G is for Sir Humphrey Gilbert

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday and for Round Ten I am focusing on people from the past, some famous, others less so.

The Age of Discovery gave us the names of many great European explorers who opened up Africa, the Americas and Asia, but their discoveries often owed more to luck than judgement. And the unlucky ones tend to be forgotten.

One such is Sir Humphrey Gilbert, half-brother of Walter Raleigh, who managed to lose most of the ships under his command and both claimed and deserted Newfoundland within the space of a few weeks in 1583.

Gilbert had long harboured a dream of sailing to the New World to establish a Crown colony, but his first attempt in 1578 ended in failure and chaos when his fleet of seven ships was scattered by storms and forced to return home.

He tried again five years later, this time with royal permission from Elizabeth I, although it seems she wasn’t too hopeful, saying that Gilbert was a man ‘noted of not good happ by sea’.

Gilbert embarked on his voyage of discovery with 200 men and five ships — his own boat, the Squirrel, the heavily armed Raleigh, the Delight, the Swallow and the Golden Hind of Weymouth, named in honour of his half-brother’s craft.

Things began badly when the crew of the Raleigh deserted after just two days and returned home. Meanwhile, the pirates who crewed the Swallow reverted to type and raided a French ship, even though they had been specifically ordered not to.

Gilbert had his usual bad luck with the weather, so much so that it took his small fleet two months to make the North Atlantic crossing.

They arrived in Newfoundland, near the present day St John’s, and Gilbert summoned the captains of the 36 fishing vessels then in the harbour to be addressed by him outside his elaborate tent.

Brandishing his letters patent, known as ‘Gilbert’s Charter’, he announced to the bemused gathering of English, French, Portuguese and Spanish fishermen that he was their Lord Paramount and claimed the land for England in a ceremony that involved him holding the twig of a hazel tree and a sod of earth that he had dug, as depicted on the left.

He added: ‘If any person should utter words sounding to the dishonour of Her Majesty, he should lose his ears and have his ship and goods confiscated.’

Gilbert’s grandiose gesture was undermined immediately when his pirate crew began looting fish from the nearby ships. This was followed by a wave of sickness and desertions, so he ordered the sick and the trouble-makers to be sent home on the Swallow. Which was never heard from again.

Now down to three ships, Gilbert was unable to form a settlement due to a lack of supplies and he left Newfoundland after just a few weeks.

The journey home fared no better.  Gilbert took personal charge of the fleet and as a result, the Delight ran aground off Sable Island and sank with the loss of all but sixteen of her crew.

The two remaining ships sailed on and were struck by a terrible storm near the Azores which sank the Squirrel. Gilbert went down with his ship and was last seen seated on the deck, a book in hand, shouting into the wind, ‘We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land!’

The illustration above right shows the fate of the Squirrel and comes from ‘Sir Humphrey Gilbert – A record and a surmise‘ published in 1921.

The Golden Hind arrived back in England and her captain, Edward Haies, later published a full account of the doomed expedition, commenting that the voyage suffered ‘very many difficulties, discontentments, mutinies, conspiracies, sicknesses, mortality, spoilings and wracks by sea’.

Which neatly sums up the ‘gifts’ of Gilbert the great explorer.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

9 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 29th February 2012

    Always good to see that not every adventure succeeds.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • photowannabe 29th February 2012

    I have learned so much history from the ABC Wednesday letter G.
    If only I could remember all of this I would be in Great shape.

  • Arthur (AmeriNZ) 29th February 2012

    Apparently, the losers sometimes have the most interesting stories! Personally, I think that’s Great. Thanks!

  • Jennyta 29th February 2012

    What a good film his life story would make. Without wishing to belittle in any way his struggles and bad luck, it does sound a bit like the script of a Carry On film.

  • Captain Pudding 29th February 2012

    If it is to be made into a film, I suggest Rowan Atkinson for the role of Gilbert and Jenny of Wrexham for Elizabeth I. To save money it could be filmed on the Manchester Ship Canal. Did he give his name to the Green Gilbert?

  • Reader Wil 29th February 2012

    Poor Gilbert! Being a sailor’s daughter makes me always eager to read those stories. My father always said:” In those days they had wooden ships and men of iron. But now we have iron ships and men of wood….” Although during the war my father and all the other alliesd crews showed how brave they were, sailing from Australia to Great Britain and then to the USA. They were surrounded by enemy vessels and Japanese or German submarines. Many a ship went down.
    Yes, those were days of danger and stress.

  • Shooting Parrots 29th February 2012

    I agree Wil. My father-in-law was in the navy during WWII and the stories he told were scary. He did see the world though!

  • Elizabeth 29th February 2012

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetical account of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s voyages somehow managed to make them sound a little more competent and romantic somehow –

    ‘His lordly ships of ice
    Glisten in the sun;
    On each side, like pennons wide,
    Flashing crystal streamlets run.’ x

  • Elizabeth 29th February 2012

    Two somehows are even more dreamlike than one! x


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