Days of the Discoverers Part 9

John Cabot laughed and swung his little son to his shoulder. "That is a great question for a little brain," he said fondly. "But see thee here; suppose I put thee in the chest and shut the lid and turn the key; thou art locked in and canst not get out--so! But now I put thee out of door and set the bandog to guard it; thou art locked out though the door be wide open, seest thou? And when I forbid thee to pick up the plums that fall on the grass from the Frenchman's damson tree, they are as safe as if I locked them in the dresser here, are they not? So 't is when the King forbids his people to send their goods to some harbor; it is the same as if a great chain were stretched across that harbor with a great lock upon it. Now run and play with Ludovico and Santo, Sebastiano mio, and be glad thou art free of a pleasant garden."

But Sebastian still hung back, his dark head rubbing softly against his father's shoulder. "When I am a great merchant," he announced, "the King will let me send my ships all over the world."

John Cabot stroked the wavy dark hair with a lingering, tender touch.

"God grant thee thy wish, little one," he said. And Sebastian, with a shout in answer to a call from the sunny out-of-door world, scampered away.

John Cabot, who had been born in Genoa, married while a merchant in Venice, and had now lived for many years in Bristol, felt sometimes that the life of a trader was like that of a player at dice. And the dice were often loaded.

He was a good navigator, or he would not have been a true son of the Genoese house of Caboto--Giovanni Caboto translated meant John the Captain, and in a city full of sea-captains a man must know more than a little of the sea to win that title. He had made a place for himself in Venice as Zuan Gaboto, and now he was a known and respected man in the second greatest seaport of England, with a house in the quarter of Bristol known as "Cathay," the only part of the city where foreigners were allowed to live. It had its nickname from the fact that the foreign trade of Bristol was largely with the Orient.

English trade in those days was hampered by a multitude of restrictions.

There were monopolies, there were laws forbidding the export of this and that, or the making of goods by any one outside certain guilds, there were arrangements favoring foreign traders who had got their foothold during the War of the Roses,--when kings needed money from any source that would promise it. The Hanse merchants at the Steelyard alone controlled the markets of more than a hundred towns. Their grim stone buildings rose like a fort commanding London Bridge, and they paid less both in duties and customs than English merchants did. They employed no English ships, and could underbuy and undersell the English manufacturer and the English trader. Their men were all bachelors, with no families to found or houses to keep up in England. The farmer might get half price for his wool and pay more than one price for whatever he was obliged to buy. There was plenty of private exasperation, but no open fighting, against this ruling of the London markets by Hamburg, Lubeck, Antwerp and Cologne. Cabot's clear head and wide experience plainly showed him the enormous waste of such a system, but he did not see how to unlock the harbors. Neither, at present, did the King, whose shrewd brain was at work on the problem.

Henry Tudor had the thrift of a youth spent in poverty, and the turn for finance inherited from Welsh ancestors, but his kingdom was not rich, and his throne not over-secure. He was prejudiced against doing anything rash, both by nature and by the very limited income of the crown. He had given an audience to Bartholomew Columbus while the older brother was still haunting the court of Castile with his unfulfilled plans, and had gone so far as to tell the Genoese captain to bring his brother Christopher to England that he might talk with him. Had it not been for Queen Isabella's impulsive decision England instead of Spain might have made the lucky throw in the great game of discovery. But by the time Bartholomew could get the message to his brother the matter had been settled and the expedition was already taking shape. Henry VII. always kept one foot on the ground, and until he could see some other way to bring wealth into the royal treasury he let the monopolies go on.

In 1495 he took a chance. He gave to John Cabot and his sons a license to search "for islands, provinces or regions in the eastern, western or northern seas; and, as vassals of the King, to occupy the territories that might be found, with an exclusive right to their commerce, on paying the King a fifth part of the profits."

It will be noted that this license did not say anything about the southern ocean. Already troops of Spanish cavaliers were pouring into the seaports, eager to make discoveries by the road of Columbus, and Spain would regard as unfriendly any attempt to send English ships in that direction. Whatever could be got from the Spanish territories Henry would try another way of getting. The year before he had arranged to have Prince Arthur, the heir to his throne, marry the fourth daughter of the King of Aragon, Catherine, then a little Princess of eleven.

Prince Arthur died while still a boy, and Catherine became the first wife of Henry, afterward Henry VIII. With a Spanish Princess as queen of England, there might be an alliance between the two countries. That would be better than quarreling with Spain over discoveries which were at best uncertain. If Cabot really found anything valuable in the northern seas the move might turn out to be a good one. It would make England a more powerful member of the Spanish alliance, without taking anything which Spain appeared to value.

In May, 1497, properly furnished with provisions and a few such things as might show what England had to barter, the little _Matthew_ sailed from Bristol under the command of John Cabot with his nineteen-year-old son Sebastian and a crew of eighteen--nearly all Englishmen, used to the North Atlantic. The King's permission was for five ships, but the wise Cabot had heard something of the hardships of the first expeditions to Hispaniola, and preferred to keep within his means, and sail with men whom he could trust.

But on this voyage they found locked harbors not closed by the order of any King but by natural causes,--harbors without inhabitants or means of supporting life, and so far north as to be blocked by ice for half the year. They sailed seven hundred leagues west and came at last to a rocky wooded coast. Now in all the books of travel in Asia, mention had been made of an immense territory ruled by the Grand Cham of Tartary, whose hordes had nearly overrun Eastern Europe in times not so very long ago.

The adventures of Marco Polo the Venetian, in a great book sent to Cabot by his wife's father, had been the fairy-tale of Sebastian and his brothers from the time they were old enough to understand a story. In this book it was written how Marco Polo and his companions passed through utterly uninhabited wilds in the Great Khan's empire, and afterward came to a region of barbarians, who robbed and killed travelers. These fierce people lived on the fruits and game of the forest, cultivating no fields; they dressed in the skins of wild animals and used salt for money. Could this be the place? If so it behooved the little party of explorers to be careful. As yet, nobody dreamed that any mainland discovered by sailing westward from northern Europe could be anything but Asia.

Cautiously they sailed along the rugged shore, but not a human being was to be seen. It was the twenty-fourth of June, when by all accounts the people of any civilized country should be coasting along from port to port fishing or engaged in traffic. The sun blazed hot and clear, but the inquisitive noses of the crew scented no cinnamon, cloves or ginger in the air. All of these, according to Marco Polo, were in the wilderness he crossed, and also great rivers. On crossing one of these rivers he had found himself in a populous country with castles and cities. Were there no people on this desolate shore--or were they lying in wait for the voyagers to land, that they might seize and kill them and plunder the ship?

One thing was certain, the air of this strange place made them all more thirsty than they ever had been in England, and their water-supply had given out. Sebastian and a crew of the younger men tumbled into a boat, cross-bow and cutlass at hand, and went ashore to fill the barrels, while John Cabot kept an anxious eye on the land. Sebastian himself rather relished the adventure.

They found a stream of delicious water,--pure, cold and clear as a fountain of Eden. Among the rocks they found creeping vines with rather tasteless, bright red berries, in the woods little evergreen herbs with leaves like laurel and scarlet spicy berries, dark green mossy vines with white berries--but no spice-trees. The forest in fact was rather like Norway, according to Ralph Erlandsson, who was a native of Stavanger. Sebastian, who was ahead, presently came upon signs of human life. A sapling, bent down and held by a rude contrivance of deerhide thong and stakes, was attached to a noose so ingeniously hidden that the young leader nearly stepped into it. He took it off the tree and looked about him. A minute later, from one side and to the rear, a startled exclamation came from Robert Thorne of Bristol, who had stepped on a similar snare and been jerked off his feet. This was quite enough. The party retreated to the ship. On the way back they saw trees that had been cut not very long since, and Sebastian picked up a wooden needle such as fishermen used in making nets, yet not like any English tool of that sort.


They saw nothing more of the kind, although they sailed some three hundred leagues along the coast, nor did they see any sort of tilled land. This certainly could not be Cipangu or Cathay with their seaports and gilded temples. Whatever else it was, it was a land of wild people, savage hunters. John Cabot left on a bold headland where it could not fail to be seen, a great cross, with the flag of England and the Venetian banner bearing the lion of Saint Mark.

There was wild excitement in Bristol when it was known that the little _Matthew_ had come safely into port, after three months' voyaging in unknown seas. August of that year found the two Cabots at Westminster with their story and their handful of forest trophies, and the excited and suspicious Spanish Ambassador was framing a protest to the King and a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Henry VII. fingered the wooden needle, pulled the rawhide thong meditatively through his fingers, and ate a little handful of the wintergreen berries and young leaves. Their pungent flavor wrinkled his long nose. This was certainly not any spice that came from the Indies.

"This country you found," he remarked at last, "is not much like New Spain."

"Nay, Sire," answered John Cabot simply.

"And I understand,"--the King put the collection of curiosities back into the wallet that had held them, "that this represents one fifth at least of the gains of the voyage."

Cabot bowed. As a matter of fact there had been no profits.

"My lord,"--the King handed the wallet over to the uneasy Ambassador, who had been invited to the conference, "you have heard what our good Captain says. If, as you say, Spain claims this landfall, we willingly make over to you our--ahem!--share of the emolument." And the Spaniard, looking rather foolish, saw nothing better to do than to bow his thanks and retire from the presence.

The King turned again to the Cabots.

"Nevertheless," he went on meditatively, "we will not be neglectful of you. In another year, if it is still your desire to engage in this work, you may have--" a pause--"ten ships armed as you see fit, and manned with whatever prisoners are not confined for--high treason. Fish, I think you said, abound in those waters? Bacalao--er--that is cod, is it not? Now it seems to me that our men of Bristol can go a-fishing on those banks without interference from the Hanse merchants, and we shall be less dependent on--foreign aid, for the victualing of our tables. And there may be some way to Asia through these Northern seas--in which case our brother of Spain may not be so nice in his scruples about trespass.

The Spice Islands are not his but Portugal's. And for your present reward,--" the King reached for his lean purse and waggled his gaunt foot in its loose worn red shoe "this, and the title of Admiral of your new-found land."

He dropped some gold pieces into the hand of John Cabot. In the accounts of his treasurer for that year may be seen this item:

"10th August, donation of 10 to him that found the new isle."

In May of the next year another voyage was undertaken by Sebastian, John Cabot having died. This time there was a small fleet from Bristol with some three hundred men. Sebastian sailed so far north as to be stopped by seas full of icebergs, then turning southward discovered the island of Newfoundland, landed further south on the mainland, and went as far toward the Spanish possessions as the great bay called Chesapeake.

Meanwhile shoals of little fishing boats, from Bristol, Brittany, Lisbon, Rye, and the Vizcayan ports on the north of Spain, crept across the gray seas to fish for cod. They held no patent and carried no guns, but they made a floating city off the Grand Banks for a brief season, settling their own disputes. The people at home found salt fish good cheap and wholesome. When Sebastian told the Bristol folk that the fish were so thick in these new seas that he could hardly get his ships through, they would not believe it. But when Robert Thorne and a dozen others had seen the little caplin, the fish which the cod feeds upon, swimming inshore by the acre, crowded by the cod behind them, and by seal, shark and dogfish hunting the cod, when cod were caught and salted down and shown in Bristol, four and five feet long, then Bristol swallowed both story and cargo and blessed the name of Cabot.

Sebastian Cabot shook the dust of Bristol off his restless feet more than once in the years that followed. Within five years after his voyage to the Arctic regions he was cruising about the Caribbean. In 1517 he was at the entrance of the great bay on the north coast of Labrador. In 1524 he was in the service of Spain, and coasting along the eastern shores of South America ascended the great river which De Solis had named Rio de la Plata, came within sight of the mountains of Peru. But for orders from Spain, where Pizarro had secured the governorship of that land, Cabot might have been its conqueror. In 1548, after some years spent in Spain as pilot major, he came back to England, where he was appointed to the position of superintendent of naval affairs. It was his work to examine and license pilots, and make charts and maps, and some ten years later he died, having founded the company of Merchant Adventurers in 1553. This company was entitled to build and send out ships for discovery and trade in parts unknown. By uniting merchant traders in one body, governed by definite rules, and backed by their combined capital, it broke the monopoly of the Hanseatic League and finally drove the Hanse merchants out of England. Sebastian Cabot was its first governor, holding the office until he died, and has rightly been called the father of free trade. He had unlocked the harbors of the world to his adopted country, England.


The rules drawn up by Cabot for the merchant adventurers, to be read publicly on board ship once a week, are interesting as showing the character of the man and the great advance made in welding English trade into a company to be guided by the best traditions. For the first time captains were required to keep a log, and this one thing, by putting on record everything seen and noted by those who sailed strange waters, made an increasing fund of knowledge at the service of each navigator.

Some of the points in the instructions are as follows:

7. "That the merchants and other skilful persons, in writing, shall daily write, describe and put in memorie the navigation of each day and night, with the points and observations of the lands, tides, elements, altitude of the sunne, course of the moon and starres, and the same so noted by the order of the master and pilot of every ship to be put in writing; the captain-general assembling the masters together once every weeke (if winde and weather shall serve) to conferre all the observations and notes of the said ships, to the intent it may appeare wherein the notes do agree and wherein they dissent, and upon good debatement, deliberation and conclusion determined to put the same into a common ledger, to remain of record for the companie; the like order to be kept in proportioning of the cardes, astrolabes, and other instruments prepared for the voyage, at the charge of the companie.

12. "That no blaspheming of God, or detestable swearing, be used in any ship, or communication of ribaldrie, filthy tales, or ungodly talk to be suffered in the company of any ship, neither dicing, tabling, nor other divelish games to be permitted, whereby ensueth not only povertie to the players, but also strife, variance, brauling, fighting and oftentimes murther.

26. "Every nation and region to be considered advisedly, and not to provoke them by any distance, laughing, contempt, or such like; but to use them with prudent circumspection, with all gentleness and courtesie."

These and other instructions form an ideal far beyond anything found in the merchant shipping of any other land at that time, and the wisdom which inspired them undoubtedly laid the foundation of the fine and noble tradition which formed the best officers of the navy not yet born.

There was no British navy in the modern sense until a hundred years after Cabot's day. In time of war the King impressed all suitable ships into his service, if they were not freely offered by private owners. In time of peace the monarch was a ship-owner like any other, and such a thing as a standing navy was not thought of. Hence the brave, generous, and courteous merchant adventurer, when such a man was abroad, was the upholder of the honor of his country as well as the upbuilder of her commerce.


Gray sails that fill with the winds of the morning, Out upon the Channel or the bleak North sea, Neither cross nor fleur-de-lis goes to your adorning,-- Arctic frost and southern gale your tirewomen shall be.

Yet when you come home again--home again--home again, Gray sails turn to silver when the keel runs free.

Gray sails of Plymouth, 'ware the wild Orcades, Gray sails of Lisbon, 'ware the guns of Dieppe.

Cross-bows of Genoa, 'ware the wharves of Gades,-- You that sail the Spanish Seas may neither trust nor sleep.

Yet when you come home again--home again--home again, You shall make the covenant for Kings to keep!

Gray sails are crowding where the sea-fog sleeping Masks the faces of the folk that throng and traffic there.

When the winds are free again and the cod are leaping, All the tongues of Pentecost wake the laughing air.

And when they come home again--home again--home again, They shall bring their freedom for the world to share!


Chapter end

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