Sebastian Cabot
Sebastian Cabot.
From an old print.

It has been found impossible to determine with certainty either the name or the nationality of John Cabot, and still less to settle the period of his birth. John Cabota, Caboto or Cabot must have been born, if not in Genoa itself, as M. d'Avezac asserts, at least in the neighbourhood of that town, possibly at Castiglione, about the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Some historians have considered that he was an Englishman, and perhaps Mr. Nicholls from national considerations is inclined to adopt this opinion; at least this seems to be the meaning of the expressions used by him. What we do know without room for doubt, is that John Cabot came to London to occupy himself with commerce, and that he soon settled at Bristol, then the second town in the kingdom, in one of the suburbs which had received the name of Cathay, probably from the number of Venetians who resided there, and the trade carried on by them with the countries of the extreme East. It was at Bristol that Cabot's two youngest children were born, Sebastian and Sancho, if we may rely upon the following account given by the old chronicler Eden. "Sebastian Cabot told me that he was born at Bristol, and that at four years of age he went with his father to Venice, returning with him to England some years later; this made people imagine that he was born at Venice." In 1476, John Cabot was at Venice, and there on the 29th of March, he received letters of naturalization, which prove that he was not a native of this city, and that he must have merited the honour by some service rendered to the Republic. M. d'Avezac is inclined to think that he devoted himself to the study of cosmography and navigation, perhaps even in company with the celebrated Florentine, Paul Toscanelli, with whose theories upon the distribution of land and sea on the surface of the globe, he would certainly be acquainted at this time. He may also have heard mention made of the islands situated in the Atlantic, and known by the names of Antilia, the Land of the Seven Cities, or Brazil. What seems more certain is, that his business affairs took him to the Levant, and, it is said, to Mecca, and that while there he would learn from what country came the spices, which then constituted the most important branch of Venetian commerce.

Whatever value we may attach to these speculative theories, it is at least certain that John Cabot founded an important mercantile house at Bristol. His son Sebastian, who in these first voyages had acquired an inclination for the sea, studied navigation, as far as it was then known, and made some excursions on the sea, to render himself as familiar with the practice of this art, as he already was with its theory. "For seven years past," says the Spanish Ambassador in a despatch of the 25th of July, 1498, speaking of an expedition commanded by Cabot, "the people of Bristol have fitted out two, three, or four caravels every year, to go in search of the Island of Brazil, and of the Seven Cities, according to the ideas of the Genoese." At this time the whole of Europe resounded with the fame of the discoveries of Columbus. "It awoke in me," says Sebastian Cabot, in a narrative preserved by Ramusio, "a great desire and a kind of ardour in my heart to do myself also something famous, and knowing by examining the globe, that if I sailed by the west wind I should reach India more rapidly, I at once made my project known to His Majesty, who was much satisfied with it." The king to whom Cabot addressed himself was the same Henry VII. who some years before had refused all support to Christopher Columbus. It is evident that he received with favour the project which John and Sebastian Cabot had just submitted to him; and though Sebastian, in the fragment which we have just quoted, attributes to himself alone all the honour of the project, it is not less true that his father was the promoter of the enterprise, as the following charter shows, which we translate in an abridged form.

"We Henry ... permit our well-beloved Jehan Cabot, citizen of Venice, and Louis, Sebastian, and Sancho, his sons, under our flag and with five vessels of the tonnage and crew which they shall judge suitable, to discover at their own expense and charge ... we grant to them as well as to their heirs and assigns, licence to occupy, possess ... at the charge of, by them, upon the profits, benefits, and advantages, accruing from this navigation, to pay us in merchandise or in money the fifth part of the profit thus obtained, for each of their voyages, every time that they shall return to the port of Bristol (at which port they shall be compelled to land).... We promise and guarantee to them, their heirs and assigns, that they shall be exempt from all custom-house duties on the merchandise which they shall bring from the countries thus discovered.... We command and direct all our subjects, as well on land as on the sea, to render assistance to the said Jehan, and to his sons.... Given at ... the 5th day of March, 1495."