The Matthew of Bristol and the financiers of John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to North America
By Evan Jones
Abstract: The Matthew of Bristol is the vessel in which the Genoese explorer, John Cabot, sailed with his Bristol companions on their 1497 voyage of discovery to North America. Yet, despite the fame of the voyage and the ship, little has been known about the Matthew, or about Cabot’s relationship with his English backers. This has encouraged the proliferation of mythic representations of the voyage, in which the iconic Matthew is cast as a specially built discovery vessel and Cabot is portrayed as an intrepid and essentially independent explorer – a man worthy to stand alongside Columbus as a ‘proto-American’ pioneer.
This article challenges such representations of the voyage in two ways. First, it reconstructs the history of the ship to 1511 and sets her within the context of the Bristol marine. It is shown that the Matthew was a thoroughly unremarkable product of the Bristol shipping industry, which was simply chartered out of the town’s marine for the 1497 expedition. Following this, the Matthew returned to ordinary commercial duties, serving the port’s trade with Biscay and southeast Ireland.
Second, the article explores Cabot’s probable relationship with his financiers. The aim is to demonstrate how far he was from being the independent pioneer of myth. It is suggested, instead, that his backers may have regarded him as little more than hired talent, a skilled navigator whom they employed to help them fulfil their own ambitions. It is also shown that Cabot’s relationship with his financiers and their port was such that, had his voyage been a commercial success, Bristol would have gained far more from such success than John Cabot or his heirs.
The article is accompanied by previously unpublished transcriptions from two documents, which throw valuable light on the history of the Matthew.