THE POLAR EXPEDITIONS AND THE SEARCH FOR THE NORTH-WEST PASSAGE, I

Such was the charter that was granted to John Cabot and his sons upon their return from the American continent, and not as certain authors have pretended, anterior to this voyage. From the time that the news of the discovery made by Columbus had reached England, that is to say, probably in 1493, John and Sebastian Cabot prepared the expedition at their own expense, and set out at the beginning of the year 1494, with the idea of reaching Cathay, and finally the Indies. There can be no doubt upon this point, for in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris is preserved an unique copy of the map engraved in 1544, that is to say, in the lifetime of Sebastian Cabot, which mentions this voyage, and the precise and exact date of the discovery of Cape Breton.

It is probable that we must attribute to the intrigues of the Spanish Ambassador, the delay which occurred in Cabot's expedition, for the whole of the year 1496 passed without the voyage being accomplished.

The following year he set out at the beginning of summer. After having again sighted the Terra Bona-vista, he followed the coast, and was not long in perceiving to his great disappointment that it trended towards the north. "Then, sailing along it to make sure if I could not find some passage, I could not perceive any, and having advanced as far as 56°, and seeing that at this point the land turned towards the east, I despaired of finding any passage, and I put about to examine the coast in this direction towards the equinoctial line, always with the same object of finding a passage to the Indies, and in the end, I reached the country now called Florida, where as provisions were beginning to run short, I resolved to return to England." This narrative, of which we have given the commencement above, was related by Cabot to Fracastor, forty or fifty years after the event. Also, is it not astonishing that Cabot mixes up in it two perfectly distinct voyages, that of 1494, and that of 1497? Let us add some reflections on this narrative. The first land seen was, without doubt, the North Cape, the northern extremity of the island of Cape Breton, and the island which is opposite to it is that of Prince Edward, long known by the name of St. John's Island. Cabot, probably penetrated into the estuary of the St. Lawrence, which he took for an arm of the sea, near to the place where Quebec now stands, and coasted along the northern shore of the gulf, so that he did not see the coast of Labrador stretching away in the east. He took Newfoundland for an archipelago, and continued his course to the south, not doubtless, as far as Florida as he states himself, the time occupied by the voyage making it impossible that he can have descended so low, but as far as Chesapeake Bay. These were the countries which the Spaniards afterwards called "Terra de Estevam Gomez."

On the 3rd of February, 1498, King Henry VII. signed at Westminster some new letters patent. He empowered John Cabot or his representative,—being duly authorized—to take in English ports six vessels of 200 tons' burden, and to procure all that should be required for their equipment, at the same price as if it were for the crown. He was allowed to take on board such master-mariners, pages, and other subjects as might of their own accord wish to go, and pass with him to the recently discovered land and islands. John Cabot bore the expense of the equipment of two vessels, and three others were fitted out at the cost of the merchants of Bristol.