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An Age of Discovery

For the week of Monday June 23, 2008

On June 24, 1497, John Cabot landed on the Atlantic coast of North America, likely on the east coast of Newfoundland, but perhaps in Cape Breton or Labrador. Cabot, like Christopher Columbus, who had reached the Caribbean five years earlier, believed that he had discovered a western route to the Orient. Although it took a decade or so for Europeans to realize that the “New World” was not Asia, but an entirely new continent, Cabot’s voyage was a turning point in the history of North America.

John Cabot embarking from Bristol on May 20, 1497
John Cabot embarking from Bristol on May 20, 1497
© Courtesy of Department of National Defence
The details of Cabot’s life are vague. A citizen of Venice, Cabot, or Zuan Caboto, travelled to England seeking support for a trans-Atlantic expedition. Cabot hoped that by sailing across the north Atlantic, he could find a shorter route to the Orient than that of Columbus. Eager to compete with Spain and Portugal, King Henry VII of England approved the trip. Shortly after, Cabot departed on The Matthew, a small three-mast ship with a crew of 18 men.

Cabot’s 35-day journey would have been difficult for he was sailing in unknown waters. When Cabot and his crew landed, they must have been disappointed not to find the spices and silks of the Orient. Nevertheless Cabot claimed the land for England. According to some reports, Cabot’s party found traces of human existence, but did not venture inland. Many accounts of the voyage mention vast amounts of cod. One member of Henry VII’s court wrote, “They assert that the sea is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.”

The Matthew, John Cabot’s ship
The Matthew, John Cabot’s ship
© Courtesy of Department of National Defence
Upon arriving in England, Cabot achieved great renown. Henry VII granted Cabot an annual pension and asked him to return to the New World, this time with five ships. Sadly, Cabot never returned from that 1498 trip.

Cabot and his contemporaries’ explorations mark the beginning of the “Age of Discovery,” the period between the 15th and 17th centuries, when European powers attempting to expand their trading networks found new lands, people, and sources of wealth in the process. Later in this period, explorers like Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain continued Cabot’s investigation of the new continent. Cabot’s landfall was also the basis for England’s presence in North America – a presence that played a major role in the formation of Canada and the United States.

Cabot’s Landfall in the New World is a National Historic Event.

For more on Canada’s early explorers, see Cartier Arrives at Stadacona, Champlain Charts Coast, and We reap what we sow!.

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