OTD: Italian explorer John Cabot granted permission to explore, claim land

On today’s date in 1496, King Henry VII granted Italian explorer John Cabot a letters patent to explore trade routes to Asia and claim new land beyond Spanish and Portuguese territories.

While working under the commission of the English king, Cabot likely sailed to either Cape Bonavista or St. John’s, in present-day Newfoundland and Labrador, on the vessel Matthew. Arriving in 1497, he sought a westward trade route and unclaimed lands for the crown. He’s considered the first European to reach mainland North America after the Vikings’ 11th-century visits to Newfoundland.

Cabot later disappeared while on a voyage before the end of the 15th century.

A 1949 silver dollar features Cabot’s ship, the Matthew.

1997 CABOT COIN

In 1997, the Royal Canadian Mint marked the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s initial voyage from Bristol, England, to Canada’s east coast on a 10-cent commemorative Proof coin.

Designed by Emanuel Hahn – the German-born sculptor of Canada’s 10- and 25-cent coins – the commemorative coin had a weight of 2.4 grams, a diameter of 18 millimetres and a mintage of 50,000 pieces.

After Newfoundland joined Confederation as Canada’s 10th province in 1949, the Matthew was featured on a Canadian silver dollar.

Designed by Thomas Shingles, the coin features the famed vessel alongside the phrase “Floreat Terra Nova” (“May the new found land flourish” in Latin).

Researchers Evan Jones and Margaret Condon lay out the route of Cabot’s 1497 voyage in their 2016 book, Cabot and Bristol’s Age of Discovery: The Bristol Discovery Voyages 1480-1508. Photo by Evan Jones via CC BY-SA 4.0.

CABOT CRITICIZED

In the summer of 2020, as debates raged across Canada about statues and other public commemorations of colonial figures, people in Newfoundland and Labrador “reignited criticism of ‘discovery’ narratives glorified in the province’s culture,” according to a CBC News report.

In the lead-up to last year’s “Discovery Day,” a provincial holiday celebrating Cabot’s 1497 arrival, politicians, Indigenous leaders and other residents asked Premier Dwight Ball to reconsider the annual event’s name. Two years earlier, in 2018, city councillors in St. John’s voted to refer to it as St. John’s Day; however, the change has yet to extend to the entire province.

NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell, whose group represents about 6,000 Inuit people in southern Labrador, wrote to Ball to ask the government to end its official observance of the holiday, CBC reported.

“The time has come to rid our society of these symbols of colonization and oppression,” Russell said in a 2020 press release. “Ending the observance of Discovery Day is an opportunity to contribute to reconciliation and correct the narrative about the history of Indigenous Peoples in this part of the world.”

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