John and Sebastian Cabot - European Explorers

John Cabot
John Cabot

Key figures among the European explorers during the age of discovery whose exploits gave important knowledge of the Americas to their European patrons, John Cabot (c. 1451–98) and his son, Sebastian Cabot (c. 1483–1557), have long been a source of controversy and speculation regarding various aspects of their lives and achievements. Probably born in Genoa around 1451, John Cabot moved to Venice in his youth, where he became a naturalized citizen.

Believing, like Christopher Columbus, that he could reach the Far East by sailing west, he journeyed to England in the 1480s, residing mainly in Bristol until March 1496, when King Henry VII granted him the authority to launch an expedition of discovery in his name. Sailing from Bristol on May 20, 1497, with one ship and a crew of 18, he reached the North American coast on June 24. It is not known whether his son, Sebastian, accompanied him.

The precise location of his landing is a matter of some dispute but is generally believed to be Cape Breton Island. Cabot is conventionally credited with “discovering” North America on behalf of his English patrons, even though the fish-rich seas off the coast of northern North America had been visited for most of the previous century by commercial fishermen of various European nationalities.

Regardless of which European first sighted the North American mainland during this era, Cabot’s claims of discovery became the basis for English claims to North America.

Rewarded for his discovery with an annual pension of 20 pounds, Cabot launched a second voyage in 1498. He was never heard from again and is presumed to have died in or near North America. His son, Sebastian, also received a patent from the king of England to continue the explorations begun by his father.

Searching for the fabled Northwest Passage through the Americas to the Far East, he is generally believed to have explored the northern shores of North America, perhaps sailing as far as Hudson Bay, in 1508–09. In 1512, he switched patrons, entering the Spanish service under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

In 1518, he was named chief pilot, and in 1526, following the return of the ship of Ferdinand Magellan, he sailed to the Río de la Plata region of southern South America, probably searching for gold and other treasure.

In 1530, after the expedition had largely failed, he returned to Spain. In 1548, he switched patrons again, returning to England and in 1553 becoming governor of a joint-stock company, later known as the Muscovy Company, much of whose capital was expended in the failed effort to discover the Northwest Passage.

One of the company’s expeditions did reach the White Sea, culminating in a commercial treaty with Russia and substantial weakening of the Hanseatic League. Sebastian Cabot claimed for himself many of the discoveries and achievements of his father. Until the work of 19th-century scholars, it was thought that Sebastian, not John, had “discovered” North America for the English.