Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Italian "Discoverer" of Canada

North American school children, especially in Canada, will be familiar with the name of John Cabot, the intrepid explorer for England who was the first European since the early Viking voyages to "discover" North America, particularly what is now the east coast of Canada. However, what is often overlooked is that this "English explorer", while certainly sailing for England, was not English but Italian; Giovanni Caboto. In fact, many of the early explorers in the employ of the English, French, Portuguese and especially Spanish navies were Italians. It is disputed where exactly Giovanni Caboto was originally born (some say northern Italy, others the south etc) but it is certain that he became, later in life, a citizen of the Republic of Venice and even after going abroad wrote in and referred to himself using the unique Venetian dialect of the time.

Debts forced him to leave Venice and move to Spain where he tried to find backing for a trans-Atlantic expedition both there and in Portugal. Finding no takers he finally moved to England where he would have more success. In 1496 he was given letters patent from King Henry VII (founder of the Tudor dynasty) to explore the coasts and islands of America unclaimed by any Christian power. He left that summer on his first voyage though few records remain of the trip. The following year he made another voyage and, according to the official histories of Great Britain and Canada, landed on New Foundland on St John the Baptist Day. In 1997 HM Queen Elizabeth II with representatives of the Canadian and Italian governments gathered at the most accepted place of his landing to greet a replica ship making the same voyage across the Atlantic.

No contact was made with any natives though they did see evidence of habitation. The English flag was raised, claiming the land for King Henry VII and, interestingly, the Venetian and Papal flags were also raised as well. The Papal flag is not so unusual since, at that time, England was still a very Catholic country but the Venetian flag seems a bit strange but was likely a salute to the homeland of the leader of the expedition and perhaps to some of the Italian bankers who helped finance the voyage. Upon his return, Giovanni Caboto was hailed as the "Great Admiral" and cheered by all the English people. However, the King was distracted by other matters and a third expedition was not organized until 1498 with a fleet of five ships that were intended to establish trade with the New World. However, Caboto never returned from that voyage and it is believed that the ships were all lost at sea in some storm or other disaster.

Still, that was the begining of the English-speaking world reaching Canada, the first seeds for what would grow to be the northern nation of today. And it was all thanks to an Italian Roman Catholic from Venice named Giovanni Caboto.

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