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 Sir Walter Raleigh, who managed to lose most of the ships under his command and ‘discovered’, claimed and abandoned 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.
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.
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 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.