1902 Encyclopedia > Sebastian Cabot

Sebastian Cabot
Italian explorer
(c. 1474 - c. 1557)




SEBASTIAN CABOT, the renowned navigator, and contemporary of Columbus, was the son of John Cabot, a Venetian merchant, and was born in Bristol, England, while his father was a resident of that city. On the disputed question of his birthplace, Richard Eden (Decades of the New World, fol. 255) says Sebastian told him that, when four years old, he was taken by his father to Venice, and returned to England while still very young, " whereby he was thought to have been born in Venice." Stow, in his Annals, under the year 1498, styles " Sebastian Gaboto a Genoas Sonne, be me in Bristow." Galvano and Herrera also give to England the honour of his nativity. Neither the year of his birth nor that of his death can be stated with precision; conjecture fixes the former event in about 1476. No instructive details of his early life, until he had passed his twentieth year, can now be recovered.

The discoveries of Columbus infused into young Sebastian an ardent desire to emulate his brilliant achievements. Henry VII. resolved to enter the new field of maritime discovery, which had already rewarded Spain with the Antilles ; and the Cabots having proposed to the king the project of shortening the voyage to India by sailing west, to them was confided its execution.

The first patent was granted March 5, 1496 (11th Henry VII.), to " John Gabote, citizen of Venice ; to Lewes, Sebas-tian, and Santius, sonnes of the said John." It empowered them to seek out, subdue, and occupy, at their own charges, any regions which before had " been unknown to all Christians." They were authorized to set up the royal banner, and possess the territories discovered by them as the king's vassals. Bristol was the only port to which they were permitted to return; and a fifth part of the gains of the voyage was reserved to the Crown. The discoverers were vested with exclusive privilege of resort and traffic.

With respect to Lewes and Santius, the chronicles are silent. John and Sebastian sailed from Bristol in the "Matthew" in the following year (1497), and, as now seems probable, returned to England after the first discovery had been made (see BRISTOL, p. 350). There is in the account of the Privy Purse expenses of Henry VII. the following entry:—" 10th August 1497. To him that found the New Isle, £10."

Although it is probable that the Island of Newfoundland was discovered in this voyage, a careful scrutiny of the various maps and chronicles sustains the belief that the Cabots saw the mainland of America before any other,—the term Terra primnm visa having been used to distinguish the continent, or what was believed to form a part of it. The relation of Sebastian (see Hakluyt, 111, p. 7) does not warrant the inference that the first land seen was an island.

The most precise account of the discovery is from a map drawn by Sebastian Cabot, and engraved in 1549 by Clement Adams, which is known to have hung in Queen Elizabeth's gallery at Whitehall. The notice runs as follows :—" In the year of our Lord 1497, John Cabot, a Venetian, and his son Sebastian, discovered that country which no one before his time had ventured to approach, on the 24th of June, about five o'clock in the morning. He called the land Terraprimum visa, because, as I conjecture, this was the place that first met his eye in looking from the sea. On the contrary, the island which lies opposite the land he called the island of St John,—as I suppose, because it was discovered on the festival of St John the Baptist."

On Sebastian Cabot's map of 1544, the original of which is in the Geographical Cabinet of the Imperial Library at Paris(seefac-similein Jomard'sMonumentsde la Geographic), nothing is designated above the sixtieth parallel. Prima tierra vista is delineated between 45° and 50°, with the island St Juan (corresponding with Prince Edward), within the great gulf at the embouchure of what is plainly the St Lawrence. The authenticity of the map being accepted, the "land first seen" could be no other than the coast of Nova Scotia, or island of Cape Breton.

A second " patent" to John Cabot, dated 3d February 1498, authorized him to take six English ships, of not more than 200 tons, in any port in the realm, " and them convey and lede to the lande and isles of late found by the said John in oure name and by oure commandment." Before the expedition was ready, John Cabot died, and Sebastian, with a fleet of five vessels, sailed from Bristol in May 1498. It is believed that this is the voyage referred to by Peter Martyr, Gomara, Fabyan, and by Sebastian himself in his letter to Ramusio. Cabot, upon falling in with the coast, ascended it as high as latitude 67-2°, probably passing into Hudson's Bay. He persevered in the effort to find an open channel to India, until his sailors, appalled by the danger of navigating the ship among icebergs, broke out in open mutiny and compelled him to turn back. He then retraced his course, pausing at Baccalaos to refit; and, after examining the coast as far south as 38°, returned to England. Sebastian took with him in this voyage three hundred men, with the purpose, as Gomara states, of colonizing the newly-found regions. Thevet, French cosmographer, relates that Cabot landed these emigrants where the cold was so intense that nearly the whole company perished, although it was in July. Cabot brought to England three native inhabitants of the countries he had visited; his great achievement was the discovery of eighteen hundred miles of sea-coast of the North American Except the vague report of a voyage undertaken by him in 1499, nothing more appears relative to Sebastian until 1512, when he is found living at Seville, engaged in revising the Spanish king's maps and charts. The death of Ferdinand put an end to a design to renew the search for a north-west passage to Cathay, and Cabot, who was to have commanded, returned to England. In 1517 he undertook, with Sir Thomas Perte, another voyage,— whether of discovery or conquest in Spanish America is uncertain. In 1518 Sebastian revisited Spain, and was appointed pilot-major. After the conference of Badajos, a squadron was' fitted out under Cabot to pursue Spanish discovery in the Pacific. It set sail in August 1526, but some of his chief officers having spread disaffection in the fleet, Cabot abandoned the original plan as impracticable, and put into the La Plata. He sailed up this river 350 leagues, built a fort at one of the mouths of the Parana, which stream he ascended in boats, and also penetrated some distance up the Paraguay. Failing to obtain the aid he solicited, and weakened by the assaults of the natives, Sebastian was forced to leave the coast for Spain.

He now, for the second time, returned to England, and notwithstanding a demand by the emperor that "he might be sent over to Spain," settled at Bristol. Edward VI., in 1549, granted the now aged seaman a pension of two hundred and fifty marks. Hakluyt states that the office of Grand Pilot of England was created for him. It was at this period that he explained to the king the phenomenon of the variation of the needle. He was active in promoting the expedition of 1553 to Prussia, the success of which gave him the life appointment of Governor of the Muscovy Company.

Cabot is supposed to have died in London, in 1557, sixty-one years subsequent to the date of his first commis-sion from Henry VII., and not far from eighty years old. The place of his burial is unknown, and we are indebted to Eden for the death-bed scene of this intrepid navigator, who saw the American continent before Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci. His character is extolled by contem-poraries, and was distinguished for lofty courage and unflagging perseverance in the execution of his designs. Few lives exhibit such incessant activity in the pursuit of an idea. The maps and discourses drawn and written by himself would, if in existence, have shed much light on an illustrious career ; but, with the exception of a map said to have been recovered in Germany, and another existing in France, no trace of them remains. The memoir by Richard Biddle, London and Philadelphia, 1831, though faulty in arrangement, is still the best.









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