Sir Humphrey Gilbert's name has become forever associated with the founding of the Newfoundland colony in 1583, despite the fact that he had no intention of setting up any new colony there. In fact, his voyage of discovery that made his name was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster from start to end. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth herself had advised him not to undertake such an expedition as he was 'a man noted of not good happ by sea.' His previous attempt at setting out for the New World with 10 ships and 500 men in 1578 had ended in disaster as gales broke up the fleet after it had barely left sight of England's shores.
Gilbert was nothing if not determined to make himself as an early explorer and coloniser. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a dreamer who believed that the New World presented a wonderful opportunity which he wished to exploit before others beat him to it. He was flamboyant, brash but well connected to the Royal Court of Elizabeth. He was able to raise significant quantities of money based on his claims and his contacts. The map that he intended to use was very optimistic about the distances involved and it clearly believed that a North West Passage was viable and that there were plenty of opportunities for ships to explore the New World.
Much of Gilbert's understanding of the knowledge appeared to come from the tale of an English sailor called Davy Ingrams. Ingrams had been a slave trading sailor under Sir John Hawkins when in 1567 he found himself put ashore in Mexico. He was aware that English fishing boats regularly plied the Newfoundland fishing banks. The only problem was that this was some 3,000 miles away. Apparently, Ingrams undertook this journey with some of the more adventurous shipmates and was eventually rescued by a French ship. His stories had the ring of truth but were exagerated greatly. He painted a picture of a land rich in resources, gemstones, gold and many crops that could be grown. These tales certainly whetted Gilbert's appetite who used Ingram's claims as a basis to begin selling lots of land in the New World before he had even arrived there. He was given the blessing of Elizabeth after intensive lobbying and great prevarication on the Queen's part. Eventually she gave him permission to conduct his expedition with her blessing.
On June 11th, 1583 his fleet of five ships set sail from Plymouth with 260 men in tow. Some of these were the gentlemen adventurers that he had sold land and title deeds to in the New World that he had yet to visit. The majority of the crew were tradesmen and sailors who found it difficult to gain employment usually due to drink, the inability to follow orders or from a lack of skills. The lead ship was the Delight but no sooner had the flotilla set off than there were disagreements over where their destination should be. Some called for a more Southerly route hoping for more clement weather and sailing conditions. Others wanted to head North so that they could find the navigable channels and perhaps the fabled North West Passage. In the end, it was agreed that they would head to Newfoundland for the time being as they were sure to meet fishing vessels and gain victuals there before deciding where to head.
The voyage was more fraught than had been expected. They had not brought enough victuals and one of their ships had become separated in the fog. Another ship, under his half brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, had to turn back due to disease breaking out on board. The other ships continued on their way and came back into contact with the missing ship just before reaching Newfoundland. This ship had actually engaged in attacking and seizing two French ships en route and had looted their cargoes.
As predicted, Newfoundland did indeed have the hoped for flotilla of ships. In fact, there were some 36 ships from a variety of nations anchored off St. John's trying to make the most of the fishing season before winter set in. Gilbert tried to make a suitably grand entrance to impress the crews of the ships. They were all forewarned that he was entering the bay to claim the land for Her Majesty Elizabeth and that the captains were all invited to a ceremony to witness the event. Unfortunately, he ran aground as his ship entered the mouth of the bay and had to be towed off the rocks by the fishing boats he had come to overawe.
Undeterred, Gilbert had a tent erected on the side of a hill overlooking the bay and set up provisions for a celebratory banquet: 'On Munday, being the fift of August, the Generall caused his tent to be set upon the side of an hill, in the viewe of all the flete of Englishmen and straungers.' The strangers were mixture of French, Spanish, Portuguese and Basque fishermen and they were not too happy to see what they regarded as a piratical expedition. However, there was little they could do against a fleet of four ships equipped for war and most ended up joining in with the festivities. Gilbert duly 'tooke possession of the sayde land in the right of the crowne of England by digging of a turfe and receiving the same... delivered unto him after the manner of the lawe and custome of England.' He immediately declared that the new colony's religion was to be Anglican and that treason would be punishsed by death. However, it was clear to his gentlemen adventurers that the land and weather of Newfoundland was not the hoped for bounty of agreeable farmland that had been advertised to them back in England. They therefore set off in search for a better location to start a viable colony.
They set off Southwards to look for more temperate climes. Fog, mist and storms hampered them almost from the start. Before long, the largest ship, the Delight had run aground. This was a particular disaster as it held most of the supplies and equipment for the planned new colony. All attempts to reach the ship were in vain as the ship broke up on the rocks. Gilbert attempted to rescue the crew but the rocks and rough seas had ensured that noone survived. With the weather continuing to batter the remaining ships and with the loss of the equipment and victuals, Gilbert reluctantly agreed to head back with the flotilla. He vowed that they would return once more to complete the mission, but in the meantime they prepared to cross the Atlantic once more.
Gilbert decided to captain the least seaworthy Squirrel back to England despite being warned by his comrades of its state. He seemed to take a perverse pride in endangering his life as if to prove that he would not ask any of his crew to do what he was not prepared to do. Almost inevitably, a storm eventually caught the ship off the Azores. In the rough seas she began taking on water quicker than the crew could pump it out. Whilst the other ships came alongside to try and help, they were surprised to see a relaxed Gilbert sitting aloft with a book in his hand. It is believed that he was reading More's Utopia and seemed to shout across to the other ships: 'We are as neare to Heaven by sea as by land.'
On the evening of Monday 9th of September his ship finally succumbed to the waves and Gilbert was never seen again. The remaining ships limped back to Dartmouth with the news. His death though would do little to deter further exploration in the New World. In fact, many of the survivors were keen to try again despite all the problems they had undergone. His half-brother Raleigh would go on to become one of the leading explorers of the Elizabethan age and would do much to follow up on his Gilbert's designs.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert was one of those Elizabethan adventurers who is hard to evaluate. Part visionary and part pirate, brave and cruel, determined to the point of obsession, Gilbert was a man whose dreams outpaced his means to achieve them. Nevertheless, even in today's historical fashion of ignoring the feats of individuals, it is difficult not to acknowledge those, like Gilbert, who changed the course of history by sheer willpower. Gilbert failed himself to establish a colony in the New World, but he firmly planted a seed that within a few generations grew into a full-scale English presence in America.