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Searching for the Northwest Passage, Episode 4 - 29/09/05


John & Sebastian Cabot set sail from Bristol, 1497 (Oil on canvas by Ernest Board, 1906 - Getty Images)

John and Sebastian Cabot set sail from Bristol, 1497 (Getty Images)
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By the 16th century, the English still had no imperial ambitions. The great quest was to go to China by sea but the easterly route was difficult and uncertain. Accepting that the world was a globe, it was then believed that a westerly passage to Asia must exist. This was the reason Henry VII patronized the explorers and navigators, John Cabot and his three sons.

In 1497, they sailed from Bristol and 52 days later sighted land. This was probably Newfoundland and the Cabots claimed the find for England. Most importantly, they recorded the huge fish stocks of the Newfoundland Banks but found no Northwest Passage.

In 1499 or 1450, Cabot died at sea but his second son Sebastian went on to be a celebrated cartographer. The English were far behind the Spanish and Portuguese in maritime exploration. Even in the early 1500s when the Iberian neighbours were in Central America and the East Indies, the English still did not have the skills nor the investment to challenge the Spanish nor the Portuguese for the riches they were bringing back to Europe.

It is clear that although trading companies were established in London and Bristol, many merchants were happy to invest in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Levant, goods from the Far East would be brought overland from the Gulf ports and sold through middlemen to the Northern Europeans, among them the English. The first proper English commercial assault on the east would not take place until the end of the 16th century.

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Historical Figure

Sebastian Cabot c.1475-1557 (Getty Images)

Sebastian Cabot
(Getty Images)
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The Cabots

John Cabot (c. 1425-1500) is more popularly known than his second son, the more talented, Sebastian (c. 1475-1557). The Cabots are described as Venetian explorers and navigators. They were the first Europeans to land in North America in modern times. They were sponsored by Henry VII and their ambition was to find a westerly way to Cathay (China). Sebastian had a more illustrious career working for European monarchs and was Edward VI's inspector of the navy and governor of the Merchant Venturers of London.

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Did You Know...

The only known copy of Sebastian Cabot's map of the world can be seen in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

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Contemporary Sources

Henry VII licence
By these words, Henry VII authorised the Cabots to search out the new world.

"Henry by the grace of god, king of England and France, and lord of Ireland, to all to whom these presents shall come, Greeting. Be it known that we have given and granted to our well beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice, and to Lewis, Sebastian, and Santinus, sons of the said John, full and free authority, leave, and power to sail to all parts, countries, and seas of the East, of the West, and of the North, under our banners and ensigns with five ships of what burden or quantity so ever they be, and as many mariners or men as they will have with them in the said ships, to seek out, discover, and find whatsoever isles, countries, regions or provinces of the heathen and infidels whatsoever they be and in what part of the world unknown to all Christians."

Note written by Sebastian Cabot
Believing they had arrived at the West Indies, cartographer Sebastian Cabot wrote the following note onto one of his charts.

"In the year of our Lord 1497, John Cabot, a Venetian, and his son Sebastian, with an English fleet set out from Bristol and discovered that land which no man before that time had attempted on the 24th of June about five of the clock early in the morning. This land he called Prima Vista, that is to say, First Seen, because as I suppose it was that part whereof they had the first sight from the sea. That island which lieth out before the land he called the Island of St John upon this occasion, because I think it was discovered upon the day of John the Baptist. The inhabitants of this island use to wear beast skins and have them in great estimation, as we have our finest garments. In their wars they use bows, arrows, pikes, darts, wooden clubs, and slings. The soil is barren in some places and yieldeth little fruit, but it is full of white bears and stags far greater than ours.

"...It yieldeth plenty of fish and those very great, as seals, and those which we commonly call salmon; there are soles also above a yard in length, but especially there is great abundance of that kind of fish which the savages call baccalaos."

Account by Richard Hakluyt 1562
Here are comments written by sixteenth century chronicler Richard Hakluyt on Sir John Hawkins' first voyage to the West Indies.

"Master John Hawkins having made divers voyages to the Isles of the Canaries and there by his good and upright dealing being grown in love and favour with the people, informed himself amongst them by diligent inquisition of the state of the West India, whereof he had received some knowledge by the instructions of his father. And being assured that Negroes were very good merchandise in Hispaniola, and that store of Negroes might easily be had upon the coast of Guinea, he resolved with himself to make trial thereof, and communicated that devise with his worshipful friends of London, namely with Sir Lionel Ducket, Sir Thomas Lodge, Mr Gunson, Sir William Winter, Mr Bromfield, and others. All which persons liked so well of his intentions that they became liberal contributors and adventurers in this action. For which purpose three good ships were immediately provided.

"With this company he put off and passed to Sierra Leona upon the coast of Guinea, where he stayed some good time and got into his possession, partly by the sword and partly by other means, to the number of three hundred Negroes at the least. With this he sailed over the Ocean sea unto the Land of Hispaniola and made vent of his number of Negroes, and so with prosperous success and much gain to himself he came home and arrived in the month of September 1563."

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