John Cabot: History and Major Accomplishment of the Renowned Italian Explorer

John Cabot, born Giovanni Caboto around 1450 in Genoa, Italy, was an Italian explorer and navigator known for his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean under the commission of Henry VII of England. This exploration led to the European discovery of parts of North America, believed to be the earliest since the Norse visits to Vinland in the eleventh century.

John Cabot, for example, was an Italian explorer known for his 1497 voyage to North America, where, though mistaking the land for Asia, he reached Newfoundland. Cabot is thought to have died only a few years later, possibly on a similar voyage. Image: A painting of Cabot by Italian painter Giustino Menescardi.

This is the story of the famed Italian explorer.

Birth and Early Life

His exact birth date is uncertain, but he is thought to have been born to a spice merchant, Giulio Caboto, and his wife; this background likely instilled in Cabot a curiosity about foreign lands and the lucrative spice trade.

Cabot’s early life is shrouded in mystery, but it is believed that he received a decent education, likely in navigation and seamanship, given Genoa’s prominence as a maritime republic.

By the late 1470s, Cabot had moved to Venice, a leading maritime power with extensive trade networks, where he became a citizen in 1476. During his time in Venice, he likely engaged in trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, gaining invaluable experience and knowledge about the trade routes.

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Time in England

By the 1480s, Cabot had moved to Spain and later to England, where he settled in Bristol, a leading maritime center. Bristol merchants had been interested in finding a direct trade route to Asia by sailing westward, and Cabot proposed that by sailing across the North Atlantic, one could reach Asia quicker and more safely than by the traditional routes around Africa.

Newfoundland Arrival

In 1496, Cabot received a royal patent from King Henry VII, which authorized him to search for unknown lands to establish trade. This patent was a significant milestone, as it marked England’s entry into the era of transatlantic exploration. The following year, Cabot set sail with one ship, the Matthew, and a crew of about 20 men. The exact course of his 1497 voyage is the subject of much debate, but it is widely accepted that he landed on the coast of what is today known as Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island, claiming the land for the English crown.

Significance of Cabot’s voyage

Cabot’s 1497 voyage was significant for several reasons. Firstly, it is believed to have been the first European exploration of the North American mainland since the Norse. Secondly, it laid the groundwork for future English claims in North America, which would eventually lead to the establishment of English colonies in the New World.

Despite the historical significance of his 1497 voyage, details about Cabot’s life and subsequent expeditions remain scarce and sometimes contradictory. A second expedition is believed to have taken place in 1498, with Cabot commanding a larger fleet aimed at establishing a base in the New World and further exploring the coast. However, the fate of this expedition is unclear, with some accounts suggesting that Cabot and his fleet were lost at sea, while others propose that he returned to England but fell out of favor.

Did you know…?

  • Giovanni Caboto, known as John Cabot in English, reflects a historical European practice of adapting names to local languages in documents, a tradition often embraced by individuals themselves, leading to variations like Zuan Caboto in Venetian and Jean Cabot in French.
  • In Venice, Cabot used “Zuan Chabotto,” a local form of John. He maintained this version in England among Italians, while his Italian banker in London uniquely referred to him as “Giovanni” in contemporary documents.
  • For the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s expedition, Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland was officially recognized by Canada and the UK as his first landing site, despite other proposed locations for his historic North American arrival.


Cabot’s legacy is complex; while he did not establish lasting European settlements in North America, his voyages opened the North Atlantic and contributed to the European understanding of the New World’s geography. His expeditions under the English flag were among the first steps in the long process that eventually led to the establishment of British North America.

In the centuries following Cabot’s voyages, his achievements were somewhat overshadowed by those of other explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

However, the 19th and 20th centuries saw a resurgence of interest in Cabot as historians and scholars began to recognize his contributions to the Age of Discovery.

Today, John Cabot is celebrated as a pioneering figure in Atlantic exploration, with monuments, geographical locations, and institutions named in his honor, reflecting the enduring impact of his voyages on the history of exploration and the eventual shaping of the modern world.

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Frequently Asked Questions about John Cabot and his Voyages

These FAQs aim to provide a brief overview of some of the most common questions related to John Cabot and his exploratory voyages to North America.

When was John Cabot born?

Cabot’s birth might predate the commonly cited year of 1450, suggesting an earlier timeline. His 1471 admission into Venice’s esteemed Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista indicates his early respect and standing within the community, reflecting his societal position.

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Who were John Cabot’s parents?

Cabot, son of Giulio Caboto, with a brother named Piero, had his birthplace debated between Gaeta, Province of Latina, and Castiglione Chiavarese, Province of Genoa, Italy.

John Cabot, originally Giovanni Caboto, was an Italian navigator and explorer who is credited with the discovery of parts of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England in 1497.

What did John Cabot discover?

John Cabot is best known for his 1497 voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, where he reached what is believed to be the coast of Newfoundland, thus marking one of the earliest European explorations of the North American continent since the Norse.

Why did John Cabot explore?

Cabot was motivated by the desire to find a westward route to Asia to access its lucrative spice trade, bypassing the overland routes that were controlled by the Ottomans.

Was John Cabot the first to discover North America?

No, Cabot was not the first. The Norse, led by Leif Eriksson, had reached North America, specifically Vinland, which is thought to be modern-day Newfoundland, around the year 1000. However, Cabot’s voyage in 1497 is significant as it led to the European rediscovery of the continent.

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Did John Cabot think he had found Asia?

Yes, like many explorers of his time, Cabot believed that the lands he had found were the eastern outskirts of Asia. The concept of the “New World” as separate continents of North and South America was not widely recognized at the time.

What happened to John Cabot after his voyages?

The details surrounding Cabot’s fate after his voyages are unclear and subject to debate. He is believed to have embarked on a second voyage in 1498, from which he may not have returned, possibly dying during this expedition.

Cabot’s voyages were significant because they were among the first to suggest the existence of a northwestern route to Asia and they laid the groundwork for future European exploration and eventual colonization of the Americas. Image: Sculpture of Giovanni Caboto, crafted by Italian artits Augusto Benvenuti in 1881.

Did John Cabot have any interaction with indigenous peoples?

There is no conclusive evidence that Cabot directly interacted with indigenous peoples during his voyages. The records of his 1497 voyage are sparse, and if there were interactions, they were not well-documented.

What flag did John Cabot sail under?

John Cabot sailed under the flag of England, having been granted a royal patent by King Henry VII, which authorized him to explore “new lands” on behalf of the English crown.

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