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Discovering Giovanni Caboto in Bristol

October 15, 2009
Giovanni Caboto watches over the harbour in Bristol, England.

Giovanni Caboto watches over the harbour in Bristol, England.

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.


A replica of Caboto's ship sets sail in Bristol, four centuries too late to discover Newfoundland.

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.

Cabot Tower in Bristol.

Cabot Tower in Bristol.

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!


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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Madeline permalink
    January 5, 2015 11:02 am

    i just wanted to thank you for writing this article for me to read. I am a fifth grader doing a report on John Cabot, and this was very helpful. The pictures were great! I am so glad that you took the time to write about Cabot. Thank you.

  2. April 1, 2013 6:31 pm

    But it was useful THX 😄😃😀😊☺😉:) and the photos were great 😄😃😀😊☺😉:)

  3. April 1, 2013 6:29 pm

    He was born in Geona Italy !some facts aren’t true in here thoe 😔

  4. March 26, 2012 7:45 am

    this was a very useful piece of shit… Fuck you.

    • Madeline permalink
      January 5, 2015 11:03 am

      You are so rude, Dharti.

  5. Tarot Readings, St. John's, NL permalink
    March 25, 2011 3:32 pm

    Cool and your writing has a nice feel to it

  6. sal permalink
    January 5, 2011 8:24 am

    Giovanni Caboto was born in Gaeta (Italy) not in Genoa or Venice.

  7. spencer permalink
    October 20, 2010 12:22 pm

    this is so much good information thanks alot

  8. October 20, 2009 10:31 pm

    Sorry for the delay in reponse – what a wonderful article – the photos are great and the piece chock-a-block with informational tidbits I’d no idea about. Memorial is such a great university – didn’t it play a leading role in confirming the Viking presence in NFLD at L’anse aux meadows ? – somehow your piece reminded me of that – re the controversy around the details of Cabot’s landing. Wasn’t there controversy in the academic community at one time about the veracity of “viking claims” at the site of aux meadows? I’ve fondness for Memorial – my father (now deceased) started his working life there, Mumbai to St. John’s!

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