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John Cabot

FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION

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It is ironic that England's claim to North America, the claim that is responsible for the creation of Canada as we know it, rests on the discoveries of an Italian sea captain.

Although he was probably born in Genoa, Italy, the man who is known to history as John Cabot was authorized by King Henry VII of England to "search for unknown lands in the west." It was the age of exploration, when the European powers of Spain, Portugal, England, Holland, and France sought to expand their trade with Asia and discover untapped sources of wealth in "new worlds." Adventurous navigators like Cabot and his Italian contemporary, Christopher Columbus, received support from powerful monarchs because of the international competition for riches that lay beyond the horizon.

So it was that Cabot, his three sons, and 15 other crew members left Bristol on 2 May 1497 on the Matthew. Anyone who has seen the replica of the Matthew that duplicated Cabot's voyage for the 500th anniversary in 1997 can appreciate how perilous that first voyage must have been. Fifteenth century sailing vessels are tiny and primitive to modern eyes, and the North Atlantic is treacherous water for even the safest modern vessel. It is, after all, the graveyard of the Titanic. On 24 June, Cabot and his crew landed somewhere on the North American coast - probably somewhere in Labrador, Newfoundland, or Cape Breton [no one knows for certain]. He claimed the land for England and returned to Bristol.

He sailed again in 1498, this time with 5 ships and 300 men, sailing southward as far as Chesapeake Bay. This second exploration, however, seemed a failure. The lands Cabot saw were not as rich as he had hoped, and he turned back when supplies ran low. It seems that Cabot perished on the return voyage, perhaps off the coast of Newfoundland. We are not even sure how many of his vessels made it back to Bristol, though one or more seems to have survived the crossing.

In spite of the unhappy end to John Cabot's own story, the longterm results of his voyages were important to England. In a way, Cabot became the "intellectual" discoverer of America because his reports convinced Europeans that the lands in the west constituted a "new" continent, and England had a claim over that land.

What's more, Cabot returned with stories of the Grand Banks, where cod appeared so thick that a person "could walk across their backs." That news opened the North West Atlantic fishery, which helped feed the world for centuries to come.

Now, over 500 years since Cabot's first voyage, we have to recognize the sad depletion of the cod fishery that seemed, in Cabot's time, to be infinite.

Heritage Minute Cast
Cabot Bill Colgate
Sailor Giuseppe Tancredi
King Henry VII Julian Richings
Queen Trish O'Rielly
Additional Cast Robert Harris Bidaman
Additional Cast Paul Saunders

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