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24 September 2014

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You are in: Bristol > History > Historic Figures > John Cabot - c.1450 - 1498

Cabot Tower

The tower remembers explorer John Cabot

John Cabot - c.1450 - 1498

It seems that Bristolians are so proud of explorer John Cabot that the city's revamped shopping centre has been renamed in his honour.

But who was the Italian-born adventurer who got lost on the way to Asia and discovered North America, and what is his connection with Bristol?

John Cabot - or Giovanni Caboto in Italian, meaning either coastal seaman, or, according to some 'big head' - was probably born in Genoa in 1450, but may have been from a Venetian family.

In 1476 he married a young woman called Mattea (the female version of the name Matthew) and after travelling widely as a merchant, moved to England around 1490, settling in the port of Bristol.

In May 1497, with the support of the Tudor king Henry VII and some hard-headed Bristol merchants, Cabot sailed west from Bristol on the 70-feet long Matthew with a crew of 18, hoping to find a route to Asia.

One of his main backers was the Sheriff of Bristol, Richard Amarke, who sought reward for his patronage by asking that any new-found lands should be named after him.

It's believed by some that Amarke's family coat of arms, which can be seen in the Lord Mayor's Chapel on College Green in Bristol, as part of the Poyntz crest, later became the USA's stars and stripes flag.

Journey's end

On 24 June, 34 days after leaving England, Cabot sighted land and called it New-found-land. He believed it was Asia and claimed it for England.

The Matthew - Bristol docks

A full-scale replica of The Matthew

He and his crew went ashore in three places and brought back several pieces of evidence of their voyage, including a needle for making nets, a snare for catching animals and the jawbone of a whale.

Cabot returned to England, presented his finds to King Henry and with more funding began to plan a second expedition.

In May 1498, he set out on a further voyage, again from Bristol, with a fleet of four or five ships, aiming to discover Japan.

The fate of the expedition is uncertain - one, storm-damaged ship returned to Ireland, the others were never heard of again. It is thought that Cabot eventually reached North America but never managed to make the return voyage across the Atlantic.

One of Cabot's three sons, Sebastian, was to become almost as famous as his father. He sailed to St Petersburg, was the first Governor of the Muscovy Company of Merchant Venturers, and led an expedition that discovered the coast of Brazil.

But he could never beat his father's achievement, the discovery of a continent that Europeans did not know existed.

last updated: 11/03/2008 at 11:40
created: 06/12/2006

You are in: Bristol > History > Historic Figures > John Cabot - c.1450 - 1498

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