Sometime in the early summer of 1497, a small caravel, the Matthew, with a crew of 18 men, spied land after weeks of perilous sailing across the dangerous, then-unknown waters of the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Captained by an Italian seaman, John Cabot, whose original name was Giovanni Caboto, the ship had departed Bristol in late May with King Henry VII’s blessing to look for new lands across the ocean. What Cabot and his men saw was a rugged coastline of deep, narrow bays, towering cliffs, and soaring headlands teeming with nesting seabirds — a landscape not unlike many portions of the coastline of Britain and Ireland. Cabot was undoubtedly inspired by the success, only a few years earlier, of fellow Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus, in discovering the islands of the Caribbean. But this was no subtropical paradise peopled with friendly natives; the seas here were rough, cold, and full of icebergs carried south from Greenland. Instead of waving palm trees, the land was forested with fir and spruce, with the more exposed headlands as barren as the Arctic tundra. John Cabot had discovered the eastermost portion of North America, the huge island that soon came to be known as Newfoundland.
Although there is some disagreement as to where Cabot and his crew made landfall, the most likely spot is somewhere on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula. They apparently went ashore only once, to take in water, plant a flag claiming the land for the British crown, and explore near the sea shore — although they did not go inland “beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow,” according to one letter from the period that described the expedition.
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