15th century sailing ship the Matthew berths at National Maritime Museum Falmouth for Easter

By Ralph Gifford | 07 April 2011
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a photo of a galleon in full sail on a calm sea against a blue sky
The replic Matthew berths in Falmouth for the Easter holidays
Event: Replica Matthew sailing ship, National Maritime Museum, Falmouth, April 9-25 2011

With the Easter break rapidly approaching, the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth is offering visitors a "unique" opportunity to see the replica ship that discovered Newfoundland.

Captained by the Italian navigator and explorer John Cabot, the Matthew set sail from Bristol in May 1497 bound for Asia. After heading west in hope of avoiding the hostile seas controlled by the Ottoman Empire, Cabot accidentally ended up discovering what is now Newfoundland. 

Five years before, Christopher Columbus was the first person to discover the Americas when he landed in the West Indies. Like Cabot, Columbus was looking for an alternative route to Asia to try and set up links for the valuable trade of spices that was being controlled by the Arabs and Italians.

Aboard the Matthew, Cabot and his 18-man crew set sail on a northerly latitude never taken by explorers before. After roughly a month at sea they came across land thinking it was Asia, when it was in fact Newfoundland.

Historians are divided as to exactly where on Newfoundland Cabot first landed, but it is thought to have been either Cape Bonivista or St Johns'.

a photo of the deck of sailing ship taken from the mast
The Maritime Museum in Falmouth is hoping that having the replica Matthew in Falmouth will allow people to get a flavour of what life aboard a 15th century ship would have been like.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have the Matthew here for the Easter holidays," says Communications Officer Michael Sweeney.

"It’s very rare for the Museum to be able to have a ship of this size moored on our pontoon, so it really is a unique opportunity for our visitors.

“It adds another dimension to the museum giving people the opportunity to climb aboard and discover the history of this fascinating ship.”

The Matthew is a caraval ship weighing 50 tons and measuring 78 feet long. Caraval ships were originally built by the Spanish to explore the coast of West Africa but quickly spread throughout Europe due to their small size, manoeuvrability and speed.

The replica Matthew was built in 1997 to mark the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage and is based in Bristol.
a photo of man cooking wth bread and fishes on the deck of a ship
Rob Salvidge, captain of the replica Mathew, said that the ship was a very good reconstruction of a 13th century caraval.

“Explorers at the time would have picked up whatever ships they could as long as they were sea worthy. The journeys they were taking were often very speculative so it was rare to find brand new ships that were going to sea to unknown parts of the world.

“We are in Falmouth because of its maritime past and because we like it here.  Falmouth was a very strategically significant port back in Tudor times and this is when ships like the Matthew would have been coming in and out of the town. 

“We were passing by and visiting Falmouth for the second time in two years seemed like the obvious thing to do.”

The original Matthew’s history has remained a mystery due to Cabot’s logs being lost since his voyage to North America. It also does not appear in customs records in 1492/93, leading historians to believe that it was either a new ship, an older ship that was renamed or a foreign vessel. 

Either way, it only first appears in records dating from 1503/04, after the discovery of Newfoundland and Cabot’s death – he lost his life on a second voyage to North America in 1498.
  • Evening cruises take place on April 9 and 21 for a small price. For more information visit the Maritime Museums website at: www.nmmc.co.uk.
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