This section is from the book "Elizabethan Sea Dogs", by Gerhard R. Lomer and Charles W. Jefferys. Also available from Amazon: Elizabethan Sea Dogs.
In the early spring of 1476 the Italian Giovanni Caboto, who, like Christopher Columbus, was a seafaring citizen of Genoa, transferred his allegiance to Venice.
The Roman Empire had fallen a thousand years before. Rome now held temporal sway only over the States of the Church, which were weak in armed force, even when compared with the small republics, dukedoms, and principalities which lay north and south. But Papal Rome, as the head and heart of a spiritual empire, was still a world-power; and the disunited Italian states were first in the commercial enterprise of the age as well as in the glories of the Renaissance. North of the Papal domain, which cut the peninsula in two parts, stood three renowned Italian cities: Florence, the capital of Tuscany, leading the world in arts; Genoa, the home of Caboto and Columbus, teaching the world the science of navigation; and Venice, mistress of the great trade route between Europe and Asia, controlling the world's commerce.
Thus, in becoming a citizen of Venice, Giovanni Caboto the Genoese was leaving the best home of scientific navigation for the best home of seaborne trade. His very name was no bad credential. Surnames often come from nicknames; and for a Genoese to be called II Caboto was as much as for an Arab of the Desert to be known to his people as The Horseman. Cabottdggio now means no more than coasting trade. But before there was any real ocean commerce it referred to the regular sea-borne trade of the time; and Giovanni Caboto must have either upheld an exceptional family tradition or struck out an exceptional line for himself to have been known as John the Skipper among the many other expert skippers hailing from the port of Genoa.
There was nothing strange in his being naturalized in Venice. Patriotism of the kind that keeps the citizen under the flag of his own country was hardly known outside of England, France, and Spain. Though the Italian states used to fight each other, an individual Italian, especially when he was a sailor, always felt at liberty to seek his fortune in any one of them, or wherever he found his chance most tempting. So the Genoese Giovanni became the Venetian Zuan without any patriotic wrench. Nor was even the vastly greater change to plain John Cabot so very startling. Italian experts entered the service of a foreign monarch as easily as did the 'pay-fighting Swiss' or Hessian mercenaries. Columbus entered the Spanish service under Ferdinand and Isabella just as Cabot entered the English service under Henry VII. GiovannióZuanóJohn: it was all in a good day's work.
Cabot settled in Bristol, where the still existing guild of Merchant-Venturers was even then two centuries old. Columbus, writing of his visit to Iceland, says, 'the English, especially those of Bristol, go there with their merchandise.' Iceland was then what Newfoundland became, the best of distant fishing grounds. It marked one end of the line of English sea-borne commerce. The Levant marked the other. The Baltic formed an important branch. Thus English trade already stretched out over all the main lines. Long before Cabot's arrival a merchant prince of Bristol, named Canyng, who employed a hundred artificers and eight hundred seamen, was trading to Iceland, to the Baltic, and, most of all, to the Mediterranean. The trade with Italian ports stood in high favor among English merchants and was encouraged by the King; for in 1485, the first year of the Tudor dynasty, an English consul took office at Pisa and England made a treaty of reciprocity with Tuscany.
Henry VII, first of the energetic Tudors and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, was a thrifty and practical man. Some years before the event about to be recorded in these pages Columbus had sent him a trusted brother with maps, globes, and quotations from Plato to prove the existence of lands to the west. Henry had troubles of his own in England. So he turned a deaf ear and lost a New World. But after Columbus had found America, and the Pope had divided all heathen countries between the crowns of Spain and Portugal, Henry decided to see what he could do.
Anglo-American history begins on the 5th of March, 1496, when the Cabots, father and three sons, received the following patent from the King:
Henrie, by the grace of God, King of England and France, and Lord of Irelande, to all, to whom these presentes shall come, Greeting ó Be it knowen, that We have given and granted, and by these presentes do give and grant for Us and Our Heyres, to our well beloved John Gabote, citizen of Venice, to Lewes, Sebastian, and Santius, sonnes of the sayde John, and to the heires of them and every of them, and their deputies, full and free authoritie, leave, and Power, to sayle to all Partes, Countreys, and Seas, of the East, of the West, and of the North, under our banners and ensignes, with five skippes, of what burden or quantitie soever they bee: and as many mariners or men as they will have with them in the saide shippes, upon their owne proper costes and charges, to seeke out, discover, and finde, whatsoever lies, Countreyes, Regions, or Provinces, of the Eeatkennes and Infidelles, whatsoever they bee, and in what part of the worlde soever they bee, whiche before this time have been unknowen to all Christians. We have granted to them also, and to every of them, the heires of them, and every of them, and their deputies, and have given them licence to set up Our banners and ensignes in every village, towne, castel, yle, or maine lands, of them newly founds. And that the aforesaide John and his sonnes, or their heires and assignes, may subdue, occupie, and possesse, all such townes, cities, cartels, and yles, of them founde, which they can subdue, occupie, and possesse, as our vassailes and lieutenantes, getting unto Us the rule, title, and jurisdiction of the same villages, townes, castels, and firme lande so founde.
The patent then goes on to provide for a royalty to His Majesty of one-fifth of the net profits, to exempt the patentees from custom duty, to exclude competition, and to exhort good subjects of the Crown to help the Cabots in every possible way. This first of all English documents connected with America ends with these words: Witnesse our Selfe at Westminster the Fifth day of March, in the XI yeere of our reigne. HENRY R.