Builders of Our Country: Book I  by Gertrude van Duyn Southworth


CONSIDERING how slowly news generally traveled from country to country in the time of Columbus, the report of his first voyage seems to have spread with wonderful rapidity. Before long England knew all about it, and the English king was saying to himself, "If Spain has really sent ships to the west and reached these islands off the coast of China, why can't England do the same? And why can't we have some of the wealth of China and Japan? I will see that we do have, and I will see that the English flag is planted in this distant land."

Now England always wanted, and took measures to get, her full share of whatever offered itself. Still in this instance Henry VII probably acted more promptly than he otherwise would have, because he felt that he had at hand just the right man to help him out.

This man was John Cabot, and he too was full of enthusiasm over the possibilities of a western voyage.

Cabot was born in 1450, probably in Genoa. He moved to Venice while still young, and later became a citizen of that city. To become a citizen of Venice he had to reside there fifteen years, and during that time he made his living by drawing maps and charts. In 1490 he and his wife left Venice and settled in Bristol, which was at that time the chief seaport of England, and the center of trade with the fisheries of Iceland.

Cabot was soon a great favorite with King Henry; and seeing the King's interest in the voyage of Columbus, he added to it by telling things about China learned from the merchants of Venice. Then Cabot suggested that, if King Henry would fit out a ship to cross the Atlantic, he would gladly sail in command of such an expedition.

So it was agreed; and in May, 1497, John Cabot, and in all probability his son Sebastian, with one vessel and eighteen men set sail from Bristol. On the 24th of June the coast of Labrador was sighted. Where they landed is not definitely known, but probably it was near the island of Cape Breton.

This cold, bleak land was very different from the China they had expected to see. They had hoped to find a land of spicy groves and balmy breezes, but here was a land of snow and icebergs. Most of John Cabot's papers and maps telling of this voyage were lost; but some of them have been kept, and they tell about this cold region with its white bears, and about the great number of codfish that were seen and caught.

Cabot planted the flag of England and took possession of the land in the name of the English king. This planting of the English flag laid the foundation for the English claims in the new continent.

Great was the rejoicing when Cabot returned to England with the tale of his discoveries. The people of Bristol were extremely proud of their "Great Admiral," as he was now called. Whenever he walked the streets, dressed in silks and velvets, great crowds would follow him. He was especially loved by children, who crowded round him to hear him tell of his wondrous voyage.

In 1498 John Cabot determined to undertake another voyage, and in April of that year he and Sebastian sailed with five or six ships. They sailed much farther north in the hope of finding a short passage to India. But the extreme cold of the northern region "chilled their enthusiasm," as Sebastian said; so they turned and sailed south along the American coast.

In September of that year (1498) only one of the six ships returned to England; and it is feared that John Cabot and his ship were lost, as nothing more was ever heard of the man who had first touched the mainland of North America since the days of Leif the Lucky.