Discovering Giovanni Caboto in Bristol
Late in September I was in Bristol, England for a scientific conference, but I found some time to look around the city. I was surprised and intrigued to keep coming across a name I remembered from Canadian history textbooks: John Cabot, explorer. A statue of Cabot watches over the harbour in Bristol, and the harbour itself contains a replica of his ship the Matthew. There’s also a Cabot Tower, and even the shopping centre near my hotel was called Cabot Circus.
At the time I remembered that “John Cabot” was really an Italian called Giovanni Caboto, and that he had sailed to Newfoundland on behalf of England around 1500, but that was really about it. However, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I made a mental note to look up more information when I got back to Beijing, and the story turned out to be interesting.
Giovanni Caboto (as I prefer to call him – I suspect modern Canada is cosmopolitan enough to handle this) was born around 1450, possibly in Genoa. He had a career as a merchant and engineer in Venice and Spain, visited the Middle East, and apparently engaged in at least a spot of slave trading. In 1495, in the wake of Columbus’ discoveries, Caboto began trying to find backing for his own voyage west across the Atlantic. After being rejected in both Spain and Portugal, he took his appeal to England, where he was finally successful.
Caboto started with an intelligent idea, namely that the smaller circumference of the Earth near the poles (following a line of latitude) would make it easier to sail to the far side of the world from a relatively northern port. He set off from Bristol in 1496, but had to abort the voyage after arguing with the crew. A second attempt in 1497, in the Matthew, fared better. This time Caboto and his men crossed the Atlantic, landed briefly in North America on John the Baptist’s Day (June 24), and followed the coast for a considerable distance. They were back in Bristol by August, apparently believing that they had found a route to Asia. A third voyage, in 1498, may have been lost at sea.
Details of Caboto’s expeditions are sketchy, to say the least. Historians dispute whether his 1497 landing was really on Newfoundland, rather than on Cape Breton Island or the mainland, and even whether the 1498 voyage was really lost. There’s also a possibility that Bristol mariners had reached Newfoundland at an earlier date, perhaps only to lose track of its location. What stands out clearly is that Caboto’s landfall in 1497, even though the men advanced only a bowshot onto the shore and stayed only long enough to claim the land for England, opened an era of European exploration that led to the colonisation of what is now maritime Canada. If I had to pick a date for the beginning of Canadian history, I think my choice would be June 24, 1497. It’s rather fortuitous that this coincides with Quebec’s annual Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebration, since it gives other Canadians a good excuse to join the party.
It turns out that St. John’s, Newfoundland also has a Cabot Tower, and that the towers in St. John’s and Bristol were both built in 1897 to commemorate the fourth centenary of Caboto’s landing. Perhaps it’s ironic, or just very Canadian, that it took an Italian sailor to forge this link between a British port and what was originally a British colonial city. And it’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened if Spain or Portugal, rather than England, had agreed to sponsor Caboto’s voyages. Would Latin America extend into what we now think of as the maritimes? I personally suspect not, but possibilities like this are a big part of what makes history interesting.
Another big part is the existence of historians like Alwyn Ruddock. In 1992, when she was 76 years old, this remarkable British scholar wrote up a proposal for a book detailing myriad new findings about Caboto’s voyages. However, she died in 2005 with the book still incomplete, and all her research papers were burned in accordance with her will. However, the book proposal survived, and this freely downloadable article by Evan Jones of Bristol University gives a breakdown of its contents. Ruddock’s most sensational new claims were that Caboto’s third voyage returned safely to England in 1500, after exploring much of the Atlantic coast of North America, and that one of his ships established a religious colony on Newfoundland and built North America’s first church there. Jones is presently trying to work out what documentary evidence lies behind these claims, while Peter Pope of Memorial University plans to take the direct approach and look for remnants of the actual church. Stay tuned!