The Cabot Project

After an absence that grew far too quickly, we’re happy to say that our newest blog post is indeed a particularly interesting one. Dr Heather Dalton (University of Melbourne) reveals the spectacular findings of collaborative research on the late fifteenth-century explorer John Cabot, who together with his son Sebastian set sail from Bristol for the New World in 1497. Based on the research of the Cabot Project, Dr Dalton argues that Bristol witnessed a period of intense exploratory activity during the 1490s and 1500s which remains poorly understood.

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In compiling Diverse Voyages (1582), Richard Hakluyt was keen to establish the historical precedent that ‘we of England’ had only to reclaim North America rather than conquer it. However, finding texts that proved that these lands ‘of equitie and right appertaine vnto us’ was problematic and Hakluyt opened this book with a document related to a voyage from Bristol led by a Genoese navigator. This was ‘A latine copie of the letters patentes of King Henrie the Seuenth, graunted vnto Iohn Gabote and his three sonnes, Lewes, Sebastian, and Santius, for the discouering of newe and vnknowen landes’. [See: Hakluyt Society First Series, no. 7] Although Hakluyt added works to Principal Navigations (1589) echoing Dee’s claim that England’s relationship with the Americas went back to the time of King Arthur, documents related to the voyages of John Cabot and his son Sebastian continued to be important to Hakluyt’s project.

The Cabot Project was set up in 2009 to investigate early Bristol discovery voyages and those of John Cabot in particular [See: Hakluyt Society Second Series, No. 120]. With the blessing of Henry VII, John Cabot (also known as Giovanni Caboto, Juan Cabotto or Zuan Chabotto) and his son Sebastian had set sail from Bristol in May 1497 across the Atlantic in the Matthew, a vessel of only 50 tons. Although Cabot’s landfall has not been identified, the official position of the Canadian and United Kingdom governments is that he was the first European to land on Newfoundland since the Vikings. Cabot thought he had landed in China and, after being rewarded by the king and granted a second patent, he sailed from Bristol again with four to five ships in May 1498. The fleet was last sighted off the Irish coast and it is generally accepted that Cabot was lost at sea.

TNA C82 332 piece 61 Weston letter text copy
Henry VII’s letter to John Morton, re William Weston, c. 1499, C82/332 piece 61 out of 74, TNA:PRO. Courtesy of The National Archives. 

Click here for an annotated transcription of the letter.

The initial aim of the Cabot Project’s instigator, Dr Evan Jones (University of Bristol), was to investigate the research claims of the late Dr Alwyn Ruddock, a Reader at Birkbeck College. Dr Ruddock dominated research into Bristol’s voyages from the 1960s, making finds that promised to ‘revolutionise’ our understanding of Europe’s early engagement with North America. However, Ruddock never published her key findings and, after her death in 2005, her work was destroyed in keeping with her instructions. After much detective work, Dr Jones and his research partner, Margaret Condon, a Henry VII specialist, found evidence supporting many of Ruddock’s claims, including: that there was a greater royal commitment to Cabot’s ventures than hitherto thought; and that Cabot returned from his 1498 voyage. Another significant find indicates that William Weston, a Bristol merchant and associate of Cabot, led an expedition to the ‘New Found Land’ circa 1499. An article by Dr Jones and Ms Condon about this previously unknown, first English-led voyage to the Americas is to be published shortly.

Dr Francesco Guidi Bruscoli (University of Florence & Queen Mary, London) and I joined the project in the summer of 2010. Dr Bruscoli has recently published articles in both English and Italian, focusing on his recent finds regarding John Cabot’s Italian financiers. My research centres on John Cabot’s son, Sebastian, and my book, Merchants and Explorers: Roger Barlow, Sebastian Cabot and Networks of Atlantic Exchange and Discovery, 1500 – 1560, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Others associated with the project include: Prof Peter Pope (Memorial University, Newfoundland); Dr Fernando Cervantes, Mr Gonzalo Velasco Berenguer, Dr Richard Stone and Ms Tricha Passes (University of Bristol); Dr Jeffrey Reed (Washington D.C.); and Ms Susan Snelgrove (Newfoundland).

The core work of the project to date reveals how poor our understanding of early voyaging has been and suggests that there was a period of intense exploration activity in Bristol, beginning before Cabot arrived at the port in 1495 and lasting until at least 1508. Further details regarding ongoing findings and publications, funding and opportunities for research can be found at:

Dr Heather Dalton is an ARC Early Career Research Fellow, and Honorary Associate Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence History of Emotions, at the University of Melbourne. She is also a member of The Cabot Project at the University of Bristol and in 2013 was a Resident Research Visitor at the Advanced Studies Centre, Keble College, Oxford. Her work deals with merchant networks in the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Atlantic as well as with trade and exploration in the Atlantic and Pacific regions more widely.

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