It was no longer possible for the Old World to keep secret the wealth of the New World. English eyes were already straining across the seas, English hands were ready to grasp the treasure that had been Spain's for the last fifty years. While Spain was sending Christopher Columbus to and fro across the Atlantic to the West Indies, while Portugal was rejoicing in the success of Vasco da Gama, John Cabot, in the service of England, was making his way from Bristol to the New World. News of the first voyage of Columbus had been received by the Cabots— John and his son Sebastian—with infinite admiration. They believed with the rest of the world that the coast of China had been reached by sailing westward.
Bristol was at this time the chief seaport in England, and the centre of trade for the Iceland fisheries. The merchants of the city had already ventured far on to the Atlantic, and various little expeditions had been fitted out by the merchants for possible discovery westward, but one after another failed, including the "most scientific mariner in all England," who started forth to find the island of Brazil to the west of Ireland, but, after nine miserable weeks at sea, was driven back to Ireland again by foul weather.
Now Columbus had crossed the Atlantic, Cabot got leave from the English King, Henry VII., "to sail to the east, west, or north, with five ships carrying the English flag, to seek and discover all the islands, countries, regions, or provinces of pagans in whatever part of the world." Further, the King was to have one-fifth of the profits, and at all risks any conflict with Spain must be avoided. Nothing daunted, Cabot started off to fulfil his lord's commands in a tiny ship with eighteen men. We have the barest outlines of his proceedings. Practically all is contained in this one paragraph. "In the year 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian, and his son Sebastian discovered on the 24th of June, about five in the morning, that land to which no person had before ventured to sail, which they named Prima Vista or first seen, because, as I believe, it was the first part seen by them from the sea. The inhabitants use the skins and furs of wild beasts for garments, which they hold in as high estimation as we do our finest clothes. The soil yields no useful production, but it abounds in white bears and deer much larger than ours. Its coasts produce vast quantities of large fish—great seals, salmons, soles above a yard in length, and prodigious quantities of cod." PART OF NORTH AMERICA, SHOWING SEBASTIAN CABOT'S VOYAGE TO NEWFOUNDLAND PART OF NORTH AMERICA, SHOWING SEBASTIAN CABOT'S VOYAGE TO NEWFOUNDLAND.
From the Map of 1544, usually ascribed to Cabot. The names in brackets are inserted in order to make this extract and its reference to Cabot's discoveries clear.
So much for the contemporary account of this historic voyage. A letter from England to Italy describes the effect of the voyage on England. "The Venetian, our countryman, who went with a ship from Bristol in quest of new islands, is returned and says that seven hundred leagues hence he discovered land, the territory of the Great Khan. He coasted for three hundred leagues and landed; he saw no human beings, but he has brought hither to the King certain snares which had been set to catch game and a needle for making nets. He also found some felled trees. Wherefore he supposed there were inhabitants, and returned to his ships in alarm. He was there three months on the voyage, and on his return he saw two islands to starboard, but would not land, time being precious, as he was short of provisions. He says the tides are slack and do not flow as they do here.
The King of England is much pleased with this intelligence. The King has promised that in the spring our countryman shall have ten ships to his order, and at his request has conceded to him all the prisoners to man his fleet. The King has also given him money wherewith to amuse himself till then, and he is now at Bristol with his wife and sons. His name is Cabot, and he is styled the great Admiral. Vast honour is paid to him; he dresses in silk, and the English run after him like mad people." Yet another letter of the time tells how "Master John Cabot has won a part of Asia without a stroke of the sword." This Master John, too, "has the description of the world in a chart and also in a solid globe which he has made, and he shows where he landed. And they say that it is a good and temperate country, and they think that Brazil wood and silks grow there, and they affirm that that sea is covered with fishes." But "Master John" had set his heart on something greater. Constantly hugging the shore of America, he expected to find the island of Cipango (Japan) in the equinoctial region, where he should find all the spices of the world and any amount of precious stones.
But after all this great promise Master John disappears from the pages of history and his son Sebastian continues to sail across the Atlantic, not always in the service of England, though in 1502 we find him bringing to the King of England three men taken in the Newfoundland, clothed in beasts' skins and eating raw flesh, and speaking a language which no man could understand. They must have been kindly dealt with by the King, for two years later the poor savages are "clothed like Englishmen." Though England claimed the discovery of this Newfoundland, the Portuguese declared that one of their countrymen, Cortereal—a gentleman of the royal household—had already discovered the "land of the cod-fish" in 1463. But then had not the Vikings already discovered this country five hundred years before.
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