In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedia Entries
  • Birth and Early Life
  • Sebastiano Caboto, Son (d. 1557)
  • Maps and Cartography
  • Early English Voyages (pre-Caboto)
  • Later English Voyages (post-Caboto)
  • Legacy
  • Sources
  • Internet Resources

Atlantic History Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot)
by
Francesco Guidi Bruscoli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0374

Introduction

Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot, b. c. 1450–d. c. 1500) was an Italian navigator credited to be the first European to set foot in North America after the Norse, during an expedition of 1497 carried out under the English flag. Little is known about his origins, although he certainly took up Venetian citizenship, implying origin elsewhere. He was known as Zuan Chabotto in Venice, and he presented himself as a Venetian when he moved to England. As early as the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century, Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas praised Caboto’s pioneering “discoveries” (despite some confusion between the role of Giovanni and that of his son). But it was especially from 1897 (the 400th anniversary of his landing) that—following new archival discoveries—his achievement as an explorer was celebrated. Until then his role had been overshadowed by that of his son Sebastian, who in part because of the influence of Sebastian’s own accounts, had been credited with being in charge of the voyages. It was in particular Henry Harrisse, in John Cabot, the Discoverer of North America, and Sebastian his Son: A Chapter of the Maritime History of England under the Tudors, 1496–1557 (London: Stevens, 1896), who revived the figure of Giovanni, while at the same time lambasting Sebastiano as an impostor. In the same period, more or less co-incident with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s 1492 voyage, general interest in voyages of exploration revived also in Italy, although studies on Caboto mainly focused on his origin. In the 1940s new documentary discoveries threw some light on Caboto’s years both in Spain and in Venice. In the 1950s the discovery of John Day’s letter in the Simancas archive stimulated a new wave of studies, for the letter hints at a previously unknown voyage of 1496, provides many technical details concerning the 1497 voyage (thus opening debate on the latitude of the landing), and alludes to earlier discoveries. The most important study, still a crucial reference for studies on Caboto, is James A. Williamson’s The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press/Hakluyt Society, 2nd Series, vol. 120, 1962). For the 500th anniversary of the landing, in 1997, several conferences were organized, in many cases leading to the publication of proceedings. The most relevant recent advances, however, have been made within the framework of the Cabot Project, based at the University of Bristol. Following unpublished leads left behind by deceased scholar Alwyn Ruddock, Evan Jones and others have proposed new hypotheses, and uncovered the first known financiers of the 1497 voyage.

General Overviews

The volume of literature on Giovanni Caboto is overwhelming. New waves of publications coincided either with the celebration of anniversaries (especially in 1897 and 1997) or with the discovery of new documents, as summarized by Luzzana Caraci 1999. In Italian the first analytical study of Caboto’s achievements was Almagià 1937. In English the classic work (still seminal) is Williamson 1962. Countless scholars and writers have published on Caboto’s voyages before and since. Among the most recent academic publications, Pope 1997 discusses at length the possible landfall of the 1497 voyage, still claimed by various Canadian regions, including Cape Bonavista (Newfoundland) and Cape Breton (Nova Scotia), whereas Jones 2008 sets the agenda for new streams of research to be undertaken in order to substantiate or rebut novel claims made by deceased historian Alwyn Ruddock (d. 2005). Recent popular literature includes Hunter 2011, which takes a broader approach including Columbus’s voyages, and Jones and Condon 2016, which summarizes current knowledge and is the prelude to a forthcoming academic publication.

  • Almagià, Roberto. Gli italiani primi scopritori dell’America. Rome: La Libreria dello Stato, 1937.

    Voluminous (and rare) publication in Italian on Italian “first discoverers” of America. Starts from Columbus, and devotes several pages to Caboto. It also includes tables and maps. Critically discusses documents relating to the life and voyages of Caboto (and his son).

  • Hunter, Douglas. The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    A popular history book, aimed at comparing the figures, the careers, and the achievements of Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Caboto. Includes the hypothesis (not backed by any documentary evidence) that Caboto might have accompanied Columbus on his second voyage of 1493.

  • Jones, Evan T. “Alwyn Ruddock: ‘John Cabot and the Discovery of America.’” Historical Research 81 (2008): 224–254.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2007.00422.x

    Discusses claims made by late historian Alwyn Ruddock concerning new discoveries relating to Caboto’s voyages. This article originated new archival research aimed at substantiating or clarifying Ruddock’s claims. See also The Cabot Project, cited under Internet Resources.

  • Jones, Evan T., and M. Condon. Cabot and Bristol’s Age of Discovery: The Bristol Discovery Voyages 1480–1508. Bristol, UK: University of Bristol, 2016.

    Aimed at a general audience, this book presents an updated summary of what we currently know about Caboto and his voyages. It also discusses claims made by the late historian Alwyn Ruddock concerning the discovery of new documents. Also available online.

  • Luzzana Caraci, Ilaria. “Giovanni Caboto cinquecento anni dopo.” In Giovanni Caboto e le vie dell’Atlantico settentrionale. Atti del Convegno Internazionale (Roma, 29 settembre–1 ottobre 1997). Edited by Marcella Arca Petrucci and Simonetta Conti, 51–68. Rome: CISGE, 1999.

    Useful and articulated—albeit brief—summary of the main advancement in the knowledge of Caboto’s life and voyages from the sixteenth century (until 1997).

  • Pope, Peter. The Many Landfalls of John Cabot. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442681699

    Discusses the current knowledge about Caboto, but also the claims of his son Sebastiano (denying his participation in his father’s voyage). Much space is devoted to the possible landfalls of the 1497 voyage and to the celebrations of 1897 (400th anniversary of the landing), when “anglophone/francophone cultural tensions [and] competition between Canada and Newfoundland” (p. 8) sparked debate on the landfall itself.

  • Williamson, James A. The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII. Hakluyt Society Works, 2nd Series, Vol. 120. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

    Albeit dated, it is still the fundamental reference for sources concerning the voyages of John Cabot, as well as his son Sebastian’s and other Bristol voyages. A long introduction summarizes and compares all the sources and offers a considered narrative. It also includes an Appendix by R.A. Skelton, “The Cartography of the Voyages.” The volume reworks, with new documents added, an earlier study of 1929.

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