John Cabot Crosses the North Atlantic

John Cabot would make three attempts to find Cathay. He left behind no ship logs or journals. Fortunately, historians have found some other sources of information:

  1. The story as written in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, published between 1598 and 1600. This was the version the Pilgrims and the Puritans read.
  2. Parts of the story as told in a letter written by an ambassador from Milan named Raimundo di Raimundis who was attending Henry VII’s court when Cabot returned from his second voyage.
  3. An anonymous letter to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.
  4. A letter by an English merchant named Hugh Say to Christopher Columbus. Say used the alias John Day when in Bristol and trading in Spain, but we will stick to the name Hugh Say. Say was a member of England’s Merchant Company [the Merchant Adventurers], which was even more powerful than Bristol’s Society of Merchant Adventurers; they controlled all of England’s textile industry. [The same organization later sponsored the Pilgrims on the Mayflower.] He spent a lot of time in Bristol and Seville buying and selling cloth, oil, and wine – among other things – and was well connected with the Italian adventurers.(1) Hugh Say was in England when John Cabot returned from his second voyage. Say’s letter indicates he had been corresponding with Columbus about Cabot before that. Written during the winter of 1497 and 1498, Say’s letter is the one historical record we have of Cabot’s first voyage, and the most detailed account of Cabot’s second voyage.
  5. A letter from the owner of one of the galleys in the Venetian Northern Flotilla, Lorenzo Pasqualigo, who was moored on the River Thames when Cabot arrived to London after his second voyage.

Dr. Alwyn Ruddock, a Medieval scholar at Birbeck College, University of London, spent a good part of her life researching John Cabot. According to another authority on Cabot, Dr. Evan Jones at the University of Bristol, Ruddock teased her community with hints that she had found enlightening information that would “revolutionize our understanding of Europe’s engagement with North America in the three decades after 1492.”

Unfortunately, when Ruddock died in 2005(2) at age 89, she ordered her heirs to destroy her manuscript and all her source material. No one knows why. Professor Jones had been anxiously awaiting Ruddock’s book about Cabot. After confirming the alarming devastation to be true, he put together a team of researchers called the Cabot Project to try to retrace Ruddock’s trail. Fortunately, Ruddock had sent an outline of her book to her publisher, Exeter Press, that was not destroyed. Using the outline as a map, the Cabot Project researchers have been searching for her source material. You can track their progress on their web site: We have included what they have found so far in our summary.

1496 – Cabot’s First Voyage

The North Atlantic showing the wind patterns.

In his letter to Columbus, Hugh Say included a brief account of an unsuccessful trip John Cabot made in 1496. Say wrote that Cabot reached Iceland, where something, probably icebergs, spooked his crew and caused him to turn back for England. Historians suspect Cabot did not stock enough food and provisions. Say did not specify whether or not Cabot sailed the Matthew on that trip.

1497 – Cabot’s Second Voyage

The journey that made John Cabot famous occurred in 1497. We will combine the information from our five sources and add some technical information about sailing a ship in 1497.

In the third week of May [probably on the 20th] Anno Domini 1497, Master John Cabot left Bristol in his bark the Matthew stocked with provisions to last seven or eight months. The ship held twenty men. Most of the eighteen crew were Bristol men. Among the twenty were:

Bristol [the name meant bridge place] was located at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Frome. As you probably know, rivers were the most important conduit for moving people and goods around the country. In the 1240s, the port of Bristol re-routed the River Frome. It was the most amazing feat of civil engineering of its time. The engineers dug a new cut [trench] to create a wider and deeper channel to allow for ocean-going vessels. At the same time, they built the quay that became Bristol’s principal wharf [today’s Broad Quay]. John Cabot, with his knowledge of harbor structures, would have been extremely impressed.

As the Matthew left the harbor, she passed Brandon’s Hill to starboard, named after the patron saint of sailing, St. Brandon(3) [the Anglicized version of St. Brendon]. Just as Henry the Navigator’s ships dipped their sails in honor of St. Vincent, Bristol seamen said a prayer to St. Brandon on their way out to sea, asking for a safe voyage.

It took the Matthew at least a day, probably two, to navigate the eight miles and eight tricky curves of the River Avon. The most dangerous curve, called the Great Bend, made a U-turn, causing a ship to face the wind in two directions.

The Matthew’s pilot had to navigate shoals [sand bars] that changed with every tide. She passed several pills [tiny inlets] created by streams feeding into the river, where ships could pull in to wait for the next high tide, or spend the night. The largest pill was just downriver from the Great Bend. A small village developed there, simply named Pill, where the Matthew probably tied up for the night. Her crew could have visited the several taverns built along the cliff.

The Avon connected Bristol Harbour to the giant Severne Inlet estuary that divided England from Wales. What made the passage down river most treacherous was the tidal change. The Severn Inlet had [and still has] the largest tidal span in the world, second only to the Bay of Fundy(4) under today’s Nova Scotia. The difference between high and low tide was thirty feet.

There were only a few hours each day during which the river was deep enough for ships the size of the Matthew to sail up or down it. The rest of the time, ships rested on the bottom of the riverbed or were tied to a quay, tree, stone, or other support at the edge of the river to keep them upright. The phrase “ship-shape in Bristol fashion” described ships that could withstand being in and out of the water twice a day. Bristol became an important harbor because foreign ships had a difficult time navigating upriver to attack. [We have already shown you how far up the Rio Guadalquiver Seville was situated.]

Once ships made it to the Avon rivermouth, they followed a well-traveled shipping path known as the King’s Road, or Kingroad, probably because it was the route taken by English kings from Bristol to London.

Sailing known waters, the Matthew skirted the southern end of Ireland before turning west. As she neared the Canadian Arctic, Cabot and his ship’s pilot noticed that the measurement for north on the compass differed from the measurement using Polaris [the pole star]. They did not understand the variation between geographic north and magnetic north. The difference(5) became more pronounced as the Matthew reached North America.

This caused Cabot to turn south earlier than he would have, which was good, since otherwise he would have wandered into the dangerous iceberg invested waters of today’s Labrador Sea. The Matthew made land “at the end of June.” She had been sailing “thirty-five days,” [ironically two weeks longer than it took Columbus to sail from the Canaries to the Bahamas].

Cabot came to a cape that was “1800 miles west of Dursey Head, Ireland.” Historians argue about what cape that was. As you can see from the map below, there are many possibilities. Was it Cape Bault, where the Vikings ended up, and which most aligns with Dursey Head in Ireland? Was it Baccaleu Islands [Codfish Islands], possibly named earlier by the Portuguese, which is near today’s Carbonear? [As you shall see, historians suspect Carbonear was named after Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis.] Was it BonaVista, near the island named St. Brandon’s? Or was it St. John’s, the most thriving settlement in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert arrived to re-claim Newfoundland for the English?

Captain John Mason voted for Bonavista when he was the Governor of Newfoundland in 1616. He created one of the first maps of the island and labeled the cape “Bona Vista Caboto primum reperta,” which meant, “Beautiful View, Cabot’s first report.”

Whichever cape it was, Cabot and his men thought they had reached Cathay. Huge Say would write later, “he landed at only one spot of the mainland, near the place where land was first sighted, and they disembarked there.” As Cabot and a small party rowed toward shore, they saw two figures, either “man or beast,” dash through the woods beyond the beach. They got out and walked around. Probably dressed in short metal vests called corselets, they armed themselves with crossbows in case they ran across any of the Khan’s ferocious Mongols.

The only signs of habitation they discovered were some felled trees, an abandoned fire, an unstrung bow that had been died or painted red(6), some animal snares [traps] and a needle they assumed was used for darning fishing nets.(7) Hugh Say added that “tilled lands” indicated “there might also be villages..”(8)

The English assumed that the traps and needle had been left by Asian natives. That allowed Cabot and his men to believe they were the “first of any Christian nation” to arrive to that land. He staked his claim in the name of both England and Venice by raising the banners [flags] with “the arms of the Holy Father [Pope],” the lion of St. Mark for Venice, and “those of the King of England.” The priests claimed the land for the Church of Rome by staking a “crucifix.” The party then re-boarded the Matthew and continued on. They would see no other sign of humanity during their visit to the New World.

There are two versions of the story telling us where the explorers went next. One version claims they turned northwest, traversing the channel that led to the as-yet undiscovered St. Lawrence River and came to the land we today call Labrador. Cabot thought Labrador [or whatever land it was] so uninhabitable that he described it as “the land God gave to Cain.”(9) [Cain was the man in the Bible who God banished from civilization because he killed his brother, Abel.] Continuing west, the Matthew sailed to the peninsula on the mainland of North America we now call Nova Scotia [New Scotland].

Hugh Say wrote that the explorers sailed south before sailing west, and never reached Labrador. For that reason, some historians insist Cabot ventured no farther than Newfoundland, which cartographers would soon name Terra Nova [Earth New]. But in 1832, a map was uncovered that supported the claim that Cabot made it as far as Cape Breton and probably Nova Scotia. The map was drawn in 1500 CE, only three years after Cabot’s expedition, by Juan de la Cosa. We met Juan de la Cosa when he sailed with Columbus in the Santa Maria. De la Cosa labeled the northernmost cape, “Capo de Ynglaterra” [Cape of England], and the waters next to it “Mar descubierta por inglese” [Sea discovered by the English](10). We will talk more about this map in the article, Maps After Columbus.

Juan de la Cosa, World Map, Spain, 1500.(11) The original is oriented with west at the top. Our sketch outlines the continents with north at the top.

After the Matthew sailed past Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, she turned starboard into the Bay of Fundy. Finding the seas beginning to freeze, Cabot turned the Matthew about so he and his crew could reach England before winter set in. They had not sailed far enough up the Bay of Fundy to see that Nova Scotia was a peninsula, not an island. When Cabot returned to England, he mistakenly told cartographers that the land mass was an island.

Hugh Say wrote that Cabot departed for home “from the above mentioned cape of the mainland, which is nearest Ireland.” In other words, Cabot retraced his steps to return to the cape where he had made landfall before turning east across the Atlantic. Hugh Say also wrote, “most of the land was discovered after turning back,” which implies that Cabot conducted his survey of the coast of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton as he sailed back to Newfoundland. Hugh Say wrote to Columbus that he personally saw the map from Cabot’s survey, but no one has seen the map since.

Heading home, Cabot probably followed the currents. [We show you the patterns again below.] When his crew argued he was heading too far north, Cabot altered his course. Either for that reason, or because of the currents, the Matthew made land at Brittany. Fortunately, the winds obliged, and from there, she was able to sail north to Bristol without trouble. The trip home – 1900 nautical miles – had taken fifteen days. Raimundo di Raimundis wrote that Cabot’s crew bragged, “Next time, now that we know the way, the passage will take only a fortnight [two weeks].”


  1. The English formed the largest ex-patriot merchant community in Seville’s port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, after the Genoese. Day was associated with the di Nigri family who employed Columbus in the 1470s. He did business with Francisco Pinelo, the Genoese royal Treasurer of Castile, and Pinelo’s nephew, Barnardo Pinelo, the treasurer of the Indies enterprise in Seville. Say was related by marriage to Lord Mountjoy, Henry VII’s Master of the Mint. In 1494, he was granted membership in the Bristol staple as “John Day of London, merchant.” Say was also related by marriage to some of the Bristol merchants who sponsored Cabot, and with Icelandic merchants in Bristol [maybe one and the same]. His family supported the Yorkists against Henry VII, which may explain his alias.
  2. Alwyn Ruddock’s obituary can be viewed at
  3. After the Reformation, Protestant mariners were required to pray to St. Brendon’s god, not to St. Brendon himself because Puritans did not pray to saints.
  4. It is believed the word Fundy came either from the French word for split, fendu, or from the Portuguese word for deep, funda. Both refer to the large tidal range.
  5. According to Douglas Hunter, the difference was as much as 23 degrees.
  6. Hugh Say’s actual description of the bow was “a length of wood with holes at both ends and painted with brasil.” Brasil-wood was a source of a precious red dye also called Dragon’s Blood. This was before Brazil was discovered.
  7. The native people of Newfoundland were Beothuks, sometimes referred to as “Little Passage” people. The natives of Labrador were Inuit.
  8. Douglas Hunter wondered if the name Labrador came from this observation of tierras labradas [tilled lands], rather than from João Fernandez Labrador, who gets credit for discovering today’s Labrador. Labrada means land and Labrador means one of the land i.e. farmer.
  9. Some books and web sites attribute this description to Jacques Cartier who landed on Labrador later, after Hakluyt published the story about Cabot. If Cartier did say that, he was probably quoting Cabot.
  10. Some historians think Juan de la Casa was referring to today’s Cape Farewell in Greenland. Since he did not depict Greenland as a separate landmass, it is easy to see why historians find it is hard to tell.
  11. De la Cosa, Juan. World Map. Spain, 1500. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain. Obtained from wikimedia. Image source:
    This map is currently housed in the Museo Naval in Madrid. According to Niall Kilkenny, this map, along with a portion of the vast secret archives, was taken from the Vatican in 1810 when Napoleon invaded Rome. Napoleon transferred the archives to Paris for a world library he planned to build. Not all the documents were taken back to Rome after his defeat. This priceless map was left behind and ended up in a Paris bookshop. The original piece of ox-hide parchment measures 37.5 x 72 inches (96 X 183 cm). It is illustrated in ink and water colors.
    The map was discovered in 1832 in a shop in Paris by Baron Walckenaer, a bibliophile and the Dutch Ambassador. He brought it to the attention of Alexander Humboldt, a famous German scholar, who told the world about it. Upon the death of Baron Walckenaer in 1853 the map was purchased by the Queen of Spain. Though greatly deteriorated, it is the chief treasure of the Museo Naval in Madrid. (Ambrosini, The Secret Archives of the Vatican, p. 291).

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