John Cabot [Giovanni Caboto] (1450-1498), Italian navigator and discoverer of North America, was born in Genoa, but in 1461 went to live in Venice, of which he became a naturalized citizen in 1476. During one of his trading voyages to the eastern Mediterranean, Cabot paid a visit to Mecca, then the greatest mart in the world for the exchange of the goods of the East for those of the West. On inquiring whence came the spices, perfumes, silks and precious stones bartered there in great quantities, Cabot learned that they were brought by caravan from the north-eastern parts of farther Asia. Being versed in a knowledge of the sphere, it occurred to him that it would be shorter and quicker to bring these goods to Europe straight across the western ocean. First of all, however, a way would have to be found across this ocean from Europe to Asia. Full of this idea, Cabot, about the year 1484, removed with his family to London. His plans were in course of time made known to the leading merchants of Bristol, from which port an extensive trade was carried on already with Iceland. It was decided that an attempt should be made to reach the island of Brazil or that of the Seven Cities, placed on medieval maps to the west of Ireland, and that these should form the first halting-places on the route to Asia by the west.
To find these islands vessels were despatched from Bristol during several years, but all in vain. No land of any sort could be seen. Affairs were in this state when in the summer of 1493 news reached England that another Genoese, Christopher Columbus, had set sail westward from Spain and had reached the Indies. Cabot and his friends at once determined to forgo further search for the islands and to push straight on to Asia. With this end in view application was made to the king for formal letters patent, which were not issued until March 5, 1496. By these Henry VII. granted to his "well-beloved John Cabot, citizen of Venice, to Lewis, Sebastian and Santius, sonnes of the said John, full and free authority, leave and power upon theyr own proper costs and charges, to seeke out, discover and finde whatsoever isles, countries, regions or provinces of the heathen and infidels, which before this time have been unknown to all Christians". Merchandise from the countries visited was to be entered at Bristol free of duty, but one-fifth of the net gains was to go to the king.
Armed with these powers Cabot set sail from Bristol on Tuesday the 2nd of May 1497, on board a ship called the "Mathew" manned by eighteen men. Rounding Ireland they headed first north and then west. During several weeks they were forced by variable winds to keep an irregular course, although steadily towards the west. At length, after being fifty-two days at sea, at five o'clock on Saturday morning, June 24, they reached the northern extremity of Cape Breton Island. The royal banner was unfurled, and in solemn form Cabot took possession of the country in the name of King Henry VII. The soil being found fertile and the climate temperate, Cabot was convinced he had reached the north-eastern coast of Asia, whence came the silks and precious stones he had seen at Mecca. Cape North was named Cape Discovery, and as the day was the festival of St John the Baptist, St Paul Island, which lies opposite, was called the island of St John.
Having taken on board wood and water, preparations were made to return home as quickly as possible. Sailing north, Cabot named Cape Ray, St George's Cape, and christened St Pierre and Miquelon, which then with Langley formed three separate islands, the Trinity group. Hereabout they met great schools of cod, quantities of which were caught by the sailors merely by lowering baskets into the water. Cape Race, the last land seen, was named England's Cape.
The return voyage was made without difficulty, since the prevailing winds in the North Atlantic are westerly, and on Sunday, the 6th of August, the "Mathew" dropped anchor once more in Bristol harbour. Cabot hastened to Court, and on Thursday the 10th of August received from the king £10 for having "found the new isle". Cabot reported that 700 leagues beyond Ireland he had reached the country of the Grand Khan. Although both silk and brazil-wood could be obtained there, he intended on his next voyage to follow the coast southward as far as Cipangu or Japan, then placed near the equator. Once Cipangu had been reached London would become a greater centre for spices than Alexandria. Henry VII. was delighted, and besides granting Cabot a pension of £20 promised him in the spring a fleet of ten ships with which to sail to Cipangu.
On the 3rd of February 1498, fresh letters patent were issued, whereby Cabot was empowered to "take at his pleasure VI. englisshe shippes and theym convey and lede to the londe and iles of late founde by the seid John". Henry VII. himself also advanced considerable sums of money to various members of the expedition. As success seemed assured, it was expected the returns would be high.
In the spring Cabot visited Lisbon and Seville, to secure the services of men who had sailed along the African coast with Cam and Diaz or to the Indies with Columbus. At Lisbon he met a certain João Fernandes, called Llavrador, who about the year 1492 appears to have made his way from Iceland to Greenland. Cabot, on learning from Fernandes that part of Asia, as they supposed Greenland to be, lay so near Iceland, determined to return by way of this country. On reaching Bristol he laid his plans accordingly. Early in May the expedition, which consisted of two ships and 300 men, left Bristol. Several vessels in the habit of trading to Iceland accompanied them. Off Ireland a storm forced one of these to return, but the rest of the fleet proceeded on its way along the parallel of 58°. Each day the ships were carried northward by the Gulf Stream. Early in June Cabot reached the east coast of Greenland, and as Fernandes was the first who had told him of this country he named it the Labrador's Land.