John Cabot
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John Cabot

The first documented European to arrive in North America after the Norse was Giovanni Caboto. While argument still persists over his birthplace - Venice or Genoa - when he sailed for a British king, his name was anglicized to John Cabot.

King Henry VII of England authorized Cabot to "seek out, discover and find whatsoever isles, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels... in what part of the world soever they be, which before this time have beene unknowen to all Christians."
A replica of John Cabot's ship 'The Matthew' sails off the coast of Newfoundland, July 1997. (Scene from Canada: A People's History)
A replica of John Cabot's ship 'The Matthew' sails off the coast of Newfoundland, July 1997. (Scene from Canada: A People's History)

England was attempting to keep up with the Spaniards who had sent their own expedition west under Christopher Columbus years earlier. Columbus' journey had been a probe to find a new route to the markets of the Orient but he got it wrong.

He left Spain, boldly crossed the Atlantic and mistakenly declared that the islands he found there were the Atlantic shores of Asia: the West Indies.

"Signor Christopher Columbus of Genoa had discovered the coast of India and it was spoken of grandly... It was more divine than human to have found that way never before known, to get to the Orient, from where the spices originate."
Imaginary Medallion portrait of John Cabot, from a memoir published in Venice in 1881.
Imaginary Medallion portrait of John Cabot, from a memoir published in Venice in 1881.

It was 1492 and his discovery was received in Europe with fanfare, and envy. Not to be outdone by the Spanish, King Henry VII selected Caboto, who was living with his family in the English port of Bristol, to cross the Atlantic and plant a flag for England.

Cabot sailed from Bristol on May 2, 1497 on a single ship, christened the Matthew after his wife, Matea. Cabot set a more northerly route then Columbus, settling into higher Atlantic currents.

Four and a half weeks later he sighted land. On St. John's Day -- June 24, 1497 Cabot set into a bay and named the area 'Terra Nova' or "New Found Land."

The events of discovery were recorded by two foreign agents from England; Raimondo Soncino and Lorenzo Pasqualigo and by a Bristol merchant, John Day.

Day's letter, written in the winter of 1497-98, describes a single landing on the same day Cabot spotted land. When Cabot and a few men went ashore they raised a cross and the banner of England, claiming the territory for Christianity and for the King, Cabot's commercial backer.

Following a trail inland, Cabot and his men came to a clearing with a dead campfire and a short stick that had been carved and painted. The abandoned site may have belonged to the Beothuk and it was a fitting introduction to a tribe that would prove so elusive.

Cabot retrieved fresh water, then got nervous and returned to his ship, which he sailed along the coast for another month.

Returning to the place where he made landfall, Cabot set out again for England on July 20, 1497. On August 6, 1497 the crowd at the docks back in Bristol received Cabot as a hero.

Not only had he claimed new land for England, but he had also found a seemingly bottomless supply of codfish, what the English called stockfish.

Cabot immediately reported his discoveries to the king, telling him that there were so many fish in the waters of the Atlantic that they could be caught with a basket lowered over the side of a boat.

Henry VII duly rewarded Cabot for his successful voyage, congratulating the explorer with a cash bonus, an annual pension, and royal permission to follow up with a larger expedition.

Cabot did set out on a follow-up voyage, leaving England with five ships in 1498, but he didn't make it back to his "New Found Land." All five ships and all hands aboard them were lost at sea.

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