The Voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot

Classic Pamphlet

J. A. Williamson, last updated: 3rd March 2017

Discovering North America

Historians have debated the voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot who first discovered North America under the reign of Henry VII. The primary question was who [John or Sebastian] was responsible for the successful discovery. A 1516 account stated Sebastian Cabot sailed from Bristol  to Cathay, in the service of Henry VII; environmental hardships had compelled Sebastian to travel to lower latitudes that led to the subsequent discovery of eastern North America. Still, early writers did not provide sufficient details of the expedition creating a number of discrepancies that undermine its validity.

In 1582, Richard Hakluyt printed letters that were granted on March 5, 1496 on behalf of King Henry VII to John Cabot that asked him to discover unknown lands in an effort to annex them for the Crown and monopolize English trade. This account, in contrast, indicated that John Cabot actually led the journey with his son Sebastian as his subordinate. Despite these opposing sources, it was not until the 19th century that historians began rejecting Sebastian as the primary discoverer of North America largely due to Richard Biddle who had published a Memoir of Sebastian Cabot in 1831. This memoir collated the sixteenth century writers with documents asserting Sebastian’s father, John Cabot, was merely a sleeping partner and an elderly merchant who did not go to sea—rendering Sebastian as the leader of the journey. Eventually, important documents emerged from unexamined archives of European states that almost irrefutably debunked Sebastian as the captain...

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