The last post outlined the various myths and legends of the medieval period of the phantom islands in the Atlantic ocean. This stemmed from the research that I am currently undertaking in preparation for my book about the empire-building of the Tudor state: The Tudor Empire. This research has enabled to delve further into the exploits of John Cabot, the noted explorer of the 1490s during the reign of Henry VII.
The Italian John Cabot arrived in England at some point in the mid-1490s with the hope of finding royal endorsement for a speculative transatlantic voyage; the intention was to find a direct route to reach Asian markets. Such a move had the potential to bring prosperity due to cutting out the “middle-men” in reaching these far-flung empires, thereby boosting trade. In 1492, Christopher Columbus set off from Spain with the same intention, before discovering various islands in what would become known as the American continents. This land, then, meant that a direct route was impossible, but of course Cabot and Henry VII were not to know that in the 1490s.
The first attempted voyage in 1496 was aborted, leading to greater planning and preparation for the more successful expedition in 1497 when Cabot and his crew made landfall in Newfoundland. The voyage proved that land was reachable, however, navigation of the Northwest Passage was not achieved. After being showered with praise on his return to England, Cabot then set off again in 1498 hoping to reach Asia.
However, that is the last mention of Cabot in records. Then, over the course of the following centuries John Cabot became hidden from history, perhaps due to a lack of clear evidence of his feats in the 1490s, and also due to his efforts becoming attached to the career of his son Sebastian Cabot. By the end of the Victorian period John Cabot had been successfully rescued from obscurity, however, his fate remained unknown. As late as the early twenty-first century it was assumed that his 1498 voyage made a grave, ghastly end.
This is the view taken in the recently published textbooks that my A-level students use for information. Turvey and Rogers (in Henry VII, printed 2009) noted that ‘Cabot himself never returned from this expedition but died on the way home’. The AQA endorsed Tudors A-level textbook published in 2015 – written by Tillbrook – states that Cabot died in 1498. However, the recent excellent research from Jones and Condon at The Cabot Project has provided an argument to state that this is not the case.
Jones and Condon suggest that Cabot may have returned to England by 1500, thereby avoiding death in 1498. Furthermore, they also discuss the claims made by Alwyn Ruddock several decades ago; Ruddock believed that Cabot sailed along the North American coast, perhaps as far south as Florida. Unfortunately, Ruddock never put these claims into print, and her research papers were destroyed after her death. However, the recent discoveries from Jones and Condon (which have led to an understanding of the subsequent voyages during the reign of Henry VII, particularly those of William Weston) have proved that there is still a great deal that is unknown of England’s participation during the Age of Discovery. As such, it is time that the history textbooks were re-written to include this recent historical debate.
I’ve noted in the past how these A-level textbooks contain mistakes. This is probably due to them being put together in a rushed fashion, as shown with the many typos and errors. Sometimes the mistakes are academically ignorant: such as rewriting history by confusing the order of events (I’ve previously written about this with the confusion of a previous A-level History textbook which completely muddled the 1497 Cornish rebellions…. an issue that still continues to confuse some History teachers!). However, in this instance it is a case of history becoming news: old events have been returned to with fresh evidence and new interpretations, thereby leading to a reappraisal. (Having written that, I’m not entirely confident that the new textbooks when published for the next inevitable specification change will actually note this recent research.)
John Cabot’s disappearance, then, remains a mystery; but it is a mystery that provides new questions, rather than assumptions of his potential death in 1498. I’ve enjoyed reading further into this period and the various exploration attempts; these men seem, in part, to have been both brave and insane in terms of attempting such feats. Therefore, it is comforting to see the work of Jones and Condon shine a greater light on this corner of history.