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Sir Humphrey Gilbert combined personal failure with a romantic imperial vision

Posted in Bravery, Exploration, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty, Ships on Monday, 5 March 2012

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This edited article about Sir Humphrey Gilbert originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 659 published on 31 August 1974.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert, picture, image, illustration

Sir Humphrey Gilbert claims Newfoundland in 1583 by Andrew Howat

It had not been a happy voyage, which was hardly surprising as many of the sailors were ex-pirates, but now the little fleet had safely reached St. John’s, Newfoundland. This was Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s great moment, for he was about to plant England’s first colony overseas. He took possession of the island in the Queen’s name, claimed a suitable amount of land for himself and his heirs, and announced that if anyone spoke “dishonestly” of the Queen, “he shall lose his ears and have his ship and goods confiscated.”

And so the mightiest of all empires was born, though, alas, this first fragment of it collapsed almost before it started, and a few weeks later Gilbert was dead.

What had gone wrong?

Sir Humphrey Gilbert was born in 1539 in Devonshire, where many of Elizabeth’s eagles began their soaring careers. He was one of the unluckiest of them, though he brought some of his troubles on himself, for, unlike his great kinsman, Sir Walter Raleigh, he was not a born leader of men. Educated at Oxford, he spent his early manhood fighting in France, and then in Ireland, where he was knighted for his services. The English were planting settlers there, and this turned his mind to empire-building.

As early as 1566 he was petitioning the Queen to let him try to find the fabulous North-West Passage to China from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic seas. Not until our own century has it been “found,” and then only by tough modern ice-breakers, but the dream was a reasonable one and he was not the first to try and find it.

The Queen, however, thought he was better employed in Ireland and did not answer him. After more service, then a spell as Plymouth’s M.P., he fought with the Dutch against the Spanish in the Netherlands, then returned to write about his dreams.

He made a basic mistake which was to cost him dear, for he believed that a colony could be peopled by “gallows-fodder” – wrongdoers, idlers and outright criminals – and too many people at that time shared his views, unlike the writer, Francis Bacon, who said it was shameful for “scumme” and “wretched condemned men” to be “planted” and rightly suggested that the ideal colonists would be carpenters, labourers, ploughmen, doctors and so on.

Gilbert’s first voyage took place in 1578 and was meant to found a colony in Florida. Despite ten ships and plenty of food it was a failure, the ships’ equipment being as bad as the discipline of his men. The fleet broke up, some of the sailors turning straight to piracy. So much for choosing “scumme.” As a result, Gilbert got the reputation of being an unlucky captain in an age when sailors were deeply superstitious.

He turned his gaze to Newfoundland, believing all the good reports about its climate, wild life and other delights, but he was now almost penniless and wrote to officials in despair, telling them how much he was owed for his services in Ireland. He was, he said, forced to sell the clothes from off his wife’s back to pay his debtors.

Finally, in June 1583 he set out with some 260 colonists from Plymouth Sound in command of five ships, the Delight, his flagship, the Raleigh, the Golden Hind (not Drake’s), Swallow and Squirrel. Half his planning had been excellent, half disastrous. He had had the sense to bring along carpenters, blacksmiths, shipwrights and miners, and even a poet to celebrate the proceedings, but at least half his crews had previously been enjoying themselves as pirates in the English Channel, while not a single woman had been brought on what was a colonising expedition.

The Raleigh headed for home after only two days at sea, which was a bad omen, and, later, the captain of the Swallow was locked in his own cabin by his piratical crew, who then had a delightful time attacking fishing boats off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Old habits die hard. However, the four vessels finally fetched up together at St John’s and on August 5 Gilbert took possession of the island.

At once chaos reigned, for Governor Gilbert simply could not control his colony. Mutinies broke out, the sailors proved as useless on land as the landsmen had been on sea, and the ex-pirates, if “ex” is the right term for them, set about stealing from all and sundry. Soon the more respectable colonists were begging to be taken home, and matters were not improved when it became quite clear that there was no gold to be found on the island, simply cod galore in the waters around it.

Poor, well-meaning, Sir Humphrey sent his mutineers and sick back home in the Swallow, then sailed with his three remaining ships towards the coast of Nova Scotia, making the Squirrel his flagship. But now tragedy struck, for the Delight was driven ashore in a storm and her hundred or so crew were lost, along with the expedition’s entire provisions. Bad discipline aboard had probably triggered off the disaster.

Gilbert now realised that he had to head for home. Despite the urgings of his friends, he stayed aboard the tiny 10-ton Squirrel, possibly because of the gossip that he was afraid of the sea. Anyone who stayed aboard so small a ship instead of the comfier and roomier Golden Hind could hardly be afraid.

The seas on the voyage home were terrible, the North Atlantic at its cruellest. On the afternoon of September 9 the waves were still high, but Gilbert sat serenely on deck with a book in his hands and called out to the Hind: “We are as near to heaven by sea as by land,” a marvellously Elizabethan gesture and a saying which was to become famous after his death.

That death was very near now, for at midnight the watch aboard the Golden Hind saw the lights of the Squirrel vanish suddenly and shouted: “The General is cast away!” The whole ship was cast away, “devoured and swallowed up in the sea” as it was later vividly described.

The Golden Hind limped into Falmouth with the few survivors of the expedition after surviving everything that the sea and the weather could hurl at them, and England heard of the death of the foolish, yet heroic Sir Humphrey. His kinsman Walter Raleigh inherited Gilbert’s vision of empire and he had troubles enough, for all his greater genius. By the manner of his death Sir Humphrey Gilbert atoned for his erratic life. He now ranks in legend, if not in deed, as a great Elizabethan. Yet his vision was great, and he deserves to be remembered. Whatever the rights and wrongs of empire, and the British Empire in particular, to plant a tree which becomes so mighty is in itself a mighty achievement.

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