To sayle to all Partes of the East, of the West, and of the North. The pointed omission of the word South made it clear that Henry had no intention of infringing Spanish rights of discovery. Spanish claims, however, were based on the Pope's division of all the heathen world and were by no means bounded by any rights of discovery already acquired.
Cabot left Bristol in the spring of 1497, a year after the date of his patent, not with the 'five shippes' the King had authorized, but in the little Matthew, with a crew of only eighteen men, nearly all Englishmen accustomed to the North Atlantic. The Matthew made Cape Breton, the easternmost point of Nova Scotia, on the 24th of June, the anniversary of St. John the Baptist, now the racial fete-day of the French Canadians. Not a single human inhabitant was to be seen in this wild new land, shaggy with forests primeval, fronted with bold, scarped shores, and beautiful with romantic deep bays leading inland, league upon league, past rugged forelands and rocky battlements keeping guard at the frontiers of the continent. Over these mysterious wilds Cabot raised St. George's Cross for England and the banner of St. Mark in souvenir of Venice. Had he now reached the fabled islands of the West or discovered other islands off the eastern coast of Tartary? He did not know. But he hurried back to Bristol with the news and was welcomed by the King and people. A Venetian in London wrote home to say that 'this fellow-citizen of ours, who went from Bristol in quest of new islands, is Zuan Caboto, whom the English now call a great admiral. He dresses in silk; they pay him great honour; and everyone runs after him like mad.' The Spanish ambassador was full of suspicion, in spite of the fact that Cabot had not gone south. Had not His Holiness divided all Heathendom between the crowns of Spain and Portugal, to Spain the West and to Portugal the East; and was not this landfall within what the modern world would call the Spanish sphere of influence? The ambassador protested to Henry VII and reported home to Ferdinand and Isabella.
Henry VII meanwhile sent a little present 'To Hym that founde the new Isle—£10.' It was not very much. But it was about as much as nearly a thousand dollars now; and it meant full recognition and approval. This was a good start for a man who couldn't pay the King any royalty of twenty per cent, because he hadn't made a penny on the way. Besides, it was followed up by a royal annuity of twice the amount and by renewed letters-patent for further voyages and discoveries in the west. So Cabot took good fortune at the flood and went again.
This time there was the full authorized flotilla of five sail, of which one turned back and four sailed on. Somewhere on the way John Cabot disappeared from history and his second son, Sebastian, reigned in his stead. Sebastian, like John, apparently wrote nothing whatever. But he talked a great deal; and in after years he seems to have remembered a good many things that never happened at all. Nevertheless he was a very able man in several capacities and could teach a courtier or a demagogue, as well as a geographer or exploiter of new claims, the art of climbing over other people's backs, his father's and his brothers' backs included. He had his troubles; for King Henry had pressed upon him recruits from the gaols, which just then were full of rebels. But he had enough seamen to manage the ships and plenty of cargo for trade with the undiscovered natives.
Sebastian perhaps left some of his three hundred men to explore Newfoundland. He knew they couldn't starve because, as he often used to tell his gaping listeners, the waters thereabouts were so thick with codfish that he had hard work to force his vessels through. This first of American fish stories, wildly improbable as it may seem, may yet have been founded on fact. When acres upon acres of the countless little capelin swim inshore to feed, and they themselves are preyed on by leaping acres of voracious cod, whose own rear ranks are being preyed on by hungry seals, sharks, herring-hogs, or dogfish, then indeed the troubled surface of a narrowing bay is literally thick with the silvery flash of capelin, the dark tumultuous backs of cod, and the swirling rushes of the greater beasts of prey behind. Nor were certain other fish stories, told by Sebastian and his successors about the land of cod, without some strange truths to build on. Cod have been caught as long as a man and weighing over a hundred pounds. A whole hare, a big guillemot with his beak and claws, a brace of duck so fresh that they must have been swallowed alive, a rubber wading boot, and a very learned treatise complete in three volumes—these are a few of the curiosities actually found in sundry stomachs of the all-devouring cod.
The new-found cod banks were a mine of wealth for western Europe at a time when everyone ate fish on fast days. They have remained so ever since because the enormous increase of population has kept up a constantly increasing demand for natural supplies of food. Basques and English, Spaniards, French, and Portuguese, were presently fishing for cod all round the waters of northeastern North America and were even then beginning to raise questions of national rights that have only been settled in this twentieth century after four hundred years.
Following the coast of Greenland past Cape Farewell, Sebastian Cabot turned north to look for the nearest course to India and Cathay, the lands of silks and spices, diamonds, rubies, pearls, and gold. John Cabot had once been as far as Mecca or its neighborhood, where he had seen the caravans that came across the Desert of Arabia from the fabled East. Believing the proof that the world was round, he, like Columbus and so many more, thought America was either the eastern limits of the Old World or an archipelago between the extremest east and west already known. Thus, in the early days before it was valued for itself, America was commonly regarded as a mere obstruction to navigation — the more solid the more exasperating. Now, in 1498, on his second voyage to America, John Cabot must have been particularly anxious to get through and show the King some better return for his money. But he simply disappears; and all we know is what various writers gleaned from his son Sebastian Jater on.