Cabot: 1497, 1498

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Hakluyt, Richard, 1552?-1616.
Diuers Voyages Touching the Discouerie of America, and the Ilands Adiacent vnto the Same, Made First of All by Our Englishmen, and Afterward by the Frenchmen and Britons . . . . London, 1582. [Rare Books Division: Kane Collection]

This, the first work published by Hakluyt, an important English geographer who collected and published narratives of voyages and travel, was a propaganda publication intended to arouse English interest in overseas enterprise, including accounts of the products of America and the trade goods that would be suitable to the American Indians. After providing a chronological list (1300-1580) of the names of writers of geography and another list (1178-1582) of “late trauaylers” (explorers) by land and sea, Hakluyt begins his book with a one-page “report” of a 1574 voyage suggesting the great probability of a Northwest Passage. He also includes copies, in Latin and English, of the letters patent issued to John Cabot by Henry VII. Such publication of narratives of early explorations has been continued by the Hakluyt Society, founded in 1846.

A governor of the English Cathay Company, Michael Lok (b. 1531 or 2) was one of the leading promoters of English expansion into North America during the height of Queen Elizabeth's reign. His woodcut map in the book, supplied here in facsimile, is one of the earliest attempts to locate where Cabot landed. While crediting the “discoveries” of other explorers, the map strongly points to possible Northwest Passages.

Born near Naples, Italy, the son of a merchant, Cabot (d. 1498?) became an expert mariner in the eastern Mediterranean trading spices. He was living in Spain when Columbus returned from his triumphant first voyage. Upstaging his countryman, Cabot had a simple, ingenious idea: the distance to Asia and its riches would be shorter by sailing a northerly route where the longitudes were closer. But neither Portugal, which had been successfully sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, nor Spain, which now believed Columbus had found the path, was interested. England, however, lagging behind its mercantile competitors, listened with interest, and in March 1496 King Henry VII issued letters patent to Cabot and his sons, authorizing them to investigate and discover, in the name of the English Crown, all countries, regions, and islands of the eastern, western, and northern sea. After an initial failure in 1496, Cabot set sail the next year from Bristol, England, in the Mathew (an 85-ton caravel), and landed after about 35 days somewhere between Maine and Labrador, probably on what is today's Cape Breton Island. The evidence is very scant—mostly from letters written by non-participants (i.e., second-hand information)—but the most compelling details are descriptions of tall trees useful for ships' masts and swarming fish in the sea: between Cape Breton and Newfoundland is the densest fishing area, but only the Acadian forests of Cape Breton contain trees tall enough for masts. A second voyage in 1498 took Cabot to Greenland, both east and west coasts; he also explored Baffin Land and Newfoundland. However, it is for his discovery of the Grand Banks, opening them to European fishermen, that Cabot is best remembered.

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