Skip to main content

Full text of "John and Sebastian Cabot, a four hundredth anniversary memorial of the discovery of America"

See other formats




John and Sebastian Cabot 





JUNE 24th, 1897. 

Prepared at the request of and published by the Society. 


John and Sebastian Cabot, 




JUNE 24th, 1897. 

Prepared at the request of and published by the Society. 







JUNE 24, 1897. 

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen : 

Patriotism is a sentiment, a disposition of th e "heart, and 
finds many and widely different modes of exemrJMoa citm 
and expression, as shouting, ringing bells/ firing* cannon 
processions, fasting and prayer, music, raisin g mbmiments; 
and erecting arches, &c. 

The celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the 
declaration of American independence, and the world s fair at 
Chicago, commemorative of the four hundredth anniversary 
of the discovery of America by Columbus, as well as the 
recent dedication of the tomb of General Grant, and the 
erection of a beautiful equestrian statue of George Wash 
ington, were acts indicative of a noble patriotism. Not 
withstanding the history of the world shows a great pre 
ponderance of military hero-worship, rather than tributes to 
the grand heroes and leaders in the domain of ideas, yet 
there is much to encourage the thought that the grade of 
learning, of civilization, of philosophy and religious ethics 
now foreshadowed, to distinguished the past from the future, 
will more and more predominate, to determine that the 
world s greater heroes are those whose labors culminate in 
producing the greatest degree of universal peace and happi 
ness without bloodshed and terror. 

In this brief paper it is as impossible as unnecessary, and 
out of place, to attempt to produce a polished literary gem. 
History, however, is more than a mere chronological state 
ment of facts. In its broader conception it must embrace 

&U < dfc 

the philosophy or ideas which constitute the ground work 
upon which all facts are based. In other words, theory 
must precede action. 

John Cabot, certainly, and Sebastian Cabot, possibly, were 
the first Europeans to discover the American continent and 
make record and cartographical representation of the same, 
preserving to all posterity the time, place and circumstance 
of their discovery. To the present time the American peo 
ple have neglected to place one stone upon another designed 
to memorialize those men, or to express gratitude for the 
geVgc4^6i*cai discovery, which either made our great nation 
a .possibility, bp an accomplished fact. While we claim for 
tfre Cabots ttie distinguished honor of the first view of the 
American continent, technically, and in fact, we do not pre 
sume to name them as the discoverers of America, in the 
largest and more just sense of the phrase. That distin 
guished honor the world has long since accorded to Chris 
topher Columbus, and their righteous judgment should 
never again be disputed. The discovery and exploration of 
America cannot be understood by one distinct statement of 
fact. The results of various navigations and explorations, 
attended with much peril and anxious solicitude, covering a 
period of two hundred years, makes intelligible and plain to 
us, what to the early navigators and explorers was chaotic 
and at most dubious, and solely problematical. Nor is it 
necessary for the purposes of this paper that we review all 
that early history in detail. The nautical problem and the 
geographical discoveries proposed by Diaz, Da Gama, Co 
lumbus, Magellan, Verrazano, and the Cabots, was not to find 
an unknown continent, but solely to ascertain the most feasi 
ble route to the eastern shores of Asia. At the time the Ca 
bots made their first voyage of discovery all the knowledge 
that Europe possessed pertinent to the great problem,was,that 
Columbus had come upon islands in the Atlantic which he 
and all others supposed was the continent of Asia, or immedi- 


ate outlying islands. That discovery was made on the elev 
enth day of October, A.D. 1492. When Columbus returned to 
Spain, in the Spring of 1493, and reported his discovery, Pope 
Alexander VI promptly proceeded to make partition be 
tween Spain and Portugal, of all the regions of the earth lying 
between Western Europe and Eastern Asia. This decree 
(technically called a "bull") gave all lands discovered, or to 
be discovered, to the west of a meridian one hundred 
leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde islands to Spain, 
and all lands eastward of that line to Portugal. The con 
vention of Tordesillas, June 7, 1494, fixed the line of de 
marcation at a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde 
islands. This was very acceptable to Spain and Portugal, 
but England recognized no such right or authority in the 
Papal office. In the meantime the discovery of Columbus 
was bruited among the English people, and at the English 
court. Both court and people were pricked with enterprise 
to compete with Spain for a share of what was to be gained 
by discoveries at the west. This fact is the proper introduc 
tion of the Cabots to our consideration. We need con 
stantly to keep before our minds the total ignorance of all 
parties at that time of the real nature of the discovery of 
Columbus. Columbus supposed he had reached Eastern 
Asia, and no one then could dispute his claimj No correct 
conception was possible until twenty years had passed, and 
Balboa had, from the height of Darien, discovered ten thou 
sand miles of ocean breadth between the newly discovered 
lands and Eastern Asia. 

John Cabot, like Columbus, was a native of Genoa. He 
later removed to Venice, and became a citizen of that place. 
He migrated to England about the year 1490, with his three 
sons, the second of them being Sebastian, who was 24 or 25 
years of age in 1497. The services of father and son are so 
commingled and confused by the chroniclers of their day that 
it is an impossible task on our part to justly distinguish and 

divide the honors between them. 1 can find nothing more 
suitable with which to prelude the navigation of the Cabots, 
and the inspiring motives, than the statement in after years 
made to the Pope s Envoy in Spain by Sebastian Cabot. 
He says : " When news that Don Christopher Colonus 
(Genoese) had discovered the coasts of India, whereof was 
great talk in all the court of King Henry VII, who then 
reigned, insomuch that all men, with great admiration, 
affirmed it to be a thing more divine than human, to sail by 
the west into the east, where spices grow, by a map that was 
never known before. By this fame and report there increased 
in my heart a great flame of desire to attempt some notable 
thing." Whether his father was moved to the same extent 
and by the same desire as his son we are not informed. It 
is known that Sebastian Cabot was well versed in cos 
mography, and on his removal to Spain, some time after 
making his voyages for England, was commissioned pilot- 
major for Spain, an office he held for several years. The 
Cabots appear to have fully appreciated the bearing upon 
great circle sailing, caused by the shortening of the degrees 
of longitude as we move further north or south from the 
equator. Bearing in mind that Columbus had sailed nearly 
due west on the latitude of the Canary islands, discovering 
land after sailing 33 days and 3200 miles, the Cabots rightly 
reasoned, that by sailing from Bristol in England, on latitude 
53 degrees north, they would come to the coast of Asia, the 
land that Columbus was supposed to have discovered, in 
about two-thirds of the time, and two-thirds of the distance, 
that characterized the voyage of Columbus. When this 
plausible theory was by them explained to King Henry, he 
quite readily granted a patent to John Cabot and his sons, 
upon apparent liberal terms and conditions, to undertake a 
westerly voyage of discovery. They were to sail from, and 
return to, the port of Bristol ; must sail under the flag of 
England, and take possession of all lands discovered for the 

British crown, and return one-fifth of the profits of trie expe 
dition to the king. King Henry was more discreet than the 
Spanish king, for he did not bestow upon Cabots the title 
of viceroy over the lands they might discover, as Ferdinand 
had to Columbus. The king thus wisely avoided any legal 
contest with the Cabots or their heirs as to great and im 
portant rights and prerogatives. 

Our subject is ponderous, in that it relates to great men 
and greater events, therefore I must deal somewhat by 
wholesale, for our men are giants in the world s history, and 
cannot be estimated by or compared with common stand 
ards, nor can I now attempt measurements of the earth by 
inches. Let us for two minutes, in imagination, go back to 
our little old red school-house by the country roadside, 
and refresh our recollections in geography. Please take 
seats, facing the north, right hand east, left hand west, at 
our backs south, the Eastern hemisphere is at the right, and 
the Western at the left. Open your maps at the familiar old 
representation of the hemispheres of the earth on plane. 
Now we take a small brush and dip it in the blackest of 
black ink, indicative of total ignorance, and proceed to ob 
scure those parts of the earth s surface of which Europeans 
had no knowledge, and only quite incorrect conception, on 
the morning of the 3d day of August, A. D. 1492. On 
that day -Columbus sailed on his first and most important 
voyage to the west. 

We place our brush a little to the south and west of the 
southerly extension of Greenland, on the 6oth parallel of 
north latitude, and draw a line east, on that parallel, to the 
meridian of 25 degrees west longitude, and follow that me 
ridian to the equator, and blacken the whole of the Western 
hemisphere we N st and south of our lines. Now draw a line 
from the right hand or eastern border of the Eastern hemi 
sphere, at latitude 40 degrees north, and draw a straight 
line to the equator to the meridian of longitude no degrees 


east, and follow the equator to the west border of the hem 
isphere. Blacken all south and east of our lines to the 
margin of the hemisphere. You now observe that the whole 
of the land of the American continent has disappeared, to 
gether with the greater portion of the Atlantic ocean, and 
the whole of the Pacific ocean ; about one-half of Africa is 
in mourning, together with Australia, and the islands to the 
east and north and to the south to the south pole. What 
remains unpainted upon the hemispheres is more of the 
earth s surface than with which Europeans were fairly ac 
quainted. In all the historical works of Mr. John Fiske, he 
has done no better service to the present or for future gen 
erations than by his persistent insistance of the necessity of 
our first banishing from our minds our modern maps, as 
preliminary to a just understanding of the difficulties that 
beset the early theorists and navigators. An examination 
of the charts and maps made by them when they attempted 
to delineate their new discoveries and connect them to the 
Eastern and better known hemisphere, will show us at once 
the difficulties they encountered. At the date last above 
given, August 3d, 1492, there was a single grand geograph 
ical problem demanding solution ; and that was, t( Could 
Europeans travel to Eastern Asia by an all water or sailing 
route ?" There was then two theories. The Portugese had an 
idea that it might be possible to sail around the south of Afri 
ca, and reach the Indian ocean, which was known washed 
the western shores of India and China, Her daring navi 
gators were at that very date, with doubt and trepidation, 
slowly ploughing the water of the Atlantic southward on 
the western coast, to ascertain the southern point of Africa, 
if there was any. At this period Columbus had determined 
to anticipate the project of Portugal, by a voyage directly 
westward over the unknown and untraveled Atlantic, 
making a shorter journey than by the Portugese theory. 
Spain, at the moment, was witnessing his departure in her 


interest. Europe was on the tiptoe of excitement and hope 
ful expectation. The objective point of either navigation 
was the same ; the ostensible motives the same commerce, 
trade and barter ; but, in fact, as was soon to be manifest, 
conquest and plunder. Down to the first of May, 1497, all 
that had been discovered for Spain by Columbus was Cuba, 
San Domingo, Jamaica, and half a dozen smaller islands in 
the immediate vicinity. Thus the problem stood on that 
day. Listen ; a low muttering thunder reverberates over 
Europe. It is the threatening growl of the British lion as 
he breaks from his lair. He sniffs the scent of large game, 
a continent of royal game. His eyes are balls of fire, his 
claws as iron, his jaws set with teeth of steel as he crouches 
in preparation to seize his prey. He brushes aside the Pope s 
bull. The bull took to the woods or sank beneath the At 
lantic s waves as the lion, with a bound, sets his claws in 
the soil of the American continent, while John Cabot plants 
the royal standard of England, June 24, 1497, recalling to 
us the long drawn words of a youthful play, HOLD- 

From that June morning 1497, England could make law 
ful claim to the whole American continent, by right of first 
discovery. That is horn-book law, sound law, from the 
beginning to the end of the world. The right by first dis 
covery extends to and embraces all land connected by con 
tinuity of visible and tangible surface with the place of 

John and Sebastian sailed early in May 1497, in the ship 
Mathew, with a crew of eighteen men. They took a course 
a little north of west and discovered land early in the morn 
ing of the 24th day of June following, after sailing by their 
reconing, 2100 miles. They planted the flag of England 
upon the land, but saw no native inhabitants. They dis 
covered immense shoals of cod-fish on those coasts, so 


dense, that they impeded the sailing of their ship. By the 
latter part of July following the Cabots had returned to 
Bristol and made report of their voyage. The precise place 
of their terra prima visa (land first seen) has never since 
been determined, but it is certain that it was in the region of 
Newfoundland, most probably at Cape Breton. And it is 
quite certain that upon that voyage they did not visit the 
coast of Labrador as some writers have asserted. Such a 
claim arises by commingling or reversing the places of land 
ing of the two voyages made. King Henry was so well 
pleased with the reports of discovery that he gave John 
Cabot fifty dollars, wherewith he might take a spree, and in 
silken dress show himself to Londoners as the great navi 
gator who had found, for King Henry, a shorter route to 
c Asia than Columbus had for Spain. 

"~A second and similar patent to the first was granted to 
the Cabots, and Sebastian Cabot set sail again to renew and 
extend the discoveries of the former voyage. He sailed in 
1498, this time with five ships. As we have never heard a 
word again of John Cabot, nor know what became of him, 
it has been surmised that he died before the expedition 
sailed, but we cannot assert it as a fact. Sebastian Cabot 
certainly sailed with the fleet, and for aught we know, John 
also sailed. It seems strange to us that if the son knew 
what became of his father, he never alluded to it. Sebastian 
Cabot completed the second navigation, discovering land, 
first, on the coast of Labrador. After following the coasts 
northward to a high degree of latitude, and finding the 
weather very cold, and the coast still trending north, he 
turned about, following the coast southwardly, we know not 
precisely how far, but quite certainly not as far as Florida, 
as some have contended. On this voyage native inhabitants 
were seen on the coasts. Three were captured and taken 
to England. Bears and other animals were seen. Sebas- 


tian Cabot made rude charts of the coasts, which in engraved 
form and on parchment and oxhide, may yet be seenV par 
ticularly La Cosa s map, 1 500, and the Cantino map of 1 502. 

Of course Sebastian returned to England without having 
found the land of perfumes and spices which Spain, Port 
ugal and England were so anxiously seeking, or a sailing 
route through the American continent by which he might 
sail to lands further west, (or as we understand it now, to 
Asia.) But Cabot at the time believed the land to be Asia, 
though not so rich a portion as he had expected and desired. 

The final outcome of the Cabot voyages, we state in a few 
words. The only immediate resuts were to incite other 
navigators to go to the same regions for cargoes of codfish, 
and to renew the search for an all water route somewhere 
through the lands discovered, to the richer land, supposed 
to lie to the west. Their navigations were folowed by Fro- 
bisher, Rut, Grube, Hudson, Baffin, Drake and many others. 

In my "Discovery of America," published in 1892, in the 
early chapters will be found an epitome of early American 
navigators, and their relative claims to priority of discovery, 
to which I make neither additions or subtractions. As be- [ 
tween John and Sebastian Cabot ; we may say that John 
was master of the first expedition, and that Sebastian may 
or may not have accompanied his father. It appears more 
than probable that he did. Sebastian certainly sailed and 
reported the second expedition, and that his father was not 
in that voyage, but probably had died before the expedition 
sailed. If not so, and he did embark, a serious duty de 
volved upon his son, on the return of the expedition, to 
account for the loss of his father. As this was not done or 
required, the inference is irresistable that John was not in 
that expedition. Neither of the voyages appear to have 
profited either the Cabots or the king a dollar. Mainly what 
we learn of the Cabots voyages is from friendly and gos 
siping letters, written by foreigners in England, to friends 


and acquaintances in Italy, Spain and Portugal. These 
letters have no official authority, but contain the common 
talk of the people in regard of the current news of the ex 
pedition of the Cabots. 

During the eighty years, succeeding the discoveries 
of the Cabots, England might lawfully have claimed the 
lands and regions of this discovery, by right of discovery. 
England, however, never attempted to take permanent 
possession of her American discoveries, until the reign of 
Queen Elizabeth, and in the meantime other nations had 
visited the lands, which tended to obscure and somewhat 
obliterate the English title thereto. However, in 1607 she 
took possession on the coast of Virginia, for the purpose of 
colonization, which was followed in 1620, by the pilgrims of 
the Mayflower, taking possession at Plymouth, on the coast 
of Massachusetts. England, then as ever since, never re 
linquished voluntarily any right once acquired to an acre 
of land in any part of the world. Thus it was 110 years 
from the discovery of Cabots, to the first attempt made by 
England to make a permanent settlement of her American 
discoveries. Of course the pioneer settlers were English 
stock, and brought with them English language, English 
laws, English customs, and above all, in power and precious 
utility, the spirit of political independence, and in a full meas 
ure the spirit of religious liberty. The very soil of America 
seemed exactly and providentially adapted to the germi 
nation and growth of the spiritual seed sown, so dear to our 
forefathers and so precious to us, their descendants. Had 
our region of North America been colonized by Portugal, 
France, Italy or Spain, the great nation of the United States 
of America would never have been born. In recollection 
of their mother country, there is but little wonder that our 
early settlers named the new possession "New England" 

Do you query what this country would have been or 
would be, under the auspices of Portugal or Spain ? If so, 


look upon a hundred thousand emigrants as they arrive 
upon our shores, or look at Cuba, or the Philipine islands, 
or the decadence of Portugal, where once originated the 
enterprises which culminated in the discovery of America, 
and all our grandeur as a nation. 

I fancy I hear you ask : What motives impelled those 
early navigators and explorers to make such sacrifice of time 
and money, to embark upon such uncertain expeditions 
upon unknown waters and desert wastes ; to imperil their 
lives and fortunes upon such rash ventures ; to undergo 
years of toil, such terrible anxiety and suffering ? With them, 
as with men in all ages, Gold and Glory took front rank 
among the motives. But strange as it may now seem, it was 
not the eye or ear s delight only, nor geographic curiosity, 
that was consulted. The sense of smell commanded a greater 
attention and was a greater factor in prompting the astound 
ing enterprise. We are speaking of an age when sanitary 
science cut no figure in the affairs of life an age before 
the ingenius Yankee had made and patented a thousand 
varieties of toilet soap an age before a gospel of personal 
and general cleanliness was preached or practiced. Per 
fumery, to take the place of soap and water, was in great 
demand. Rare, expensive, and loud perfumes, to antagonize 
and stifle the offensiveness of unwashed nature, commanded 
a premium, and its extravagant use then indicated wealth, 
and the uppercrust of fashionable society. In keeping with 
the ideas of the times, it was the sign and seal of aristocracy, 
as creditable then as discreditable and unnecessary now, 
however rank the perfume. Spices and perfumes were not 
indigenous in Europe. Such merchandise came from the 
extreme and unknown East by caravan to Alexandria, in 
Egypt. The transportation, added to the cost of produc 
tion, made such goods enormously expensive. Portugal 
first followed by Spain, and lastly by England, all desired 
a monopoly of that trade. This it was that brought into 


prominence the great navigators already mentioned, includ 
ing the men whose names and exploits we are assembled to 
honor and commemorate. 

The people of the United States have grown to be a na 
tion of the first rank in power, in wealth, in enlightened 
intelligence, and in prosperity. Our form of government, 
founded upon the eternal principles of liberty, governed by 
law, the equality of men and liberty of religious conscience, 
that we have amply demonstrated the powers of self-govern 
ment by the people, without the burden of standing armies 
to keep the peace. We think our forefathers did wisely in 
divorcing the church from the state, and that time has now 
shown the world that people of all manner of religious opin 
ions may dwell together in peace and harmony, and that 
our system and means of education make strong and secure 
the family, the church, and the stale. In receiving the price 
less inheritance, our people must realize the solemn and 
binding obligation which binds us to keep and preserve all 
our dear institutions, pure and intact, embellished in all their 
parts and principles, for all succeeding generations. 

And now, imbued with the patriotism that is proper and 
becoming the occasion, we, without ostentation or pageant, 
without trumpet, drum or fiddle, in the absence of monu 
ment of either stone or brass, devote a passing hour in re 
membrance of the men whose names suggest this pleasant 
duty, and the four hundredth anniversary of their discovery 
of the land we possess in great peace and abundant pros 





SCP 22 




10De 57WJ 

,-. v 

, . : 


LD21-100m-7, 39(402s) 

Gaylord Bros. 

Stockton, Calif. 

PAT. IAN. 21, 1908