Sebastian Cabot (explorer)

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Sebastian Cabot in his old age

Sebastian Cabot (Italian and Venetian: Sebastiano Caboto, Spanish: Sebastián Caboto, Gaboto or Cabot; c. 1474 – c. 1557) was an Italian explorer, from the Venetian Republic, and possibly with Genoese or Neapolitan origins. He was the son of explorer John Cabot.



Sebastian Cabot was born in 1474, in Bristol, Southwest England, and died in 1557, in London, England. Son of John Cabot, a Venetian citizen and also an explorer variously credited with Genoese or Gaetan origins by birth, and of Mattea Caboto. He told Englishman Richard Eden that he was born in Bristol and carried to Venice at four years of age; however, he also told the Venetian ambassador at the court of Charles V, Gasparo Contarini, who noted it in his diary, that he was Venetian, educated in England. He may have sailed with his father in the service of England, in May 1497. John Cabot, sailing from Bristol, took the small ship Matthew along the coasts of a "New Found Land". There is much controversy over where exactly Cabot landed, but two likely locations that are often suggested are Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Cabot and his crew mistook this place for China, without finding the passage to the east they were looking for.

Some scholars[who?] maintain that the name America comes from Richard Ameryk, a Bristol merchant and customs officer, who is claimed on very slender evidence to have helped finance Cabot's voyage.

1494 John and Sebastian Cabot hypothetical discovery[edit]

According to "Cartografía Marítima Hispana",[1] there is a hand written text in Latin by Sebastian Cabot in his famous map (Antwerp 1544).[2] This Latin text was copied in Castilian to Sancho Gutierrez's 1551 map.[3] This text stated next to North America: "This land was discovered by Johannes Caboto, venetian and Sebastian Caboto, his son, in the year of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ MCCCCXCIIII, 24th of June in the morning. They put to it the name 'prima terra vista' and [...] This big island was named Saint John, as it was discovered on Saint John holiday. People there wander wearing animal furs. They use bow and arrow to fight, javelins and darts and wooden batons and slings. This is a very sterile land, there are a lot of white bears and very big deers, big as horses, and many other animals. As well there are infinite fish: plaices, salmons, very long soles, 1 yard long and many other varieties of fish. Most of them are called cod. And there are also black hawks, black as ravens, eagles, partridges and many other birds”

The year is clearly stated MCCCCXCIIII in both hand written versions. There cannot be confusion with the commonly accepted date for Cabots' voyage, in 1497. Two options can explain this.

One option is an intentional change in dates made by Sebastian Cabot and Sancho Gutiérrez in the middle of the sixteenth century. Intentional changes and inaccuracies were most common among geographers at the time, in order to obey political interests of their sponsors. As Sebastian was funded by the German emperor and King of Spain Charles V, he may be interested in showing that the first travel to North America was in 1494 and thus funded by Castilians or Portuguese, and not English nor French, because both England and France started claiming part of the share of new lands in opposition to the main players: Spain and Portugal.

Another option: Sebastian and Sancho are stating a true year, but this would mean Sebastian and his father John made a first scouting travel before proposing seriously their services to England in 1496. What seems suspect for this theory is that Cabot said the arrival date was the exact same day -- Saint John’s holiday -- as was stated for the 1497 expedition. In any case the time lapse between their documented presence in Castile and Portugal and their documented presence in England gave them enough time to make an scouting expedition, with an unclear source of funding.

Early employment with England and Spain[edit]

In 1504 Sebastian Cabot led a voyage from Bristol to the New World, which involved two ships: the Jesus of Bristol and the Gabriel of Bristol. These were mastered by Richard Savery and Philip Ketyner and fitted out by Robert Thorne and Hugh Elyot. A certain amount of salted fish was brought back, which suggests the voyage was at least partly commercial. On the other hand, it is also clear that Sebastian had engaged in some genuine exploration, since some time before 3 April 1505 he received an award from King Henry VII for services 'doon vnto vs in and aboute the fyndynge of the new found lands'.[4]

In 1508–09 Sebastian Cabot followed in his father's footsteps by leading one of the first expeditions to find a North-West passage, and indeed claimed to have found one, but was forced to turn back by his crew. He may have found the entrance to Hudson Bay.

By 1512 Sebastian was employed by Henry VIII as a cartographer at Greenwich. In the same year he accompanied the Marquess of Dorset's expedition to Spain, where he was made captain by Ferdinand V. After Ferdinand's death he returned to England. In 1516, Cabot and Sir Thomas Pert, then Vice Admiral of England, sailed in two ships to explore the coasts of Brazil and the West Indies for Henry VIII.[5] After coming under artillery fire at Hispaniola, the expedition withdrew and returned to England reportedly because of Pert's faint-heartedness.[6][7][8] Subsequently, Cabot moved to Spain due to greater support for explorations by the Spanish king.[9] In 1522, although once more in the employ of Spain as a member of the Council of the Indies and holding the rank of pilot-major, he secretly offered his services to Venice in communication with the Council of Ten, undertaking to find the Northwest Passage to China for Venice if they would receive him.[7]

Voyages to America[edit]

Cabot finally received the rank of captain general from Spain, and was entrusted on March 4, 1525, with the command of a fleet which was to determine from astronomical observation the precise demarcation of the Treaty of Tordesillas and then to convey settlers to the Moluccas, to strengthen Spanish claims there. It was officially noted as an expedition for the discovery of Tarshish, Ophir, Eastern Cathay, and Cipango (Japan). This expedition consisted of four ships with 200 men, and set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on April 3, 1526.

This voyage might have resulted in a second circumnavigation of the world. Upon landing in Brazil, however, rumours of the wealth of the Incan king and the nearly-successful invasion of Aleixo Garcia caused Cabot to abandon his charge and instead further explore the interior of the Río de la Plata.

Cabot had already earned the disapproval of his crew by stranding the fleet in the doldrums and running the flagship aground off Santa Catarina Island. His decision regarding the Río de la Plata led to open resistance from Martin Méndez (his lieutenant general), Miguel de Rodas (pilot of the capitana), and Francisco de Rojas (the captain of one of the other vessels). He dealt with the mutiny by marooning them and other officers on Santa Catarina Island.

He then travelled into the Río de la Plata and spent five months exploring the estuary. He established a fort called San Salvador at the confluence of the Uruguay and the Río San Salvador. This was the first Spanish settlement in modern-day Uruguay.

Leaving the two larger ships there, he sailed up the Paraná in the brigantine and a galley constructed at Santa Catarina. His party constructed a small fort called Santo or Espíritu Santo at the confluence of the Paraná and the Río Carcarañá. This was the first Spanish settlement in present-day Argentina; the town of Cabot was later constructed nearby and named in his honour. Losing 18 men to an ambush, he returned to San Salvador, passing Diego García's expedition as he went.

Cabot sent one ship back to Spain, with his reports, accusations against the mutineers, and requests for further aid. In the spring of 1529, he returned upriver to Espíritu Santo, which he discovered had been overwhelmed and burnt by the Indians during his absence. He recovered the cannon and returned to San Salvador.

At a council on August 6, 1529, it was decided to return to Spain. Cabot sailed with García to São Vicente. Purchasing 50 slaves there, he coasted Brazil and arrived in Seville on 22 July 1530, returning home with one ship and 24 men.

He was arraigned on charges from the Crown, by Rojas, and by the families of Rodas and Méndez. He was condemned by the Council of the Indies on charges of disobedience, misadministration, and causing the death of officers under his command and sentenced to heavy fines and a two-year banishment to Oran in North Africa. The period of his banishment was later doubled.

During these proceedings, however, the Emperor had been absent in Germany. Upon his return, Cabot presented him with descriptions of the region. Although no pardon is recorded and the fines were still paid, it is known that Cabot never went into exile and was pilot-major of Spain until 1547, when without losing either title or pension, he left Spain and returned to England, where he received a salary with the title of great navigator.

Later life[edit]

In the year 1553, Cabot discussed a voyage to China and re-joining the service of Charles V with his ambassador in England, Jean Scheyfve.[10] In the meantime Cabot had reopened negotiations with Venice, but he reached no agreement with that city. After this he aided both with information and advice the Muscovy Company expedition of Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor, he was made life-governor of the "Company of Merchant Adventurers", and equipped (1557) the expedition of Steven Borough.[11]

Accounts of journeys[edit]

The account of Cabot's journeys written by himself have been lost.


From the later sixteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century it was generally supposed that it was Sebastian, rather than his father John, who led the famous Bristol expeditions of the later 1490s, which resulted in the discovery, or rediscovery, of North America. This error seems to have been of Sebastian's own making, being based on what he told people in his old age.[12] The result was that the influential geographical writer Richard Hakluyt represented John as a mere figurehead for the expeditions and suggested that Sebastian actually led them. When new archival finds in the nineteenth century demonstrated that this was not the case, Sebastian became something of a 'hate' figure – disparaged by Henry Harrisse, in particular, as a man who wilfully appropriated his father's achievements and represented them as his own.[13] Because of this, Sebastian received much less attention in the twentieth century – even though other finds demonstrate that he did, for instance, lead some genuine exploratory voyages from Bristol in the first decade of the sixteenth century.[14]

Memorials to Sebastian Cabot[edit]



  1. ^ "Cartografía Marítima Hispana" Luisa Martin Merás, ISBN 84-7782-265-4
  2. ^ The only copy, found in Bavaria in 1843 is kept in French National Library, dept of maps Res. Ge. AA 582 (a facsimile is visible on Internet:
  3. ^
  4. ^ A.A. Ruddock, 'The reputation of Sebastian Cabot', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 42 (1974) pp. 95–9.
  5. ^ Thomas Southey, "Chronological History of the West Indies", Longman, et al., (1827) p. 127
  6. ^ Sir Harry Johnston, "Pioneers in Tropical America", Read Books, 2006, p. 101 ISBN 1-4067-2269-3
  7. ^ a b *Murphy, Patrick J.; Coye, Ray W. (2013). Mutiny and Its Bounty: Leadership Lessons from the Age of Discovery. Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300170283. 
  8. ^ Robert Kerr, A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels, W. Blackwood, 1824, pp. 11–12
  9. ^ William Goldsmith, The Naval History of Great Britain from the Earliest Period, J. Jaques, 1825, p. 51
  10. ^ Royall, Tyler, ed., Calendar State Papers Spanish, vol. 11 (1916), pp. 30–32, 38–39.
  11. ^ Wright, Helen Saunders (1910). The great white North: the story of polar exploration from the earliest times to the discovery of the Pole. The Macmillan Company. p. 6. 
  12. ^ Peter Pope, The Many Landfalls of John Cabot (University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 58–64.
  13. ^ Henry Harrisse, John Cabot, the Discoverer of North-America and Sebastian, his Son (London, 1896), pp. 115–25.
  14. ^ A.A. Ruddock, 'The reputation of Sebastian Cabot', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 42 (1974).
  15. ^ William Theed (the Younger), 'Sebastian Cabot before Henry VII'

Further reading[edit]