On 24 June 1497, the feast day of John the Baptist, John Cabot made landfall on Cape Breton and planted two flags: one, a banner for his patron, Henry VII of England, the other for St Mark and his native Venice.
To read the accounts of Cabot’s voyages from Bristol and the reactions to his return is to see one world torn asunder and another take shape. Here are the Letters Patent issued to Cabot, as dry and specific as the tax code, and just as insistent on its two-fifths. Here is the gossipy letter of a Venetian in London when Cabot returns. Writing to his brothers back home, he says “these English run mad” for their compatriot. He “can enlist any of them as he pleases, and a number of our rogues as well”. Utterly devastating is the report of another Venetian, of the same name but this time in Lisbon, telling of Portugal’s need for timber for ships, of the captives that have brought back to the court, and the assessment they “will be excellent labour and make the best slaves that have been hitherto obtained”.
With the deaths of both Cabot, in 1498, and the succession of Henry VIII, “a Lutheran and worse”, in 1509, the English lost interest in the enterprise and colonial competition was replaced by the wars of religion. Yet as Raimondo di Raimondi de Soncio hilariously demonstrates in his letter to the Duke of Milan, in 1497 Cape Breton was the stuff upon which Europe dreamed and for a brief moment London was where Europe dreamed.
Perhaps amid the numerous occupations of your Excellency, it may not weary you to hear how his Majesty [Henry VII] here has gained a part of Asia, without a stroke of the sword. There is in this Kingdom a man of the people, Messer Zoane Caboto by name, of kindly wit and a most expert mariner. Having observed that the sovereigns first of Portugal and then of Spain had occupied unknown islands, he decided to make a similar acquisition for his Majesty. After obtaining patents that the effective ownership of what he might find should be his, though reserving the rights of the Crown, he committed himself to fortune in a little ship, with eighteen persons. He started from Bristol, a port on the west of this kingdom, passed Ireland, which is still further west, and then bore towards the north, in order to sail to the east, leaving the north on his right hand after some days. After having wandered for some time he at length arrived at the mainland, where he hoisted the royal standard, and took possession for the king here; after taking certain tokens he returned.
This Messer Zoane, as a foreigner and a poor man, would not have obtained credence, had it not been that his companions, who are practically all English and from Bristol, testified that he spoke the truth. This Messer Zoane has the description of the world in a map, and also in a solid sphere, which he has made, and shows where he has been. In going towards to the east he passed far beyond the country of the Tanais [Chinese ?]. They say that the land is excellent and temperate, and they believe that Brazil wood and silk are native there. They assert that the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water. I have heard this Messer Zoane state so much.
These same English, his companions, say that they could bring so many fish that this kingdom would have no further need of Iceland, from which place there comes a very great quantity of the fish called stockfish. But Messer Zoane has his mind set upon even greater things, because he proposes to keep along the coast from the place which he touched, more and more towards the east, until he reaches an island which he calls Cipango [Japan], situated in the equinoctial region, where he believes all the spices of the world have their origin, as well as the jewels. He says that on previous occasions he has been to Mecca, wither spices are borne by caravans from distant countries. When he asked those who brought them what was the place of origin of these spices, they answered that they did not know, but that other caravans came with this merchandise to their homes from distant countries, and these again said that the goods have been brought to them from other remote regions. He therefore reasons that these things come from places far away from them, and so on from one another, always assuming that the earth is round, it follows as a matter of course that the last of all must take them in the north towards the west.
He tells all this in such a way, and makes everything so plain, that I also feel compelled to believe him. What is much more, his Majesty, who is wise and not prodigal, also gives him some credence, because he is giving him a fairly good provision, since his return, so Messer Zoane himself tells me. Before very long, they say his Majesty will equip some ships, and in addition he will give them all the malefactors, and they will go to that country and form a colony. By means of this they hope to make London a more important mart for spices than Alexandria. The leading men of this enterprise are from Bristol, and great seamen, and now they know where to go, say that the voyage will not take more than a fortnight, if they have good fortune after leaving Ireland.
I have spoken to a Burgundian, one of Messer Zoane’s companions, who corroborates everything. He wants to go back, because the Admiral, which is the name give to Messer Zoane, has given him an island. He has given another to his barber, a Genoese by birth, and who both consider themselves counts, while my lord the Admiral esteems himself at least a prince.
I also believe that some poor Italian friars will go on this voyage, who have the promise of bishoprics. As I made friends with the Admiral, I might have an archbishopric if I chose to go there, but I have reflected that the benefices which are your Excellency reserves for me are safer, and I therefore beg that possession may be given me of those which fall vacant in my absence, and that necessary steps taken so that they may not be taken away from me by others, who have the advantage of being on the spot. Meanwhile I stay on in this country, eating ten or twelve courses at each meal, and spending three hours at a table twice every day, for the love of your Excellency, to whom I humbly commend myself.
London, the 18th December 1497.
Consulted for this post
James A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII with the Cartography of the Voyages, Second Series, no. 120 (The Hakluyt Society, 1961). Williamson provides the following information about Raimondo’s letter: “Milan Archives (Potenze Estere: Inghilterra). English translation and important parts of the original Italian printed by Hinds, Calendar of State Papers, Milan, vol. I, no. 552.” Williamson, pp. 209-11.