10 Interesting facts about John Cabot

Upon reading Mr. Hunter’s article in Canada’s History (“Rewriting History” by Douglas Hunter April/May 2010), I learned some little known facts about John Cabot, the explorer who stumbled upon Canada’s East Coast (Newfoundland) in the 15th Century. The article is essentially a conglomeration of disputed facts about the explorer’s journey presented by various scholars. However, the crux of the article is the disappointment in losing years worth of research by British historian Alwyn Ruddock. She devoted her life (1916 – 2006) to the history of John Cabot’s three voyages to the New World (Eastern Canada) from Bristol, England.

Throughout her career she always revealed controversial points about the Explorer, the main one being that contrary to popular belief the Italian-English explorer did not perish on his third (1498) voyage, but rather returned to England safely and was still alive in 1500.

Throughout Ruddock’s life as a scholar and professor, she had promised a complete book “Columbus, Cabot, and the English Discovery of America.” Unfortunately this never came to fruition, and in her Last Will and Testament she ordered all of her work burned. This prompted scholars, friends, family and professors to search whatever they could in order to continue her extensive research. Her death and subsequent death of her work have prompted a renewed interest in these important Explorers who discovered the land we North and South Americans live on today. To quote the last paragraph of the article, “And so what began as a project to recover a scholar’s lost materials has become a research effort in its own right. John Cabot and the Bristol mariners have returned to the active front of scholarly research.  They’ve been away for an awfully long time, but it’s good to have them back.”

10 Interesting facts about John Cabot
  1. Birth: Born about 1455 in Italy, where he was known as Giovanni Caboto. He was a merchant who became an expert mariner while trading in spices and other valuable goods.
  2. 1494 or 1495: Cabot and his family moved to Bristol, England, where he petitioned the king and local merchants to support a voyage to discover a better route to Asia by sailing west across the North Atlantic
  3. 1496: With financial backing from Bristol merchants and authorization from Henry VII, Cabot made his first try. He ran short of food, encountered bad weather, and had disagreements with the crew, causing him to turn back.
  4. 1497: Cabot made his second attempt, sailing across the Atlantic in the Matthew and reaching land in what was probably modern-day Atlantic Canada. He left Bristol in May and was back by August 6.
  5. Cabot sailed again to the New World, taking five vessels. It was believed he died during this voyage, either by shipwreck, by starvation, or at the hands of the Beothuks or the Spanish. However, new evidence suggests he returned to England and was still alive in 1500.
  6. On his second voyage, June 24, 1497, most likely somewhere in Eastern Canada, he became the first European mariner after the Norse known to have reached North America
  7. American historian Samuel Eliot Morison believes Cabot landed at Cape Bauld in northern Newfoundland. Historians from Bristol, England, have said he made landfall at Cape North on Cape Breton Island. Nova Scotia and Maine have also been suggested. However, the government of Canada officially recognizes Bonavista, Newfoundland, as Cabot’s landing site.
  8. In the 1970’s there was an undated letter found from Henry VII ordering a stay of judicial proceedings against a Bristol merchant named William Weston, who was about to go on a voyage to the “New Founde Land,” likely in 1499. The letter, which cannot have been written later than March 1500, contains the earliest recorded reference to what we now call Newfoundland.
  9. Ruddock was firm in her belief that the first church in the New World was established at Conception Bay in Newfoundland in 1498 by an Italian cleric named Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis (a.k.a. Giovanni Antonio Carbonaro). This place is now called Carbonear. She also believed he sailed up the Labrador coast the following year, making discoveries later attributed to a different voyage in the early sixteenth century.
  10. Archaeologist Peter Pope of Memorial University is contemplating a search at Carbonear for the settlement that Ruddock said de Carbonariis built in 1498. He believes that finding any verifiable trace of Carbonariis’ presence at Carbonear is “a real long shot. But because the claim is so astounding, it ups the ante and makes searching worth the gamble.” Even if he doesn’t find evidence of de Carbonariis, he believes there is a good chance he will discover other things from the early sixteenth century that would make the dig effort worthwhile.

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