Voyage of John Cabot of Labrador in 1497
At the close of the fifteenth century the town of Bristol enjoyed a pre-eminence which it has since lost. It stood second only to London as a British port. A group of wealthy merchants carried on from Bristol a lively trade with Iceland and the northern ports of Europe. The town was the chief centre for an important trade in codfish. Days of fasting were generally observed at that time; on these the eating of meat was forbidden by the church, and fish was consequently in great demand. The merchants of Bristol were keen traders, and were always seeking the further extension of their trade. Christopher Columbus himself is said to have made a voyage for the Bristol merchants to Iceland in 1477. There is even a tale that, before Columbus was known to fame, an expedition was equipped there in 1480 to seek the 'fabulous islands' of the Western Sea. Certain it is that the Spanish ambassador in England, whose business it was to keep his royal master informed of all that was being done by his rivals, wrote home in 1498: 'It is seven years since those of Bristol used to send out, every year, a fleet of two, three, or four caravels to go and search for the Isle of Brazil and the Seven Cities, according to the fancy of the Genoese.'
We can therefore realize that when Master John Cabot came among the merchants of this busy town with his plans he found a ready hearing. Cabot was soon brought to the notice of his august majesty Henry VII of England. The king had been shortsighted enough to reject overtures made to him by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher, and no doubt he regretted his mistake. Now he was eager enough to act as the patron of a new voyage. Accordingly, on March 5, 1496, he granted a royal licence in the form of what was called Letters Patent, authorizing John Cabot and his sons Lewis, Sebastian and Sancius to make a voyage of discovery in the name of the king of England. The Cabots were to sail 'with five ships or vessels of whatever burden or quality soever they be, and with as many marines or men as they will have with them in the said ships upon their own proper costs and charges.' It will be seen that Henry VII, the most parsimonious of kings, had no mind to pay the expense of the voyage. The expedition was 'to seek out, discover and find whatsoever islands, countries, regions and provinces of the heathens or infidels, in whatever part of the world they be, which before this time have been unknown to all Christians.' It was to sail only 'to the seas of the east and west and north,' for the king did not wish to lay any claim to the lands discovered by the Spaniards and Portuguese. The discoverers, however, were to raise the English flag over any new lands that they found, to conquer and possess them, and to acquire 'for us dominion, title, and jurisdiction over those towns, castles, islands, and mainlands so discovered.' One-fifth of the profits from the anticipated voyages to the new land was to fall to the king, but the Cabots were to have a monopoly of trade, and Bristol was to enjoy the right of being the sole port of entry for the ships engaged in this trade.
John Cabot set sail
Not until the next year, 1497, did John Cabot set out. Then he embarked from Bristol with a single ship, called in an old history the Matthew, and a crew of eighteen men. First, he sailed round the south of Ireland, and from there struck out westward into the unknown sea. The appliances of navigation were then very imperfect. Sailors could reckon the latitude by looking up at the North Star, and noting how high it was above the horizon. Since the North Star stands in the sky due north, and the axis on which the earth spins points always towards it, it will appear to an observer in the northern hemisphere to be as many degrees above the horizon as he himself is distant from the pole or top of the earth. The old navigators, therefore, could always tell how far north or south they were. Moreover, as long as the weather was clear they could, by this means, strike, at night at least, a course due east or west. But when the weather was not favourable for observations they had to rely on the compass alone. Now the compass in actual fact does not always and everywhere point due north. It is subject to variation, and in different times and places points either considerably east of north or west of it. In the path where Cabot sailed, the compass pointed west of north; and hence, though he thought he was sailing straight west from Ireland, he was really pursuing a curved path bent round a little towards the south. This fact will become of importance when we consider where it was that Cabot landed. For finding distance east and west the navigators of the fifteenth century had no such appliances as our modern chronometer and instruments of observation. They could tell how far they had sailed only by 'dead reckoning'; this means that if their ship was going at such and such a speed, it was supposed to have made such and such a distance in a given time. But when ships were being driven to and fro, and buffeted by adverse winds, this reckoning became extremely uncertain.
John Cabot and his men mere tossed about considerably in their little ship. Though they seem to have set out early in May of 1497, it was not until June 24 that they sighted land. What the land was like, and what they thought of it, we know from letters written in England by various persons after their return. Thus we learn that it was a 'very good and temperate country,' and that 'Brazil wood and silks grow there.' 'The sea,' they reported, 'is covered with fishes, which are caught not only with the net, but with baskets, a stone being tied to them in order that the baskets may sink in the water.' Henceforth, it was said, England would have no more need to buy fish from Iceland, for the waters of the new land abounded in fish. Cabot and his men saw no savages, but they found proof that the land was inhabited. Here and there in the forest they saw trees which had been felled, and also snares of a rude kind set to catch game. They were enthusiastic over their success. They reported that the new land must certainly be connected with Cipango, from which all the spices and precious stones of the world originated. Only a scanty stock of provisions, they declared, prevented them from sailing along the coast as far as Cathay and Cipango. As it was they planted on the land a great cross with the flag of England and also the banner of St Mark, the patron saint of Cabot's city of Venice.
The older histories used always to speak as if John Cabot had landed somewhere on the coast of Labrador, and had at best gone no farther south than Newfoundland. Even if this were the whole truth about the voyage, to Cabot and his men would belong the signal honour of having been the first Europeans, since the Norsemen, to set foot on the mainland of North America. Without doubt they were the first to unfurl the flag of England, and to erect the cross upon soil which afterwards became part of British North America. But this is not all. It is likely that Cabot reached a point far south of Labrador. His supposed sailing westward carried him in reality south of the latitude of Ireland. He makes no mention of the icebergs which any voyager must meet on the Labrador coast from June to August. His account of a temperate climate suitable for growing dye-wood, of forest trees, and of a country so fair that it seemed the gateway of the enchanted lands of the East, is quite unsuited to the bare and forbidding aspect of Labrador. Cape Breton island was probably the place of Cabot's landing. Its balmy summer climate, the abundant fish of its waters, fit in with Cabot's experiences. The evidence from maps, one of which was made by Cabot's son Sebastian, points also to Cape Breton as the first landing-place of English sailors in America.
There is no doubt of the stir made by Cabot's discovery on his safe return to England. He was in London by August of 1497, and he became at once the object of eager curiosity and interest. 'He is styled the Great Admiral,' wrote a Venetian resident in London, 'and vast honour is paid to him. He dresses in silk, and the English run after him like mad people.' The sunlight of royal favour broke over him in a flood: even Henry VII proved generous. The royal accounts show that, on August 10, 1497, the king gave ten pounds 'to him that found the new isle.' A few months later the king granted to his 'well-beloved John Cabot, of the parts of Venice, an annuity of twenty pounds sterling,' to be paid out of the customs of the port of Bristol. The king, too, was lavish in his promises of help for a new expedition. Henry's imagination had evidently been fired with the idea of an Oriental empire. A contemporary writer tells us that Cabot was to have ten armed ships. At Cabot's request, the king conceded to him all the prisoners needed to man this fleet, saving only persons condemned for high treason. It is one of the ironies of history that on the first pages of its annals the beautiful new world is offered to the criminals of Europe.
During the winter that followed, John Cabot was the hero of the hour. Busy preparations went on for a new voyage. Letters patent were issued giving Cabot power to take any six ships that he liked from the ports of the kingdom, paying to their owners the same price only as if taken for the king's service. The 'Grand Admiral' became a person of high importance. On one friend he conferred the sovereignty of an island; to others he made lavish promises; certain poor friars who offered to embark on his coming voyage were to be bishops over the heathen of the new land. Even the merchants of London ventured to send out goods for trade, and brought to Cabot 'coarse cloth, caps, laces, points, and other trifles.'
The second expedition sailed from the port of Bristol in May of 1498. John Cabot and his son Sebastian were in command; of the younger brothers we hear no more. But the high hopes of the voyagers were doomed to disappointment. On arriving at the coast of America Cabot's ships seem first to have turned towards the north. The fatal idea, that the empires of Asia might be reached through the northern seas already asserted its sway. The search for a north-west passage, that will-o'-the-wisp of three centuries, had already begun. Many years later Sebastian Cabot related to a friend at Seville some details regarding this unfortunate attempt of his father to reach the spice islands of the East. The fleet, he said, with its three hundred men, first directed its course so far to the north that, even in the month of July, monstrous heaps of ice were found floating on the sea. 'There was,' so Sebastian told his friend, 'in a manner, continual daylight.' The forbidding aspect of the coast, the bitter cold of the northern seas, and the boundless extent of the silent drifting ice, chilled the hopes of the explorers. They turned towards the south. Day after day, week after week, they skirted the coast of North America. If we may believe Sebastian's friend, they reached a point as far south as Gibraltar in Europe. No more was there ice. The cold of Labrador changed to soft breezes from the sanded coast of Carolina and from the mild waters of the Gulf Stream. But of the fabled empires of Cathay and Cipango, and the 'towns and castles' over which the Great Admiral was to have dominion, they saw no trace. Reluctantly the expedition turned again towards Europe, and with its turning ends our knowledge of what happened on the voyage.
That the ships came home either as a fleet, or at least in part, we have certain proof. We know that John Cabot returned to Bristol, for the ancient accounts of the port show that he lived to draw at least one or two instalments of his pension. But the sunlight of royal favour no longer illumined his path. In the annals of English history the name of John Cabot is never found again.
The son Sebastian survived to continue a life of maritime adventure, to be counted one of the great sea-captains of the day, and to enjoy an honourable old age. In the year 1512 we hear of him in the service of Ferdinand of Spain. He seems to have won great renown as a maker of maps and charts. He still cherished the idea of reaching Asia by way of the northern seas of America. A north-west expedition with Sebastian in command had been decided upon, it is said, by Ferdinand, when the death of that illustrious sovereign prevented the realization of the project. After Ferdinand's death, Cabot fell out with the grandees of the Spanish court, left Madrid, and returned for some time to England. Some have it that he made a new voyage in the service of Henry VIII, and sailed through Hudson Strait, but this is probably only a confused reminiscence, handed down by hearsay, of the earlier voyages. Cabot served Spain again under Charles V, and made a voyage to Brazil and the La Plata river. He reappears later in England, and was made Inspector of the King's Ships by Edward VI. He was a leading spirit of the Merchant Adventurers who, in Edward's reign, first opened up trade by sea with Russia.
The voyages of the Bristol traders and the enterprise of England by no means ended with the exploits of the Cabots. Though our ordinary history books tell us nothing more of English voyages until we come to the days of the great Elizabethan navigators, Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins, and to the planting of Virginia, as a matter of fact many voyages were made under Henry VII and Henry VIII. Both sovereigns seem to have been anxious to continue the exploration of the western seas, but they had not the good fortune again to secure such master-pilots as John and Sebastian Cabot.
In the first place, it seems that the fishermen of England, as well as those of the Breton coast, followed close in the track of the Cabots. As soon as the Atlantic passage to Newfoundland had been robbed of the terrors of the unknown, it was not regarded as difficult. With strong east winds a ship of the sixteenth century could make the run from Bristol or St Malo to the Grand Banks in less than twenty days. Once a ship was on the Banks, the fish were found in an abundance utterly unknown in European waters, and the ships usually returned home with great cargoes. During the early years of the sixteenth century English, French, and Portuguese fishermen went from Europe to the Banks in great numbers. They landed at various points in Newfoundland and Cape Breton, and became well acquainted with the outline of the coast. It was no surprise to Jacques Cartier, for instance, on his first voyage, to find a French fishing vessel lying off the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence. But these fishing crews thought nothing of exploration. The harvest of the sea was their sole care, and beyond landing to cure fish and to obtain wood and water they did nothing to claim or conquer the land.
There were, however, efforts from time to time to follow up the discoveries of the Cabots. The merchants of Bristol do not seem to have been disappointed with the result of the Cabot enterprises, for as early as in 1501 they sent out a new expedition across the Atlantic. The sanction of the king was again invoked, and Henry VII granted letters patent to three men of Bristol—Richard Warde, Thomas Ashehurst, and John Thomas—to explore the western seas. These names have a homely English sound; but associated with them were three Portuguese—John Gonzales, and two men called Fernandez, all of the Azores, and probably of the class of master-pilots to which the Cabots and Columbus belonged. We know nothing of the results of the expedition, but it returned in safety in the same year, and the parsimonious king was moved to pay out five pounds from his treasury 'to the men of Bristol that found the isle.'
Francis Fernandez and John Gonzales remained in the English service and became subjects of King Henry. Again, in the summer of 1502, they were sent out on another voyage from Bristol. In September they brought their ships safely back, and, in proof of the strangeness of the new lands they carried home 'three men brought out of an Iland forre beyond Irelond, the which were clothed in Beestes Skynnes and ate raw fflesh and were rude in their demeanure as Beestes.' From this description (written in an old atlas of the time), it looks as if the Fernandez expedition had turned north from the Great Banks and visited the coast where the Eskimos were found, either in Labrador or Greenland. This time Henry VII gave Fernandez and Gonzales a pension of ten pounds each, and made them 'captains' of the New Found Land. A sum of twenty pounds was given to the merchants of Bristol who had accompanied them. We must remember that at this time the New Found Land was the general name used for all the northern coast of America.
There is evidence that a further expedition went out from Bristol in 1503, and still another in 1504. Fernandez and Gonzales, with two English associates, were again the leaders. They were to have a monopoly of trade for forty years, but were cautioned not to interfere with the territory of the king of Portugal. Of the fate of these enterprises nothing is known.
By the time of Henry VIII, who began to reign in 1509, the annual fishing fleet of the English which sailed to the American coast had become important. As early as in 1522, a royal ship of war was sent to the mouth of the English Channel to protect the 'coming home of the New Found Island's fleet.' Henry VIII and his minister, Cardinal Wolsey, were evidently anxious to go on with the work of the previous reign, and especially to enlist the wealthy merchants and trade companies of London in the cause of western exploration. In 1521 the cardinal proposed to the Livery Companies of London—the name given to the trade organizations of the merchants—that they should send out five ships on a voyage into the New Found Land. When the merchants seemed disinclined to make such a venture, the king 'spake sharply to the Mayor to see it put in execution to the best of his power.' But, even with this stimulus, several years passed before a London expedition was sent out. At last, in 1527, two little ships called the Samson and the Mary of Guildford set out from London with instructions to find their way to Cathay and the Indies by means of the passage to the north. The two ships left London on May 10, put into Plymouth, and finally sailed therefrom on June 10, 1527. They followed Cabot's track, striking westward from the coast of Ireland. For three weeks they kept together, making good progress across the Atlantic. Then in a great storm that arose the Samson was lost with all on board.
The Mary of Guildford pursued her way alone, and her crew had adventures strange even for those days. Her course, set well to the north, brought her into the drift ice and the giant icebergs which are carried down the coast of America at this season (for the month was July) from the polar seas. In fear of the moving ice, she turned to the south, the sailors watching eagerly for the land, and sounding as they went. Four days brought them to the coast of Labrador. They followed it southward for some days. Presently they entered an inlet where they found a good harbour, many small islands, and the mouth of a great river of fresh water. The region was a wilderness, its mountains and woods apparently untenanted by man. Near the shore they saw the footmarks of divers great beasts, but, though they explored the country for about thirty miles, they saw neither men nor animals. At the end of July, they set sail again, and passed down the coast of Newfoundland to the harbour of St John's, already a well-known rendezvous. Here they found fourteen ships of the fishing fleet, mostly vessels from Normandy. From Newfoundland the Mary of Guildford pursued her way southward, and passed along the Atlantic coast of America. If she had had any one on board capable of accurate observation, even after the fashion of the time, or of making maps, the record of her voyage would have added much to the general knowledge of the continent. Unfortunately, the Italian pilot who directed the voyage was killed in a skirmish with Indians during a temporary landing. Some have thought that this pilot who perished on the Mary of Guildford may have been the great navigator Verrazano, of whom we shall presently speak.
The little vessel sailed down the coast to the islands of the West Indies. She reached Porto Rico in the middle of November, and from that island she made sail for the new Spanish settlements of San Domingo. Here, as she lay at her anchorage, the Mary of Guildford was fired upon by the Spanish fort which commanded the river mouth. At once she put out into the open sea, and, heading eastward across the Atlantic, she arrived safely at her port of London.