A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part I, Chapter 6." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 6
HOW THE FLAG OF ENGLAND WAS PLANTED ON THE SHORES OF THE NEW WORLD

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS showed the way across the Sea of Darkness; Amerigo Vespucci gave his name to the great double continent, but it was another Italian, John Cabot, who first landed on the Continent of North America.

John Cabot 1425-98 (?)

Like Columbus, Cabot was born in Genoa. When, however, he left his own land he did not go to Spain like Columbus, but to England.

 

He had been living in England for some years when the news of the first great voyage of Columbus was brought there. Soon every one was talking about the wonderful discovery from the King and his court downward.

 

Cabot was a trader and a daring sailor, well used to sailing on the stormy seas. Yet even he was awed by what Columbus had done. To find that way never known before, and by sailing west to reach the east "where the spices grow" seemed to him "a thing more divine than human." And he too longed to follow Columbus, and maybe discover new lands.

 

King Henry VII was eager to claim new lands as the Kings of Spain and Portugal were doing. So he listened to the persuasions of John Cabot. And in spite of the Pope–who had divided all the undiscovered world between the Kings of Spain and Portugal–gave him leave to sail forth to "the seas of the east and west and north" and to plant the banner of England upon any islands, countries or regions belonging to heathens or infidels which he might discover. He bade his "well-beloved John Cabot" take five ships and set forth on the adventure at his "own proper costs and charges." For Henry was a King "wise but not lavish," and although he wanted England to have the glory of new discoveries he was not eager to spend his gold on them.

Henry VII has him set forth

But where could a poor sailor find money enough for so great an adventure?

 

So a year went past, and although Cabot had the King's leave to go he did not set out. But he did not let the King forget. And at length close-fisted Henry listened to "the busy request and supplication" of the eager sailor, and consented to fit out one small ship.

 

So at five o'clock one sweet May morning a frail little vessel called the Matthew, with a crew of but eighteen men, sailed out from Bristol harbour. Many people came to see the vessel sail. For they were nearly all Bristol men who were thus venturing forth on the unknown deep, and their friends crowded to the harbour to wish them godspeed.

The Matthew sets sail

It was a great occasion for Bristol, and indeed for all England, for it was the first voyage of discovery with which the English king and people had to do. So the tiny whitesailed ship put out to sea, followed by the prayers and wishes of those left behind. With tear-dimmed eyes they watched it till it faded from view. Then they turned homewards to pray for the return of their loved ones.

 

Round the coast of Ireland the vessel sped. But at last its green shores faded from sight and the little company of eighteen brave men were alone upon the trackless waves.

 

Westward and ever westward they sailed,

"Over the hazy distance,
Beyond the sunset's rim."

 

Week after week went by. Six weeks and then seven, and still no land appeared. Those were days of anxiety and gloom. But still the hope of the golden west lured Cabot on, and at length one day in June he heard the glad cry of "Land! Land!"

 

So on St. John's Day, in 1497, John Cabot landed somewhere on the coast of America. He called the land Prima Tierra Vista or First Land Seen, and because of the day upon which it was found he called an island near to it St. John's Isle.

Land is found

We cannot tell exactly where Cabot east anchor: it may have been at Cape Breton or somewhere on the coast of Labrador. But wherever it was that he landed he there set up a great cross and unfurled the flag of England, claiming the land for King Henry.

 

When Cabot set out he was full of the ideas of Columbus. He had hoped to find himself on the coast of Asia and in the land of gold and spices. Now he knew himself mistaken. He did not see any natives, but he knew the land was inhabited, for he found notched trees, snares for wild animals and other signs of habitation which he took home.

 

He had found no "golden cities," he had had speech with no stately potentate. Yet he was not utterly disappointed. For the country he had found seemed to him fair and fertile, and the quantities of fish which swarmed in the seas amazed both himself and his men. They had no need of lines or even of nets. They had but to let down a basket weighted with a stone and draw it up again to have all the fish they wanted.

 

Cabot stayed but a short time in the new-found land. He would fain have stayed longer and explored further, but he feared lest his provisions would give out, and so regretfully he turned homeward.

 

Great was the excitement in Bristol when the tiny ship came to anchor there once more, little more than three months after it had sailed away. And so strange were the tales Master Cabot had to tell that the folk of Bristol would hardly have believed him (for he was a poor man and a foreigner) had not his crew of honest Bristol men vouched for the truth of all he said. Every one was delighted. Even thrifty King Henry was so much pleased that he gave Cabot £10. It seems a small enough sum for one who had found "a new isle." But we must remember that it was worth more than £100 would be worth to-day.

The return

Cabot at any rate found it enough with which to buy a suit of silk. And dressed in this new splendour he walked about the streets of Bristol followed by gaping crowds. He was now called the Great Admiral, and much honour was paid to him. Every one was eager to talk with him, eager to go with him on his next voyage: and that even although they knew that many of the crew would be thieves and evil-doers. For the King had promised to give Cabot for sailors all prisoners except those who were confined for high treason.

 

We know little more of John Cabot. Later King Henry gave him a pension of £20 a year. It seems likely that the following year he set out again across the broad Atlantic, taking his sons with him. "The rest is silence."

 

How John Cabot ended his life, where he lies taking his rest, we do not know.

"He sleeps somewhere in sod unknown,
Without a slab, without a stone."

 

We remember him chiefly because he was the first to lead Englishmen across the Atlantic, the first to plant the flag of England upon the Continent of North America, which, in days to come, was to be the home of two great English speaking peoples.

Cabot's claim to fame

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom