OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Humphrey Gilbert, the Founder of Newfoundland.


Pages: <1> 2 3

Humphrey Gilbert was the second son of Sir Otho Gilbert of the manor-house of Greenaway in South Devon; his mother was Catherine, daughter of Sir Philip Champernown, of pure Norman descent, having the blood of the Courtneys in her veins.

The three brothers, John, Humphrey, and Adrian, living at Greenaway close to the Dart, about two miles above Dartmouth, no doubt often played at being sailors in the beautiful reach of water that runs so deep beneath the windows, that the largest vessels may ride safely within a stone's throw. They were brave boys, full of promise even in their boyhood, and all three destined to win the honour of knighthood for daring deeds.

Humphrey, born about the year 1539, was no mere fighting seaman, but a thoughtful, earnest discoverer of such scientific truths as were within the intellectual grasp of the sixteenth century.

He was educated at Eton and Oxford, but his heart was ever in seamanship. He talked so learnedly about his profession that news of his prowess came to the ears of Walsingham, who rehearsed them to the Queen. Hence it came that Humphrey Gilbert was examined before her Majesty and the Privy Council: a record of this examination was drawn up by Humphrey and still exists. He was "for amending the great errors of naval sea-cards, whose common fault is to make the degree of longitude in every latitude of one common bigness"; he had already begun to invent instruments for taking observations and for studying the shape of the earth. But his great idea was to form colonies in the New World and find an outlet for trade and a population growing too thick upon English soil. His manner and intelligence left a great impression upon the Virgin Queen, for he reminded her more of her favourite Greek philosophers than of a blunt English squire.

Sir Otho must have died when Humphrey was about twelve years old, and his mother then married Mr. Raleigh of Hayes; he was a country gentleman of slender means, living in a modest grange in a village between Sidmouth and Exmouth. Whether her three boys accompanied her we do not know; but when Walter Raleigh was a boy, he used to visit his half-brothers at Compton Castle, amid the apple orchards of Torbay, or at the Greenaway manor-house. We can imagine how that imaginative child would sit by the river and listen to the stories of his half-brothers, drinking in a love of adventure, a hatred of religious persecution, and a belief in God's providence. For the river was full of quaint vessels from every port, and the sailors were full of moving stories of the prisons of the Inquisition, or the sufferings of the Netherlander; and the Gilberts had been brought up by their mother to see the hand of God in all the great events of life.

As one of Frobisher's men said, when describing the great tussle with the ice-floes, "The ice was strong, but God was stronger."

We may be sure that one of the most critical moments in Walter Raleigh's education was the time when he stayed with the Gilberts, and listened to ideas of empire and duty which only a few in any age have been inspired to feel and know and carry into practice.

Humphrey shows in his writings that he had read deeply; Homer and Aristotle and Plato are quoted in his Discourse to prove a north-west passage to Cathay. Philosophers of Florence, Grantor the Grecian, and Strabo, Proclus, and Philo in his book de Mundo, and the German Simon Gryneus, and a host of modern geographers are called to bear witness to his theory that America was an island. Then he had read all the accounts brought home by great seamen, and skilfully wrought them together to prove his theory. But of course his facts were very unreliable and mixed with strange errors, but that was not his fault. If he believed that there was unbroken land to the South Pole, except for the narrow opening of the Straits of Magellan, the error was not his.

At the end of his memorial to the Queen, he writes: "Never therefore mislike with me for the taking in hand of any laudable and honest enterprise; for if through pleasure or idleness we purchase shame, the pleasure vanisheth, but the shame remaineth for ever. Give me leave therefore, without offence, always to live and die in this mind: that he is not worthy to live at all that, for fear or danger of death, shunneth his country's service and his own honour, seeing that death is inevitable and the fame of virtue immortal."

We can imagine the great Queen looking admiringly at this tall knight of Devon, so fair and yet so strong, so practical and inventive, and yet so compact of fancy and imagination; a man after her own heart, brave and loyal, and one who feared God alone.

Humplirey was only twenty-five years old when he petitioned the Queen in association with Anthony Jenkinson for licence to find out a north-eastern passage to Cathay, a country which surpassed in wealth all the parts of the Indies visited by the Spaniards. Gilbert promised to fit out such an expedition at his own expense, all the profits to go to those who embarked upon it, except the fifths, which belonged to the Crown. However, Elizabeth did not yet listen favourably to this project; she sent Jenkinson back to Russia as her Ambassador, and found service for Gilbert under the Earl of Warwick at Havre in 1563. Here he received a wound and had to come home for a space of three years; then he was ordered to Ireland in July 1566, to be employed under the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney. Humphrey was appointed captain in the army which under Sidney was resisting the forces of the Irish rebel chief, Shan O’Neill, and saw a good deal of desperate fighting.

In November 1566, Sir Henry Sidney sent Gilbert with despatches to England, and the daring youth presented another petition to the Queen, asking for two of the Queen's ships, provided he supplied two others, and requesting the life government for himself of any countries he might conquer, and a tenth part of all their land. In this petition he proposed to reach the Indies by the north-west, and to this change of plan he remained constant. But the Company of Merchant Adventurers protested against this as an infringement of their own charter, and it was abandoned.

But the Queen never lost sight of her able young officer. In March 1567 Gilbert was back in Ireland, and in June the Queen wrote to Sidney bidding him see how far the Irish rebels could be restrained by establishing a colony of honest men in Ulster. She recommended him to use the services of Humphrey Gilbert, as the colonists would come chiefly from the west of England; these Gilbert was to select, to conduct them to Lough Foyle and there to be their President. But this plan was never carried out, and Gilbert went back to his soldiering. For the next two years, as leader of a band of horse, he helped Sidney to put down rebellion.

When in 1568 he was sent back to England and fell dangerously ill, the Queen inquired carefully into his condition, and wrote to Sir Henry Sidney to say that Gilbert was to have his full pay during his absence, and some better place was to be found him on his return to Ireland. So, with a Queen to back him up, Gilbert was made a colonel, and defeated McCarthy More in September. This victory won for him the honourable duty of keeping the peace in the province of Munster, where he showed more vigour and stern discipline than sympathy.

In December we find him writing to the Lord Deputy, saying he was determined to have neither parley nor peace with any rebel; for he was convinced that no conquered nation could be ruled with gentleness.

Henry Sidney was not averse to the strong hand, and wrote to the Queen, praising Gilbert's "discretion, judgment, and lusty courage," and on January 1, 1570, he knighted Gilbert at Drogheda.

In 1571 Sir Humphrey Gilbert married Anne, daughter of Sir Anthony Ager of Kent, not unmindful perhaps of the old proverb: -

"A Knight of Gales, and a Gentleman of Wales, and a Laird of the North Countree,

A Squire of Kent with his yearly rent will weigh them down - all three."

He was then returned as M.P. for Plymouth.

But Elizabeth, who had been helping the Netherlands against Philip in secret, underhand ways, began in 1572 to be impressed by the Catholic League, and to fear that England, like all other Protestant countries, must look to encounter the whole forces of the Pope. She remembered the words of Walsingham, "Unless God had raised up the Prince of Orange to entertain Spain, Madam, we should have had the fire long since at our own door."

So Gilbert went to Flanders in 1572 with 1400 Englishmen to fight against Philip's stern deputy, the Duke of Alva. He took part in the siege of Sluys, and wrote to ask the Queen for more men to be sent. He then helped in the assault on Tergoes. But his rash, hot-headed style of fighting, acquired perhaps in Ireland, offended the slow and cautious Dutchmen whom he was assisting, and Gilbert returned to England, convinced that the Dutch lacked animal courage.

Then for two years Sir Humphrey lived quietly at Lime-house, busy with chemical researches; but as his partners wished to try the so-called science of alchemy and to transmute iron into copper, he begged leave to withdraw, mistrusting their modicum of science.

Gilbert had time to meditate now on his relentless treatment of Irish rebels. A brave and chivalrous gentleman, for those times, a scientific explorer and a man of deep piety, he could now compare his conduct in Ireland with Alva's in the Netherlands, and wonder if Sidney's high praise had been deserved.

"For the Colonel," Sidney wrote to Cecil in 1570, "I cannot say enough. The highways are now made free where no man might travel unspoiled. The gates of cities and towns are now left open, where before they were continually shut or guarded with armed men.... And yet this is not the most, nor the best that he hath done; for the estimation that he hath won to the name of Englishman there, before almost not known, exceedeth all the rest; for he hath in battle broken so many of them, wherein he showed how far our soldiers in valour surpassed those rebels, and he in his own person any man he had. The name of an Englishman is more terrible now to them than the sight of a hundred was before. For all this, I had nothing to present him with but the honour of knighthood, which I gave him; for the rest, I recommend him to your friendly report."

That was the better side of the question - order kept and duty done. But Sir Humphrey in his two years of quiet thinking and writing must have often recalled with compunction scenes in Ireland which he could not approve of, and perhaps was dimly conscious of at the time.

For the English troops, spread abroad over a lonesome countryside and held in check only by some ruthless sergeant-major, would often, when opposed to desperate men, meet outrage with outrage, and cruelty with cruelty.

Sidney himself loathed his vile task, and often implored to be called away from "such an accursed country."

We may be sure, then, that a man so gentle and humane as Sir Humphrey Gilbert must have felt that the government of Ireland was no pleasant task. It was also very expensive, for the cost of it to England above the revenue levied in Ireland itself from the date of Elizabeth's accession was now £90,000.

No one seems to have thought that lenity might win a greater success than stern discipline. Rokeby writes to Cecil: "It is not the image nor the name of a President and Council that will frame them to obedience; it must be fire and sword, the rod of God's vengeance. Valiant and courageous soldiers must make a way for law and justice; or else, farewell to Ireland."

In the winter of 1574 Gilbert received a visit at Lime-house from George Gascoigne, the poet. "Well, Sir Humphrey, how do you spend your time in this loitering vacation from martial stratagems?" asked the poet.

"Come into my writing-room, George, and you shall see sundry profitable exercises which I have perfected with my pen - and that of my half-brother, Walter Raleigh." Thereupon Gilbert put into his friend's hands the celebrated Discourse on the North-west Passage.

As Gascoigne read the concluding words: "If your Majesty like to do it all, then would I wish your Highness to consider that delay doth oftentimes prevent the performance of good things, for the wings of man's life are plumed with the feathers of death," he turned and said with a laugh, "It is easy for a rhymester to see that Walter, the poet, writ those words. But suffer me to take it home: such good stuff asketh some study."

The manuscript of the Discourse was handed about in influential quarters, and that very winter the Queen reminded the Governor and Directors of the Muscovy Company that twenty years had passed since they last sent out an expedition to search for Cathay. It was Martin Frobisher who bore the Queen's letter to the Governor; and when the Company declined to find a North-west Passage, the Queen granted a licence to Frobisher and others to search for the same. But the initial impulse had been given by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Raleigh.

Various schemes these restless adventurers proposed to the Queen, but it was not until June 1578 that a charter was granted to Gilbert for discovering and possessing any distant and barbarous lands which he could find, provided they were not already claimed by any Christian prince or people. He was authorised to plant a colony and to be absolute governor both of the Englishmen and of the natives dwelling in it; and he was to rule, "as near as conveniently might be," in harmony with the laws and policy of England.

How swiftly Gilbert set about preparing his expedition! Fortunately long arrears of pay had lately been issued to him for his services in Ireland. All this he lavished on his ships and their provision, leaving his little wife but a slender margin to live upon. But his faith was so strong in his theories that he dared to risk almost all he had.

Friends came round him, eager to help and - not least - to share the profits of the expedition; among these were Walter and George Raleigh, George and William Carew, Denny, his cousin, Nowell and Morgan. But best of all, the Queen wished him all good success; for she had sent two of her own kinsmen, Henry and Francis, sons of Sir Francis Knollys, to join him on the expedition.

By the end of summer, 1578, Gilbert's fleet of eleven sail, manned by five hundred young gentlemen and sailors, seemed ready for sea as it lay at anchor between the wooded cliffs that girdle the Dart.

But a strange discord was already making Gilbert's life bitter to him; there were too many masters in that little fleet, and petty bickerings spoilt the voice of authority and command.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2 3

Pictures for Humphrey Gilbert, the Founder of Newfoundland.

England's First Colony.
England's First Colony. >>>>

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About