John Cabot Returns from his Second Expedition

By the time John Cabot made it back to Bristol, Vasco da Gama had left for India and King Henry VII was holed up in his palace at Woodstock, sixty miles west, anxiously awaiting an attack by the Pretender Perkin Warbeck. Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York, and their sons, Arthur and Henry [the future Henry VIII], were in protective custody in the Tower of London.

Cabot traveled to Woodstock to report his success. Henry gave him a hearty welcome. The royal ledger reported that the king paid “him that found the new isle” ten pounds.

Cabot then went to London, where he was observed by Lorenzo Pasqualigo, the owner of a Venetian galley named Pasqualiga that was tied up to a quay on the River Thames at the time. It is from a letter Pasqualigo wrote on July 13, 1497 to his brothers Alvise and Franceso in Venice, that we learn about Cabot’s arrival to England and the artifacts of human habitation [needle, etc.] his crew found in the new land.

Pasqualigo wrote, “…he has been three months on the voyage … on the way back, he saw two islands [thinking they were the Isle of Seven Cities], but was unwilling to land, in order not to lose time, as he was in want [need] of provisions. The king here is much pleased at this.”

Pasqualigo said that Cabot asked for, and Henry consented to, ten armed ships for a new voyage that would leave in spring. Henry allowed Cabot “all the prisoners to be sent away, that they may go with him, as he has requested.” That meant that Cabot was given permission to spring criminals from jails and prisons to collect a workforce for building a new trading post in Asia [where Cabot thought he had been].(1)

“His name is Zuam Calbot,” wrote Pasqualigo, “and he is called the Great Admiral and vast honor is paid to him, and he goes dressed in silk, and those English run after him like mad, and indeed he can enlist as many of them as he pleases, and a number of our rogues [dishonest and unprincipled people] as well.” Pasqualigo proudly remarked that Cabot had planted Venice’s banner of St. Mark “so that our flag has been hosted very far afield.” He said that King Henry gave Cabot money, “that he may have a good time until then, and he is with his Venetian wife and sons at Bristol.”

The following day, July 14, an anonymous writer reported to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, that the Venetian “has found two very large and fertile new lands [Newfoundland and Nova Scotia]. He has also discovered the Seven Cities, 400 leagues from England, on the western passage. This next spring his Majesty means to send him with fifteen or twenty ships.”(2)

The same letter informed the duke that the marriage of Arthur, Crown Prince of England, and Catherine, Princess of Spain, had been formerly published and that she would travel to England the “next spring.”

On September 8, the Pretender, and several hundred, mostly Irish men distracted King Henry from Cabot’s glory by landing at Cornwall, the southeastern peninsula of England. [See map above.]

Perkin Warbeck declared himself the true king of England, Richard IV. Gathering about three thousand forces as he marched, but collecting no victories, Warbeck charged on Exeter, only to be turned away at the gate. He moved on to Taunton on September 20 and he set up camp, seemingly awaiting the next battle. However, in the middle of the night, Warbeck fled with a small party of accomplices, leaving his followers with no leader. His small party fled to the sanctuary of Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, near Southampton.

Since Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, had recognized the Pretender as Richard IV, the Pope had to oblige. His papal diplomat in England, Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis rode to Woodstock to fetch Henry and accompany him to where Warbeck was hiding out. Henry could not send his armies into the abbey because he was required to honor their sanctuary. Instead, he offered the Pretender a deal. He would spare the Pretender’s life if he would admit his true identity.

Warbeck surrendered in Taunton on October 5, but without any admission. Henry’s guards paraded him through the streets of London “among hooting and derision of the citizens” and delivered him to the Tower of London on November 28.

While all this was going on, some sad events occurred in Spain. On October 4 Ferdinand and Isabella’s only son, Juan, died. He had always been frail. Even so, he had married Emperor Maximilian I’s daughter Margaret less than six months earlier, and she was pregnant. She would give birth to a daughter on December 8, but the daughter was stillborn.

On November 25 the Catholic Monarchs and King Charles VIII of France finally put away their differences and signed a pact at Alcala, near Madrid. This allowed Spain and England to relax and not worry about war. It also allowed the Duke of Milan to relax and not worry that the French would take over Italy. Unfortunately, King Charles would live only five more months.

With Warbeck under house arrest, and the Spanish off his back about the King of France, King Henry of England began thinking about Cabot again. At Westminster, on December 13, Henry “granted unto our well beloved John Cabot of the parties of Venice” an annual pension of twenty pounds. It was to be paid out of the Bristol customs receipts. They were expected to increase dramatically with the new fishing business – even if Cabot found no gold. The ambassador from Milan, Raimundo di Raimundis, was in attendance at Henry’s court that month. He wrote a lengthy letter to the Duke of Milan that gives us more information about Cabot and his voyage:

“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 specifying ownership of what he might find, 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 [of England], and took possession for the king here; and after taking certain tokens, he returned. … In going towards the east, he passed far beyond the country of Tanais.”

[We show you the location of Tanis on the map below to illustrate how little some of the diplomats knew about the geography of the East. Raimundis thought Tanais was near Cathay.]

“They say,” continued Raimundis, “that the land is excellent and temperate, and they believe that Brazil-wood [for making the red Dragon’s Blood fabric dye] and silk are native there. They assert that the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with a 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.”

Raimundis wrote that Cabot’s companions, who were, “all English and from Bristol, testified that [Cabot] spoke the truth. …” One of the companions said, “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 fish called stockfish(3) [dried and salted cod].


Stockfish [Cod] drying “in the open.”

Through Raimundis’ letter, we learn about Cabot’s future plans. “Messer Zoane has his mind set upon even greater things, because he proposes to keep along the coast from the place at which he touched, more and more towards the east, until he reaches an island which he calls Cipango, situated in the equinoctial region, which he believes to be the origin of all the spices of the world, as well as the jewels.

When Raimundis questioned Cabot and his men about the origin of the spices they believed to be in the Orient, Cabot said he had been to Mecca,(4) “whither spices are borne by caravans from distant countries.” When pressed to state which countries, “Cabot and his companions 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 had been brought to them from other remote regions [the African Caravan routes]. He therefore reasons that these things come from places far away from them, and so on from one to the other, 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. …

“Before very long, they say that his majesty will equip some ships, and in addition, he will give them all the malefactors [imprisoned criminals], and they will go to that country and form a colony. By means of this, they hope to make London a more important market for spices than Alexandria. The leading men in this enterprise are from Bristol, and seamen, …”

The ambassador from Milan ended his letter by thanking the Duke for allowing him to spend time at Henry’s court where he “ate ten to twelve courses at each meal, and spent three hours at table twice every day.”

Historian Douglas Hunter was most intrigued by Raimundis’ statement, “This Messer Zoane has the description of the world in a map, and also in a sold sphere [globe], which he has made, and shows where he has been.” Hunter challenges, “Where did Cabot learn to make a globe?” Even though Cabot’s experience with engineering projects indicated technical ability, creating a globe of the world would have taken a different type of experience than Cabot appeared to have. And, how could Cabot create such a globe in the short space of time between his return in August and his audience with the king in December? Was he not too busy with all the celebrations honoring his discovery of the Newfoundland Banks? From these questions, Hunter has speculated that Cabot received the globe from Martin Behaim.

Furthermore, Hunter suggests, Martin Behaim was a passenger on the voyage with Master Cabot. Raimundis wrote that he spoke at length with Cabot’s companion, uno Borgognone [a Burgundian]. The Burgundian seemed very knowledgeable and “corroborated everything” that Cabot had said. The Burgundian, along with two Genoese companions, “expected to be awarded an island” upon their next visit to the east. “Both considered themselves counts, while my lord the Admiral esteems himself at least a prince.”

Though not a count, Behaim had been made a Lord when he was knighted by King João II. He could easily have been confused as a Burgundian, even though he was a Bavarian, because he had served as a representative of the Duke of Burgundy, and because he was married to a Burgundian-Fleming wife.

Hugh Say wrote his letter to Columbus after Raimundis wrote to the Duke of Milan – during the winter of 1497 and 1498. Say confirmed that Bristol mariners were convinced that the land sited west of the Atlantic was a mainland, not an island, and that it was the same land that previous Bristol seamen had found. “It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found el Brasil as your Lordship [Columbus] well knows. It was called la ysla de brasil and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found.”

At the time Day wrote his letter, Columbus was still insisting that Cuba was a peninsula of mainland Asia. If it were, Columbus potentially held the gubernatorial rights to the whole eastern seaboard of China and Malaysia, including Cabot’s new discoveries.

In January, 1498, King Henry VII’s household ledger recorded that his treasurer paid to “a Venetian [Cabot] in reward 66 shillings and eight pence.”

On that same day, or within a few days of Cabot’s payment, the King’s treasurer paid a “William Weston of Bristol 40 shillings.” The reason for the payment is not included in the ledger.

The Cabot Project researchers suspect that William Weston was one of the “companions” from Bristol that Raimundis met at Westminster in December, 1497. He was one of the men who corroborated Cabot’s story [implying they had been on the Matthew with Cabot during the expedition]. William Weston will make his own voyage of discovery to the North Atlantic in 1499, as you shall see.

Notes

  1. The Spanish monarchs allowed Columbus to do the same thing to gather workers to build and occupy Santo Domingo. And in 1607, the English Virginia Company will spring criminals from the prisons to gather settlers and workers to plant Jamestowne.
  2. Quote from Douglas Hunter, The Race for the New World, p. 193
  3. There is a favorite pub dish in Norway today called Stockfish Pie.
  4. Some historians doubt that Cabot really went to Mecca, where only Arabs were allowed to travel. Perhaps he heard about the expeditions sent by King João II to Ethiopia and the caravan trails that connected to the West African coastal trade. Perhaps the word “Mecca” was generic for “the east.”

Next Article: John Cabot’s Third Expedition