Gateway to the Classics: A First Book in American History by Edward Eggleston
A First Book in American History by  Edward Eggleston

John Cabot and His Son Sebastian

The food eaten four or five hundred years ago was mostly coarse and unwholesome. The people were therefore very fond of all sorts of spices which they mixed with almost everything they ate. These spices were brought from Asia by caravans. It was chiefly to get to the land of spices by sea that Prince Henry the Navigator tried to send ships around the southern point of Africa. Columbus had also tried to reach the "Spice Islands" of Asia in his voyage to the west.

Now another Italian was to try it. This man was John Cabot [cab'-ot]. Like Columbus, he was probably born in or near the city of Genoa; like Columbus, he thought much about geography as it was then understood; and, like Columbus, he was a great traveler. He moved to Venice and then to Bristol in England.

The Italian merchants traveled farther than any others in that day. One of Cabot's long trading journeys had carried him into Arabia as far as the city of Mecca [mek'-kah]. Here he saw the caravans that brought their loads of costly spices on the backs of camels from the countries of the East. Now the people of Europe in Cabot's time, having very few printed books, knew almost nothing about these far-away Eastern countries.


"Where do these spices come from?" Cabot asked of the men belonging to the caravan.

They answered that they brought them from a country far to the east of Mecca, where they bought spices of other caravans which brought them from a land yet farther to the east. From this Cabot reasoned as Columbus had done, that, if he should sail to the west far enough, he would get round the world to the land of spices. It would be something like going about a house to come in by the back door.

While Cabot was living in England there came great news out of Spain. One Christopher Columbus, it was said, had discovered the coasts of India by sailing to the westward, for Columbus thought the land he had found a part of India. When this was told in England, people thought it "a thing more divine than human to sail by the west into the east." And when Cabot heard the story, there arose in his heart, as he said, "a great flame of desire to do some notable thing."

While Columbus had waited in discouragement for Ferdinand and Isabella to accept his project, he had sent his brother Bartholomew Columbus to Henry the Seventh, then King of England, to offer the plan to him. What answer the king gave to Bartholomew is not known, for, before the latter got back to Spain, Christopher Columbus had returned from his first voyage.

But now for this same King Henry of England Cabot offered to make a voyage like that of Columbus. As the Atlantic had already once been crossed, the king readily agreed to allow Cabot to sail under his authority.

In May, 1497, Cabot set sail from Bristol in a small vessel with eighteen men, mostly Englishmen. Cabot sailed much farther north than Columbus, and he appears to have discovered first the island of Cape Breton, now part of the Dominion of Canada. He went ashore on the 24th of June, and planted a large cross and the flag of England, as well as the flag of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. He also discovered the mainland of North America. Cabot was thus the first to see the American continent. Columbus discovered the mainland of South America a year later. Cabot did not see any Indians, but he brought back some of their traps for catching wild animals.

He got back to England in August, having been gone but three months. He brought news that he had discovered the territory of the Emperor of China. The king gave him a pension, he dressed himself in silks, and was called "The Great Admiral." It is to be feared this sudden rise in the world puffed him up a great deal. To one of his companions he promised an island, and another island he was going to bestow on his barber! On the strength of these promises, both of these men set themselves up for counts!


That there were many fish on the new coast was a fact which impressed the practical Bristol people, though Cabot had no thought of engaging in fishery. He imagined that by sailing a little farther south than before he might come to the large island that Marco Polo called Cipango, and we now call Japan. He did not know that the far-off country he had seen was not half so far away as Japan. Cabot believed that all the spices and precious stones in the world came from Cipango.

King Henry the Seventh fitted out Cabot with another and much larger expedition. This expedition went far to the north along the coast of America, and then away to the south as far as the shores of what is now the State of North Carolina. Cabot found Indians dressed in skins, and possessing no metal but a little copper. He found no gold, and he brought back no spices. The island of Cipango and the territories of the Emperor of China he looked for in vain, though he was sure that he had reached the coast of Asia.

Cabot's crew brought back stories of seas so thick with codfish that their vessels were made to move more slowly by them. They even told of bears swimming out into the sea and catching codfish in their claws. But the English people lost interest in voyages that brought neither gold nor spices, and we do not know anything more about John Cabot.


John Cabot's second son, Sebastian, who was with him on this voyage, became, like his father, famous for his knowledge of geography, and was sometimes employed by the King of Spain and sometimes by the King of England. He promoted expeditions to try to find a way to China by the north of Europe. When a very old man he took a great interest in the sailing of a new expedition of discovery, and visited with a company of ladies and gentlemen the Search-thrift, a little vessel starting on a voyage of exploration to the northeast. Having tasted of "such good cheer" as the sailors could make aboard the ship, and after making them liberal presents, the little company went ashore and dined at the sign of the "Christopher," where the lively old gentleman for joy, as it is said, at the "towardness" of the discovery, danced with the rest of "the young company," after which he and his friends departed, "most gently commending" the sailors to the care of God.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Columbus after the Discovery of America  |  Next: Captain John Smith
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.