John Cabot was a Venetian explorer. He is believed to have been born in the Republic of Genoa during the 1440s but had moved to Venice by the early 1460s. There he became a citizen and merchant known locally as Zuan Chabotto – the Venetian form of his name, ‘Zuan’ being pronounced a bit like a cross between ‘Jean’ and ‘Juan’, the French and Spanish forms of the name. In Italy today the explorer is usually known as Giovanni Caboto.
In 1488 Zuan fled Venice as an insolvent debtor, taking with him his wife, Mattea, and their three sons. After several years living in Valencia and Seville, Juan Caboto (as he was known in Spain) made his way to England in 1495. Now going by the anglicised version of his name, John Cabot secured the support of some Bristol merchants, and of some Italian merchants based in London. He also found a powerful patron: Brother Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, a Milanese friar and diplomat who was also the Pope’s tax collector in England.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, encountering islands in the Caribbean and claiming them for Spain. But he did not explore to the west or north, and he never reached any part of North America.
Cabot believed that he could reach the Orient faster by taking a northerly route across the Atlantic from England. With his influential backers, he managed to convince King Henry VII that he could relocate ‘lost’ islands in the Atlantic and establish a westward sea route to the Orient. Like Columbus before him, Cabot believed that the world was much smaller than it actually is. Both assumed that Asia, with its silk and spices, lay just a few thousand miles west of Europe.
Yes! In May 1497 Cabot left England on The Matthew of Bristol. With him went a local crew, and probably at least two Bristol merchants. They sailed west past Ireland into unknown seas, experiencing generally good weather. They landed on the island of Newfoundland on 24 June. Cabot believed this land belonged to the Emperor of China. He was wrong, of course: what he had stumbled into was North America.
Cabot was not the first European to reach North America: Norse sailors had visited Newfoundland and Labrador five hundred years earlier, exploring west from their settlements on Iceland and Greenland. There were also, of course, millions of people already living on the continent of North America, by hunting, fishing and farming. But Cabot’s voyage was the first modern European expedition to explore and chart the east coast of this northern continent. His voyage was also the first to identify the rich cod fisheries that lay off the coast of Newfoundland. This fishery would be the basis for the region’s economy for centuries to come.
‘The sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.’ – Raimondo Soncino, Milanese Ambassador to England, 18 December 1497
Having explored and charted the coast for a month, Cabot returned to Bristol in August 1497. The King rewarded him with an annual pension, and plans were laid for further expeditions. Cabot briefly became a celebrity at court:
‘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.’ – Diplomatic letter, 23 August 1497
In 1498 Cabot led a five-ship expedition from Bristol, carrying trade goods intended for China and Japan. While The Matthew had made a good reconnaissance vessel, she was probably too small to have been used on the later voyages. The Matthew became an ordinary merchantman once more, carrying goods between Bristol, Ireland, Bordeaux and the Basque Country. Not all of this trade was legal; in 1498 and 1500, customs officers seized smuggled goods from the ship!
What happened to the 1498 expedition is unknown. Some of the ships probably made it home, but it is unclear whether Cabot survived. Despite this, Bristol’s merchants undertook at least five more expeditions to North America between 1499 and 1509. Ships sailed up the coast of Labrador into the icy waters of the Arctic and south along the eastern seaboard, going at least as far as Chesapeake Bay, southeast of Washington DC.
Bristol’s expeditions failed to find a route to China or Japan, and they were unable to establish a profitable trade with the peoples of North America. But the expeditions, along with rival voyages sent from Portugal around 1500, did reveal to Europeans the existence of a huge continent. Bristol also began a European fishery that would, within a few decades, involve hundreds of ships visiting Newfoundland each summer, catching cod and salting it for people back home in France, Portugal, Spain and England.
The Matthew was a small ship, with a crew of no more than 20. While Cabot would have had a tiny cabin to himself, most of the crew would have slept on deck in the narrow space beneath the forecastle. On the 1497 expedition, the hold of the ship would have been filled with the food, drink and fuel needed to keep the crew alive for nine months. The sailors were often cold and almost constantly wet. Their food would have consisted of a stew made from ship’s biscuit and salted meat or fish cooked on deck. The one compensation was that this would be washed down with a lot of beer – sailors were typically granted an allowance of eight pints of good beer per day!
If Columbus’s first expedition is anything to go by, there would have been times when they were fearful; Cabot himself was confused by the misbehaviour of his compass so far north, and on the return voyage there were arguments about navigation. Yet despite the upsets, some Bristolians at least were keen to go back to the land they called the ‘New Isle’.
Cabot did not encounter any Indigenous Americans on his 1497 voyage. However, he did find a campsite and artefacts that probably belonged to the Beothuk, an aboriginal people who travelled across the land in small bands, hunting caribou in the winter and fishing, whaling and seal hunting on the coast during the summer. However, the resources available to hunter-gatherers in Newfoundland could only support a small population. Archaeologists estimate that the total population of Newfoundland at the time Cabot arrived was probably around a thousand. And this was on an island that is five times the size of Wales. So, it is not surprising that Cabot did not encounter any of the Beothuk in 1497, especially given that he only landed once.
The modern Matthew was built between 1994–1996 on Redcliffe Quay in Bristol. She was built to re-enact Cabot’s famous voyage for the 500th anniversary of the expedition. The Matthew left Bristol on 2 May 1997, seen off by huge crowds. She landed in Bonavista, Newfoundland, where Queen Elizabeth II welcomed her. The ship is now owned by The Matthew of Bristol Trust, a registered charity. All money raised from donations and the profits made from public and private trips are used to maintain the ship and her legacy.
The modern ship is used to teach people about the nautical activities of one of England’s great maritime centres. Bristol was the second port of the realm from the 12th–18th century. The Matthew is used to introduce visitors to the local and national history and heritage associated with John Cabot and early Atlantic exploration. More generally, she is used for educating visitors about Bristol’s maritime history, including shipbuilding, medieval seamanship, trade, smuggling and piracy.
People sometimes ask if John Cabot or The Matthew had any connection with the Atlantic slave trade. The answer is no. Bristol was heavily involved in this evil trade from 1690–1807, but that was almost 200 years after the explorer’s death.
As far as we know, Cabot’s sole connection with slavery is that, in 1483, while he was still operating as a Venetian merchant, he bought a female slave in the territories of the Sultan of Egypt – most likely in Alexandria or Beirut. He sold her a few weeks later in Crete, which was then a Venetian possession.
Marina was a 32-year-old woman. She may have been sold into slavery by her family to pay off debts, taken as tribute by way of an official tax, seized in war, or even captured by slave-raiding pirates who operated from both Christian and Islamic states at this time. Marina’s name, which means ‘from the sea’, was common among Orthodox Christians and Coptic Christians in the region.
While it was never good to be a slave, Mediterranean slavery was very different from the brutal early modern Atlantic slave trade. In the Mediterranean world, slaves were predominantly female and lived and worked in their master’s household. Many, including Marina, were also only bound for a fixed period. We know Marina was 32 because her age and the length of her service was stated in the official copy of her sales contract. This contract stated that she was to be freed when she reached 40, or, at the latest, after 15 years.
The other way that Mediterranean slavery was different from Atlantic slavery is that it was not racialised. Marina might have been an Arab, an Egyptian, or a dark-skinned Nubian from the Sudan. But she could also have been European, coming from the Balkans, the Crimea or Georgia. The lack of a racial dimension to slavery made a difference in the way Mediterranean people thought about enslaved people. Free people considered slaves unfortunate because of what had become of them but at this time, slaves were not considered to be racially inferior.