‘This year, on St. John the Baptist’s Day [24 June 1497], the land of America was found by the Merchants of Bristow in a shippe of Bristowe, called the Mathew; the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe, the second day of May, and came home again the 6th of August next following.’ – G.E. Weare, Cabot’s Discovery of North America, (London, 1897).
In the later 1400s, Bristol merchants were convinced that at some time in the past, Bristol mariners had discovered a new land to the West – the Isle of Brasil. Bristol sent out several exploratory expeditions to the Atlantic during the later fifteenth century to search for this land and its highly valuable brazilwood.
The earliest of these expeditions took place sometime before 1476, and at least two more were launched in 1480 and 1481, before the groundbreaking transatlantic voyage made by Cabot in 1497.
‘Cabot is called the Great Admiral and vast honour is paid to him and he goes dressed in silk, and these English run after him like mad.’ – Soncino, Milanese Ambassador to England, 23 August 1497.
John Cabot was born in Genoa before 1450, but had moved to Venice by the early 1460s where he became a citizen and merchant known locally as Zuan Chabboto. In 1488 he fled Venice as an insolvent debtor, taking his wife Matteu and their three sons Ludivico, Sancio and Sebastian. They then lived in Valencia and Seville for several years, where John was employed as a maritime engineer before coming to England in 1495.
Like The Matthew of Bristol herself, much knowledge about John Cabot has been lost. But we do know that he arrived in England as an ambitious entrepreneur who needed to pay off some fairly hefty debts. Clearly a smooth talker, he managed to convince Henry VII that he could voyage to find new lands and establish a new and quicker overseas route to the Orient to trade in valuable silks and spices.
Cabot was granted ‘letters patent’ to sail by the king, which stated that Cabot, his heirs and deputies could hold any new lands they found in the name of the king, plus receive a monopoly over any trade that they opened up. This meant that others would not be able to muscle in on the trade once it was established without having to incur the early exploration costs. The licence also carried a condition that any subsequent trade resulting from his expeditions would have to pass through the port of Bristol.
John Cabot used these conditions to convince both Bristol merchantmen and Italian bankers based in London to finance his voyage as an investment opportunity. The merchants agreed, but only if they were promised a high return on their investment as it was such a high-risk venture. Given Cabot’s risky financial situation, he had no choice but to agree.
Cabot’s first voyage attempt in 1496 was unsuccessful. John Day, a Bristol merchant, wrote to fellow explorer Christopher Columbus to say, ‘Since your Lordship wants information relating to the first voyage, here is what happened: he went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.’ But his attempt the following year famously succeeded.
On 24 June 1497, Cabot landed in North America, most probably on the island of Newfoundland. He then explored the coast for a month, before returning to England in August. In terms of discovering the Orient, the expedition was a flop – but Cabot was the first European to make landfall in what would become known as the Americas. He also discovered what would become the highly lucrative cod nurseries off the Eastern North American coasts.
Following Cabot’s success in finding new lands, Henry VII granted permission for a five-ship expedition from Bristol the following year to explore further. This time, the King helped finance the expedition and also gave Cabot a pension of twenty pounds per year. By May 1498, Cabot had left with both his Bristol backers and Brother Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, an Augustinian friar who hoped to bring Christianity to the New World.
In the decade after Cabot made landfall at what would become known as Newfoundland, Bristol launched further transatlantic expeditions. In 1499, the Bristol merchant William Weston (a close associate of Cabot) undertook the first English-led expedition to the ‘New Found Land’ and was well-rewarded by the king as a result. Other prominent Bristol merchants, such as Hugh Eliott and Robert Thorne, led further expeditions there a few years later under a new royal licence. By about 1505, Bristol was the main player in transatlantic voyaging and even formed the ‘Company Adventurers to the New Found Lands’ which was dedicated solely to organising further expeditions.
The last Bristol expedition of this era was undertaken by John Cabot’s son, Sebastian, in 1508. By this time it seems that the port’s explorers had established that a large continent – America – blocked the route to the Orient. Bristol’s merchants considered this land to be of little value, inhabited by what they believed at the time to be primitive people who lived simply and had little worth trading, and so Bristol left the New World to Europe’s fishermen.
We still don’t know exactly what happened to John Cabot and his 1498 expedition. Current theories are that the expedition was entirely lost, with all crew lost at sea; that a religious colony was established at what is now the modern town of Carbonear; or that Cabot returned to England, only to die in a plague outbreak during 1500.