One of the most disturbing things about being Italian American is how we embrace stereotypes of ourselves, effectively degrading the most unique and diverse heritage on the planet. Explorer John Cabot is a case in point. I doubt if one hundred paesani out of 17 million of us even know he was Italian. Every June, I submit a Cabot article to newspapers and every year it never sees the light of day.
Neither Christopher Columbus nor Amerigo Vespucci set foot on North America, but John Cabot did. His landing on June 24, 1497, a scant four-and-a-half years after Columbus’ landfall at San Salvador, set the course of events that led to the Thirteen Colonies and the English language as our mother tongue. He single-handedly launched the British Empire.
So, who was John Cabot? A citizen of the Venetian Republic, Giovanni Caboto was actually born in Gaeta, Italy, a seaport south of Rome where the main boulevard is now named for him. He settled in Venice and later emigrated to Bristol, England. It is noteworthy that he remained a citizen of Venice, ultimately planting in American soil the banner of St. Mark (Venice’s seal) alongside that of England.
He made his historic journey as the agent of Henry VII. But his royal commission required Cabot to pay for the trip himself, and entitled him to exploit all the lands he found. In feudal terms, Cabot was a vassal of the King, obligated to share profits and pay taxes but having proprietary rights in the new domain. England, at the time of Cabot’s landing, was more than satisfied with the vast cod fishery he found offshore of the new continent. It freed England’s food supply from the Icelandic monopoly. For this, Cabot was given a cash stipend each year. As for coastal Canada, New England, and all the southerly regions, it would be another century before the English asserted a claim based on Cabot’s exploration. They were inspired to do so only after the French had penetrated the hinterland along Canada’s St. Lawrence River. Jamestown had to wait until 1607 to be settled and Plymouth thirteen years later.
Cabot’s sole vehicle of discovery was the Mathew, a modest ship named after his wife Mattea. On this first crossing, Cabot made landfall somewhere along the Canadian coast, probably Newfoundland.
On a second voyage in 1498, Cabot took an unauthorized detour south, down to Chesapeake Bay, from whence he returned home. His little sojourn added most of our east coast to the future British Empire.
Not generally known is that John Cabot also figured largely in the American Revolution. A clever rebel named Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay in 1775 to the effect that Great Britain had no right to claim North America based on Cabot’s discovery. In his essay, Vindication for the Colonies, Franklin rebutted the assertion by the English government that all the colonies were “settled at the expense of Britain.” Franklin argued that Cabot paid for his own voyage of discovery. This meant that the colonies were settled on Cabot’s investment, not the King’s. It was an interesting interpretation, but one that Parliament didn’t buy.
Cabot did not refer to his new lands by any particular name. Like Columbus, he thought he was offshore of Cipango (Japan). North America had not yet been named for Amerigo Vespucci. That wouldn’t happen until 1507. In light of Cabot’s inaugural landing and the fact that he planted the flag of Venice on these shores, a more appropriate name would have been Venetia (Ven-EE-sha), as in the United States of Venetia. (Coincidentally Amerigo Vespucci named Venezuela, meaning Little Venice.)
Vespucci got two continents named for him and Columbus has his own holiday. But John Cabot never made the big time. It’s high time we reminded America that he was Italian and made us an English-speaking nation. -JLM