John Cabot

John Cabot

(c. 1450-1498)

If any single European can be credited with opening the door to Canada, it was John Cabot. While there is almost no historical documentation about Cabot—no signature, description, or portrait—it is known that his real name was Giovanni Caboto, and he was born in the mid- 15th century in Genoa, Italy.

The first documented reference to Cabot dates from when he became a Venetian citizen in 1475. He was a successful mariner-merchant, married an Italian woman, and by 1484 he was buying and selling real estate in Venice. It is known that he appeared in England no later than 1495.

On March 4, 1496, King Henry VII granted permission to Cabot and his three sons — Lewis, Sebastian and Santius — to lead an expedition to the New World.Cabot had settled in Bristol, one of the major ports of England and home to some of the most adventurous mariners of that time.

Here he acquired some financial backers and a small ship, the Matthew. Cabot sailed, in May 1497 with a mainly British crew. Although he had little more than a compass and a quadrant for navigation, he was an experienced sailor and made good time crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

On June 24, the Matthew made landfall someplace along the northeastern coast of Canada, most likely in Newfoundland. Cabot went ashore briefly, then sailed down the coast and back. He made a remarkably fast return voyage to England, leaving Newfoundland on July 20 and arriving safely back at Bristol on August 6.

Cabot brought back reports of the New World and its resources such as codfish and tall trees that could be used for ship masts. He was immediately rewarded by the King of England and given a new royal grant. This time he was authorized to lead a fleet of wellprovisioned ships to this new land to found a colony.

Cabot’s five ships set off from Bristol in May 1498. One, damaged by a storm, returned to Ireland shortly thereafter. The other four ships disappeared. Whether they went down at sea or arrived in North America and then met difficulties is not known, but Cabot was never heard of again.

Cabot, like Columbus, mistakenly thought he had found some new route to China and the East Indies. Although Cabot’s voyage did not lead to any immediate gain, the success of his first trip served as a major inspiration for the colonization of North America that soon followed. In 1997, the Canadian maritime provinces celebrated the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s arrival in the New World.