Primary Source #11
Giovanni Caboto (c. 1450-c. 1500) was a Venetian navigator and explorer. He was commissioned by King Henry VII in 1496 to sail for England, partly in hope of finding an alternate route to Asia, similar to Columbus. In 1497, John Cabot (as the English called him) sailed to Newfoundland. His son, Sebastian Cabot, sailed south along the Atlantic coast in the following decade as far as the Chesapeake and north to Hudson’s Bay, seeking a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. Although every explorer hoped to find cities of gold, some of the commodities the English hoped access were a dye-wood believed to come from the mythical land of Hy-Brasil and Cod, which had likely been fished by the Vikings and more recently in the fifteenth century by the Basques and Portuguese on the Grand Banks, adjacent to Newfoundland. These fisheries were so valuable that access to them was typically mentioned in treaties between nations (including the Treaty of Paris that concluded the American Revolution). Cabot recorded that when he reached the Banks, he saw over a thousand fishing boats from Iberia.
John Cabot and the First English Voyage to America (1497)
BY LORENZO PASQUALIGO AND RAIMONDO DI SONCINO
(Translated by Clements R. Markham, 1893)
Pasqualigo was a Venetian, resident in London. Soncino was Ambassador of the city-state of Milan. — Winsor, Narrative and Critical History III, 1-58; Henry Harrisse, Discovery of North America, 6, 7; Channing and Hart, Guide, § 92.
A LETTER FROM LORENZO PASQUALIGO TO HIS BROTHERS ALVISE AND FRANCESCO
London, 23rd August, 1497.
OUR Venetian, who went with a small ship from Bristol to find new islands, has come back, and says he has discovered, 700 leagues off, the mainland of the country of the Grau Cam [Tartary, ie. China], and that he coasted along it for 300 leagues, and landed, but did not see any person. But he has brought here to the king certain snares spread to take game, and a needle for making nets, and he found some notched trees, from which he judged that there were inhabitants. Being in doubt, he came back to the ship. He has been away three months on the voyage, which is certain, and, in returning, he saw two islands to the right, but he did not wish to land, lest he should lose time, for he was in want of provisions. This king has been much pleased. He says that the tides are slack, and do not make currents as they do here. The king has promised for another time, ten armed ships as he desires, and has given him all the prisoners, except such as are confined for high treason, to go with him as he has requested; and has granted him money to amuse himself till then. Meanwhile, he is with his Venetian wife and his sons at Bristol. His name is Zuam Talbot, and he is called the Great Admiral, great honor being paid to him, and he goes dressed in silk. The English are ready to go with him, and so are many of our rascals. The discoverer of these things has planted a large cross in the ground with a banner of England, and one of St. Mark, as he is a Venetian; so that our flag has been hoisted very far away.
DISPATCH OF RAIMONDO DI SONCINO TO THE DUKE OF MILAN
18th December, 1497.
My most illustrious and most excellent Lord,
Perhaps amidst so many occupations of your Excellency it will not be unwelcome to learn how his Majesty has acquired a part of Asia without drawing his sword. In this kingdom there is a certain Venetian named Zoanne Caboto, of gentle disposition, very expert in navigation, who, seeing that the most serene Kings of Portugal and Spain had occupied unknown islands, meditated the achievement of a similar acquisition for the said Majesty. Having obtained royal privileges securing to himself the use of the dominions he might discover, the sovereignty being reserved to the Crown, he entrusted his fortune to a small vessel with a crew of 18 persons and set out from Bristol, a port in the western part of this kingdom. Having passed Hibernia, which is still further to the west, and then shaped a northerly course, he began to navigate to the eastern part, leaving (during several days) the north star on the right hand; and having wandered thus far a long time, at length he hit upon land, where he hoisted the royal standard, and took possession for this Highness, and, having obtained various proofs of his discovery, he returned. The said Messer Zoanne, being a foreigner and poor, would not have been believed if the crew, who are nearly all English, and belonging to Bristol, had not testified that what he said was the truth. This Messer Zoanne has the description of the world on a chart, and also on a solid sphere which he has constructed, and on which he shows where he has been; and, proceeding towards the east, he has passed as far as the country of the Tanais. And they say that there the land is excellent and temperate, suggesting that brasil [dye-wood] and silk grow there. They affirm that the sea is full of fish, which are not only taken with a net, but also with a basket, a stone being fastened to it in order to keep it in the water; and this I have heard stated by the said Messer Zoanne.
The said Englishmen, his companions, say that they took so many fish that this kingdom will no longer have need of Iceland, from which country there is an immense trade in the fish they call stock-fish [Cod]. But Messer Zoanne has set his mind on higher things, for he thinks that, when that place has been occupied, he will keep on still further to the east, where he will be opposite to an island called Cipango [Japan], situated in the equinoctial region, where he believes that all the spices of the world, as well as the jewels, are found. He further says that he was once at Mecca, whither the spices are brought by caravans from distant countries; and having inquired from whence they were brought and where they grow, they answered they did not know, but that such merchandize was brought from distant countries by other caravans to their home; and they further say that they are also conveyed from other remote regions. And he adduced this argument, that if the eastern people tell those in the south that these things come from a far distance from them, presupposing the rotundity of the earth, it must be that the last turn would be by the north towards the west; and it is said that in this way the route would not cost more than it costs now, and I also believe it. And what is more, this Majesty, who is wise and not prodigal, reposes such trust in him because of what he has already achieved, that he gives him a good maintenance, as Messer Zoanne has himself told me. And it is said that before long his Majesty will arm some ships for him, and will give him all the malefactors to go to that country and form a colony, so that they hope to establish a greater depot of spices in London than there is in Alexandria. The principal people in the enterprise belong to Bristol. They are great seamen, and now that they know where to go, they say that the voyage thither will not occupy more than 15 days after leaving Hibernia. I have also spoken with a Burgundian, who was a companion of Messer Zoanne, who affirms all this, and who wishes to return because the Admiral (for so Messer Zoanne is entitled) has given him an island, and has given another to his barber of Castione, who is a Genoese, and both look upon themselves as Counts; nor do they look upon my Lord the Admiral as less than a Prince. I also believe that some poor Italian friars are going on this voyage, who have all had bishoprics promised to them. And if I had made friends with the Admiral when he was about to sail, I should have got an archbishopric at least; but I have thought that the benefits reserved for me by your Excellency will be more secure. I would venture to pray that, in the event of a vacancy taking place in my absence, I may be put in possession, and that I may not be superseded by those, who being present, can be more diligent than I, who am reduced in this country to eating at each meal ten or twelve kinds of victuals, and to being three hours at table every day, two for love of your Excellency, to whom I humbly recommend myself.
London, 18 Dec. 1497, your Excellency's most humble servant.
Documents relating to the Voyages of Discovery of John Cabot, in Hakluyt Society, Works (London, 1893), 201-206.
Alfred Bushnell Hart, American History as told by Contemporaries, 1897. 69-72.