John Cabot

Zuan Chabatto of Venice [aka Ioani Cabato, Giovanni Cabato, and John Cabot] gets credit for claiming Newfoundland for the English even though Leif Ericsson founded a settlement on the island in around 1001 CE. As we have seen, it is highly likely that ships from Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Viscaya, Genoa, and or Portugal sighted, visited, and even fished off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks long before Cabot arrived. The speckled areas on the map below [drawn in the early 1700s] shows us those banks.

Herman Moll’s New Found Land, St. Laurence Bay, the fishing banks, Acadia, and part of New Scotland, c1732.(1)

According to Ferdinand Columbus’ biography about his father, a “one-eyed sailor from the Bay of Cadiz told Christopher that while on a voyage to Ireland, “he saw that land which at the time he supposed to be a part of Tartary [Russia], which turned westward and must have been what was then called the Land of Cod [Terra de Bacalhau(2)]. Foul weather prevented his ship from approaching it.”(3) That report may have been one of the reasons Bartolomé was heading northward before his ships were destroyed in the hurricane. In the end, neither Bartolomé or Christopher followed up on the one-eyed sailor’s lead.

Zuan Chabatto, who became John Cabot when he moved to England, was born about 1450, a year earlier than Columbus(4). He identified himself as “the son of Zilio Chabatto.” A real estate record revealed that he had at least one brother named Piero.

The brothers grew up in Venice from an early age, though they were probably not born there. The last name Caboto literally meant “coastal seaman” and was common along the northwest coast of Italy between Liguria and Naples. Zuan married Mattea [her name was a female version of Matthew], and together they would have three sons: Ludovico, Sebastiano, and Sancio.

As of 1470, Chabatto belonged to a prestigious religious fraternity called San Giovanni Evangelista, one of Venice’s four scuole grandi. The grandee’s most precious possession was its own sliver of the true cross. The fraternity had some five to seven hundred members. Like Portuguese orders and English and German guilds, members looked out for one another.

During Cabot’s day, the Venetian Republic encompassed the cities of Padua and Verona. The Republic manned trading posts as far east as Crete and Cyprus. The controlling body, known as the Signoria [literally the lordships] was headed by a Doge [Duke] who ruled from within the compact archipelago protected inside a walled lagoon. Native son Marco Polo was still the most celebrated traveler of all time.

Map of Venice Lagoon by Ottoman Turk Piri Reis, 1521.(5)

A column-lined market plaza on the main island of Rialto [St. Mark’s Square, named after the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark, and represented by the image of a lion] was the busiest and richest center of commerce in all Europe. Its storehouses contained herbs, spices, rare books, Persian carpets, African ivory, precious gems, and other exotic items.

The Signoria oversaw all trade. They controlled the flotillas [fleets] of gigantic well-armed galley-ships that carried the precious goods from the Levant to Europe. Wide sturdy carracks accompanied the galleys to carry large loads. The Northern Flotilla sailed yearly west out the Mediterranean and north to trade with England and Flanders along the English Channel.

The galley capitaneus [captains] held high positions in Venetian society. Each galley had its own court with servants, a physician, a notary, and musicians to serve and entertain them as they traveled. 170 oarsmen powered each vessel, protected by 30 ballestraria [bow men]. The additional crew of some two hundred included the officers, carpenters, a cook, and a man who took care of the wine. The galleys served as entertainment halls as well as transport vehicles. They were decorated as elaborately as royal palaces.

On March 28, 1476, the Signoria granted Zuan Chabatto popolar nostro [full, non-noble citizenship], a privilege applied to only ten percent of all citizens. In order to qualify, he had to have lived within the greater limits of the Republic for at least fifteen continuous years. That meant Cabot had been living in Venice since at least 1461.

The position gave Cabot the rights to engage in trade in Venice, as well as internationally. [This will give him an advantage in England later.] Full noble citizens were not required to pay the duties [taxes] on goods brought to Venice that non-citizens and foreigners were required to pay.

Documentation on Cabot’s life is spotty. By 1482, Zuan Chabatto was buying and improving real estate. He purchased some run-down houses in a neighborhood of Venice called San Paolo. A month later, he purchased property in Chioggia about fifteen miles south of the Rialto, at the southern end of the lagoon. A document dated 1483 placed him in Crete selling a slave. Another document referred to him as a pellizer, a merchant who traded in hides [probably sheep hides, which were used for a variety of things including clothing and parchment]. When in December of 1484 he sold the Chioggia property, he had tripled his investment.

Even though the real estate deal went well, by November of 1488, Zuan Chabatto and his brother Piero were in debt to some very influential creditors. That may have had something to do with the war that broke out in 1485 in the Levant between the Ottoman Turks and the Sultanate of Egypt, which interfered with Venetian trade.

History knows no more about Piero after that record of his debt. But we know that Zuan uprooted his wife and sons and hi-tailed it out of Venice, causing a notary of the Doge to authorize local governments outside of the Republic, including Milan and Genoa, to pursue him.

In 1490, while Christopher Columbus followed Ferdinand and Isabella from Seville to Málaga, and Bartolomé Columbus sailed to England to visit King Henry VII, Zuan Chabatto and his family moved to Valencia in Aragon. A letter written in 1492 referred to him as Johan Caboto Montecalunya the Venetian. The word Montecalunya implies that he might have spent the time between 1488 and 1490 in the Mountains of Catalonia [Catalonia] hiding from his creditors. Catalonia was a principality of Aragon.

Valencia was the administrative and financial capital of Aragon. It was one of the largest urban centers in Europe, conveniently located along the Mediterranean near the gateway to the Atlantic. The harbor was situated two miles up the River Turia, which emptied in the Balearic Sea. Geographically, Valencia was similar to Chiogga and Amsterdam. It lay near sea level and was riddled with canals that constantly needed dredging and fortifying.

Many Genoese lived and worked there as merchants, silk traders, and velluters [velvet manufacturers]. Just eight years earlier, the town of some forty thousand began building a beautiful market center called La Lonja for the exchange of oil and silk. The complex also served as a banking center. Business was booming, thanks to the Renaissance.

Johan Caboto and another merchant named Gaspar Rull drafted a proposal to build an artificial harbor to service the new commerce. They placed their proposal in front of the Duke of Valencia in September of 1492 [the month after Columbus departed on his first expedition]. The Duke of Valencia, in turn, handed the proposal over to his boss, King Ferdinand of Aragon.

That same year, Venetian records show Ionnes Gaboto [Johan Caboto] and a Giorgio Dominici owing 130 ducats to Giorgio Dragan, a wealthy sea merchant who traded wine from Crete to Flanders and England. [In 1493, Dragan traded artillery and munitions on the Dalmatia Coast of the Adriatic.]

At the time, Caboto and Gaspar Rull were in Barcelona, the largest city and main harbor in Catalonia, waiting for a verdict on their harbor project from King Ferdinand, who was holding court there. Barcelona was a circular walled city on the shore of the Balearic Sea. The emissary of the Holy Roman Emperor, Jerome Muenzer(6), who visited Ferdinand and Isabella in 1494, wrote that their palace in Barcelona was without equal in beauty. “All the rooms of the palace have floors covered with clay tiles baked with drawings in various colors. The ceilings are covered with very pure gold, adorned with diverse golden flowers.”(7)

Valencia had replaced Barcelona as Aragon’s commerce center, but Barcelona still had the superior anchorage – hence Caboto and Rull’s proposal to improve Valencia’s harbor. Valencia’s Turia River was too shallow for large ships. The long pier to the Balearic Sea, called Ponta de Fusta, constantly needed repairing. What Valencia needed was a system of break-walls similar to Barcelona’s.

Forty-two-year-old Caboto met the forty-year old King of Aragon in September of 1492, one month after Columbus departed from Palos. It had been nine months since Ferdinand and Isabella’s success in Granada, after which they evicted the Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. Contemporaries of Ferdinand described him as “congenial, healthy from so much hunting, but ruthless.”

King Ferdinand was pleased with Caboto the Venetian’s plan. Caboto and Hull had proposed to quarry stones from twenty miles south and build two stone arms that enclosed the harbor, like lobster pinchers. Fernando thought the result would be “a great benefit for the common weal [well being] of his kingdom.” The next step was to consult the king’s treasurer, Louis de Santángel, the same man who had arranged for Queen Isabella to obtain a loan to rent the Pinta and the Niña from the Pinzón family for Columbus’ expedition.

In November of 1492, the project came to a screeching halt. A knife wielding, would-be assassin attacked King Ferdinand. The king survived, however he remained in critical condition for some time. In January of 1493, both Ferdinand and Isabella busied themselves negotiating the Treaty of Barcelona with Charles VIII of France(8) concerning a border dispute along the Pyrenees Mountains. During this time, the Catholic Monarchs were also waiting to see if their campaign in the Canaries to subjugate the Guanches had been successful.

Nonetheless, on February 26 or 27, King Ferdinand ordered the governor of Valencia, Diego de Torres, to commence construction of Caboto and Hull’s artificial harbor.

In March, the Catholic Monarchs considered a proposal from King Henry VII of England to re-ratified a treaty that, among more political issues, provided for Ferdinand and Isabella’s youngest child, Catherine of Aragon, to wed Henry’s eldest son, Prince Arthur of England. The wedding was not to take place for five years, in 1498, when Arthur turned twelve and Katherine thirteen. Since Ferdinand and Isabella no longer needed England’s support after signing their own treaty with France, they told Henry they would think about it.

At the end of March, Valencia’s town council decided not to fund Cabato’s harbor project. Rolling into April, he waited to see if Ferdinand might change their mind.

Meanwhile, Christopher Colón had returned and written a letter to Luis de Santángel describing Española, which was printed. As hundreds of copies circulated through Europe with the news of his adventure, Columbus was already in Barcelona negotiating his next voyage. He wanted to relieve the men he left at La Navidad. He also wanted to follow up on the gold Pínzon discovered in Española.

Johan Caboto was nearby in Valencia. At the least, he obtained a copy of Columbus’ letter and read it. At the most, he met with the Admiral face to face.

On April 15, 1493, King Ferdinand wrote a letter to the Valencia town council suggesting they consult Luis de Santángel about Johan Caboto’s harbor project. It is possible that Caboto traveled to Barcelona to participate in the negotiations. Historians do not know if Columbus and Cabot met during the overlap. Both men were in the middle of negotiating with King Ferdinand and Luis de Santíangel.

Christopher Columbus then left on his second expedition on September 24, 1493, with seventeen vessels. But there are no further records of Johan Caboto until seventeen months later. Historian and author Douglas Hunter suspects that since Columbus needed civic engineers to build the trading stage in Española, and since Johan Cabato was an experienced civic engineer recently released from a harbor building project, King Ferdinand and Luis de Santíangel sent Caboto with Columbus to America.

The next record of Cabato is dated September 15, 1494, when he was hired by the City of Seville to fix a bridge over the Rio Guadalquivir. His contract indicated that he had been in Seville for three months. Cabot could easily have returned from Española with Captain Torres and the twelve vessels that arrived to Cadiz on March 9, 1494. That would have placed him near Seville when the job opened for an engineer to fix the bridge.

What we know is that on September 15, 1494, five months after Torres reached Cadiz, “Johan Caboto, Venetian, an inhabitant of Seville,” received his commission to build “the city bridge of brick.” Cabot was to be paid over five months. He had already been living in Seville three of the five [indicating he got the job two months after returning from the Indies]. Douglas Hunter wrote, “The fact that Cabot was entrusted with a public works project so critical to the city indicates the high esteem in which he was held.”(9)

Seville in Andalusia lies on the eastern shore of the Rio Guadalquivir. The city had been taken from the Muslims in 1248. Its great mosque was torn down and replaced by a magnificent cathedral that would eventually house Columbus’ tomb. Ferdinand and Isabella, when in town, resided at the former Muslim fortress called the Alcazar. It had been turned into a royal palace by Peter the Cruel, the great-great-grandfather of both Ferdinand and Isabella.

Ships traded for wool as far north as Flanders and England, for sugar as far south as the Canaries, and for silks, jewels, and spices as far east as the Levant. The Rio Guadalquivir could handle ships as large as 150 tons. The residents of Seville believed that because of Columbus’ discovery, their city would become the center of western trade with India, just as it was Spain’s center of trade with Africa.

But by December 24, 1494, the bridge project was falling apart. The city council held a special meeting to discuss the matter. The minutes reveal that even though the council had paid Johan Caboto the Venetian, “fifty Spanish doubloons,” and “three reals for each day for five months,” the work had “not been carried out.” No more money was to be given to Caboto.

Johan Caboto had fled from Seville. He also disappeared from historical records again, this time for two years. He will reappear in 1496 having somehow attained the knowledge and experience to convince King Henry VII of England that he deserved a patent to explore for, and claim, new lands for England.

Douglas Hunter has proposed a theory that partially explains what Caboto was up to during those two years and how John Cabot, as he would forever be known, showed up in England with the idea for the proposed adventure across the north Atlantic; the navigation charts and globe needed to convince King Henry to grant him a patent; and the funding to take on the project “at his own personal risk.”


Information about John Cabot is scarce. Most of the information for this article was obtained from Douglas Hunter’s recent and most informative book The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost history of Discovery, Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 1001.

  1. Moll, Herman, d. 1732. New Found Land, St. Laurence Bay, the fishing banks, Acadia, and part of New Scotland, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection, Boston Public Library {{PD-Old}} No known copyright restrictions. This work is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike License (CC BY-NC-SA). Image source:
  2. A Norwegian doctor told me that there is a popular dish in Norway called Baccaloa. It is made from stockfish [cod] with onions and other flavors.
  3. Hunter, Douglas.The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost history of Discovery, Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 1001 p.41
  4. Cabot was two years older than his fellow Italian, Leonardo da Vinci.
  5. Reis, Piri. Venice, 1525.  {{PD-Old}} Map in Public Domain, over 100 years old. Attribution: By Shuppiluliuma at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia CommonsImage source:
  6. Spelled Münzer in Germany.
  7. Hunter, Douglas, ibid, p. 52.
  8. Charles was the only son of Louis XI, who d. 1483 when Charles was thirteen. His sister Anne de Beaujeu acted as regent until Charles married Anne de Bretagne in 1491. By 1492, Charles was in charge.
  9. Hunter, Douglas, ibid, p 107

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