part of America after Christopher Columbus (1492) but his explorations were in colder regions, on the shores of what is Canada today. His landfall remains unknown. Neither a ship's log nor any authentic account of this voyage has been preserved. It is only because of numerous references found here and there that historians have been able to piece together Cabot's exploration in North America. On the whole, it is agreed that the navigator visited somewhere between Labrador and Cape Breton, most likely the east coast of Newfoundland.

Image: Page from Christopher Columbus's account

In May 1498, John Cabot left Bristol to undertake another voyage of exploration (his third), from which he never returned. "He only found new lands at the bottom of the ocean" wrote one of his contemporaries. His son Sebastian, himself a navigator, undertook his father's explorations to North America.

The Cabots' explorations and those of the Corte Real brothers revealed the large schools of cod and whales near Labrador. Breton, Norman, Basque and Portuguese fishermen rushed to explore these by the beginning of the 16th century.

Image: Title page from Hakluyt's account of the Cabots' voyages   Image: Page from Hakluyt's account of the Cabots' voyages Image: Page from Hakluyt's account of the Cabots' voyages

"In the yeere of our Lord 1494, John Cabot a Venetian, & his sonne Sebastian [...] discovered that land which no man before that time had attempted, on the 24 of June, about five of the clocke early in the morning. This land he called Prima Vista, [...] The inhabitants of this Island use to weare beasts skinnes, and have them in as great estimation, as we have our finest garments. [...] The soile is barren in some places, & yeeldeth little fruit, but it is full of white lions, & stags farre greater then ours. It yeeldeth plentie of fish, and those very great, as seales, and those which commonly we call salmons: there are soles also above a yard in length: but especially there is great abundance of that kinde of fish which the Salvages call Baccalaos. [...]"

(Hackluyt 1589, 511)

"C'est donc au cap Percé, et nulle part ailleurs, que selon la carte de 1544, Jean et Sébastien Cabot ont atterri; c'est là que, les premiers entre les navigateurs du XVe siècle, ils auraient foulé le sol du continent américain, et planté les bannières de Saint-Georges et de Saint-Marc, le samedi 24 juin 1497, à cinq heures du matin."

(Harrisse 1882, 66)

Sebastian Cabot (c. 1484 - 1557)

Portrait: Sebastian Cabot

Sebastian Cabot, son of John Cabot, was born in Venice, Italy. In 1509, he was the first navigator to try to circumnavigate the New World by going north. He may have gotten as far as the entrance to Hudson Bay, which he took to be the passage to Cathay (China), but he had to turn back as his crew refused to go any further.

In 1512, Sebastian was hired by Spain whom he served, first as navy captain, then as pilot-major, from 1518 to 1547. At the age of 63, he retired to England, where he died in 1557.

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