1583 - Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Humphrey Gilbert

A stubborn and quick-tempered adventurer, Humphrey Gilbert was a colorful but also controversial character.
Undoubtedly a cultured man, he displayed during his lifetime toughness and tenacity, able to convince any audience by his unwavering faith in the colonization of the New World and his way of giving a scientific lighting to what were only fancies. He never stated however as a true sailor, blaming too often on bad luck what was more stubbornness than judicious choices. He has been regarded as an optimistic visionary, deceived by his illusions and audacity.
Born in Greenway, Devonshire, about 1537, he was the second son of wealthy landowners. Through his mother, he was also the half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, a kinship which will decide for a large part in his destiny. 

1558-1561 - He probably studies at Eton and Oxford where he learns in particular French and Spanish before coming to live in one of the fashionable London's inns settled next to the Court. 
It is certainly at that time that he entered young Princess Elizabeth's household. She will moreover know ro remember it once become the Queen.

September 1562
Serving in the army under Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Humphrey Gilbert is sent to Le Havre (Havre-de-Grâce) on the Norman coast to defend the town left to England by French Huguenots according to the Treaty of Hampton Court

By signing this treaty, Queen Elizabeth was committed to send to France 3000 soldiers to protect the Protestants, half of them being garrisoned in Le Havre and Dieppe.

May 1563After a peace agreement between Catholics and Protestants, Regent Catherine de Medicis declares invalid the Treaty of Hampton Court while Elizabeth declines her army's removal and decides to maintain the English presence in France. Catherine sends in reply her troops to bessiege Le Havre.  

June 1563 - Humphrey Gilbert is wounded on the way back to England. 
Weakened by disease, the English army offered only a low resistance.
The Earl of Warwick gave back Le Havre to the French on July 27 and ordered the retreat of his remaining forces to England. Once back home, the sick soldiers spread the plague through London where the death toll reached soon 21 000. 
Feeling betrayed by Huguenots, the Queen proved hereafter reluctant to send English troops on the continent.  
It was probably during his recovery that Gilbert listened closely to French sailors who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made stopover in America. In his return, he began studying geography to see how to find a Northwest passage through the American continent to go to Asia. It is as well certain as he was influenced by French Huguenot Jean Ribault who, staying at the same time in London, was publishing his first experience of the North American colonization after founding shortly before a settlement in South Carolina.

April 1566Gilbert joins in a request to the Queen allowing him to leave to discover the Northwest Passage. 

His obstinacy eventually earned him her approval and encouraged him to write a treaty entitled " A Discourse of a Discovery for a New Passage to Cathay " supposed to prove its existence. Despite a good geographical knowledge and although he was driven by the certainty of reaching Asia through North America, his work was merely the result of adventurous speculations. He demonstrated however, and the idea was interesting, that a colony "in halfway" could be founded next to the " Sierra Nevada ", northwest of the continent, and that trade with the Natives would be rather gainful.

July 1566 - Gilbert leaves to Ireland where he will serve as an officer for three years and a half. 
He is placed under command of Lord Deputy Sir Phillip Sidney, appointed to fight Shane O' Neil's uprising.
He subdued several rebellions and became especially noted for his hasty judgments and ruthless ferocity. He revealed during this campaign his sense of authority and some military skills but also much shadier sides of his personality. Plagued by frequent temper tantrums, Humphrey Gilbert showed an often unjustified cruelty to his subordinates but especially the Irish Lords of whom he consented surrender after real abuse.

1569Gilbert joins the Devonshire gentlemen' project, including Sir Warham St Leger and Richard Grenville, to set out the colonization of Ulster and Munster with the aim to establish a monopoly on fishing and logging.

This project was on the way to be approved by London when the people of Munster revolted against the English army (Desmond Rebellions). These were brutally subdued and especially by Humphrey Gilbert who took an active part in the crackdown, not hesitating to kill women and children, leaving after his passage a landscape of sadness. He introduced a genuine climate of terror by ordering in particular series of beheadings intended to adorn with heads the entrance of his tent. 

The project to colonize Munster as envisioned Gilbert never had to be born, the Crown estimating its too high cost given the low expected results. He decided then to perform in North America what he could not do in Ireland, focusing so obsessively on the colonization of this continent, led by the idea that it was first essential to eliminate all Native peoples. 

September 1569 - Gilbert is upgraded Colonel of the army in Munster and appointed military Governor of the province.

December 1569 -  Gilbert comes with a 500-men army to secure the surrender of the main Irish rebels. 

January 1570 Humphrey Gilbert is rewarded for services by being knighted in Drogheda by the Lord Deputy Sir Phillip Sidney

Back in England, he married Ann Aucker, one of the wealthy heiresses of the Earls of Kent’s family who was going to give him not less than seven children. 

1571 - Elected to the Plymouth Parliament, Gilbert soon becomes unpopular through his unconditional position in favour of the Queen, earning him the outspoken opposition of many parliamentarians.

The Queen's support and his good relations with Sir William Cecil, Earl of Leceister enabled him to be appointed a receiver-general of the fines on illegal games while he became associated with Secretary of State Thomas Smith in a fanciful alchemical project to turn iron into copper, antimony, lead and mercury. 

July-November 1572 - Gilbert leads an English expedition strong of about 1100 volunteers coming to help the Dutch states rebelling against the Spanish occupiers. 

This expedition benefited secretly from royal support but having failed, Gilbert was blamed for not having really shown his military qualities. 
The Queen having been somewhat aloof, he got then absorbed in the study of a reorganization of the government in Ireland and devised a reform to modernize education by teaching modern languages​​, science and applied mathematics. 
1576 -The release of his treatise allows Gilbert to look like an authority on the subject and he does everything he can to become one. 

The likelihood of his "Discourse" on the Northwest Passage strongly interested explorers Michael Lock and Martin Frobisher whose project was to create a company intended to run the supposed way.

June 7, 1576 - After receiving an emboldening message from the Queen, Martin Frobisher leaves Greenwich towards the Shetland from where he has to set sail in search of the Northwest Passage. 

Basing on  Humphrey Gilbert's works , Martin Frobisher had managed to convince the members of the Muscovy Company, disappointed to have been unable to find the Northeast passage, that he would discover the Northwest one. The backing of the expedition allowed him to get three boats among which the Gabriel and the Michael about 20-25 tons each. He left England with 35 crewmen. 
Having abandoned the Michael and lost the third bark in a storm, he reached the Labrador coast on July 27. Frobisher continued to the west and cast anchor in Baffin Island on August 18 from where he sent 5 of his men for a reconnaissance accompanied with native Inuits. As they did not reappear, Frobisher kept in hostage the Inuit guide who had advised him and returned to England. He arrived in London on October 9 yielding a sample of a supposed gold stone.

1577 - Gilbert prepares an anti-Spanish plan intending to take hold of a large island in the West Indies, seize foreign vessels anchored in Newfoundland and arm a fleet of privateers. Having received in return no support from the Court, he proposes then a more practical plan which finally convinces the Queen.

July 11, 1578 - Sir Humphley Gilbert is granted by Queen Elizabeth letters patent allowing him to discover and occupy over the next six years all the lands that would have never been previously owned by Europeans.

It was clear however that the fact of being authorized to expel every intruder who would settle down unless 600 miles from the colony compelled him to make of North America his primary objective. He could rule by himself the country discovered or entrust it to others but only on the Crown's behalf, given that the laws in this colony had to be in agreement with those of England.

With the new rights vested in him, Gilbert was able to devote to an ambitious project across the Atlantic Ocean. He received for it the guidance of John Dee, who was particularly involved in the search of a way to Asia as well as geographer Thomas Hakluyt who advocated the settlement of an English colony in territories located between the 35th and the 40th parallel. Gilbert was besides on good terms with Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham. It is also likely that he selected Anthony Parkhurst's idea of starting a settlement in Newfoundland. There is no doubt that Gilbert planned also to come alongside and plunder all the Spanish ships that he would have crossed implying to make a detour to the Caribbean before heading northwards to the American coast.  

September 23, 1578 - Thanks to Walsingham's patronage and backed by more than 40 suscribers, mostly merchants and gentlemen, Gilbert has gathered in Dartmouth a 10-ship fleet carrying 570 men and heavily armed with 175 guns.

The expedition cost urged him to sell the major part of his wife’s fortune and her estates in Kent.
Gilbert set sails from Dartmouth to the New World but trouble began early in the journey. Most sailors were in fact pirates who had escaped the death penalty by putting themselves in Gilbert's service. 
One of them, Henry Knollis, already well known for numerous acts of piracy against the Spaniards and who had distinguished himself before even the beginning of the expedition by his proud character, was clearly unwilling to be placed under Gilbert's command to whom he quickly opposed, drawing towards him a part of the crew. Given this disagreement, the fleet had to go back to Plymouth in order to find a solution.

September 26, 1578 - The bad weather quickly disperses the fleet, some ships being diverted up to the Isle of Wight.

October 15, 1578 - After the first start's failure, Gilbert's fleet gets together in Plymouth.

November 18, 1578 - Henry Knollis leaves the expedition and starts with his ship for his own campaign accompanied with two other boats.


His ship, the Elephant, a 150 ton-vessel of which his brother Henry Knollis was the second carried 100 crewmen. They left with foods for at least one year. The two boats which followed were the Fame, a frigate captained by Edward Denye with 30 men on board and a French 30 ton-vessel, the Francis commanded by Gregory Fenton with 30 crewmen.

November 19, 1578 the seven remaining ships leave Plymouth. Obsessed by the desire to go to sea, Gilbert refuses to admit that, on winter's eve, this expedition will be obviously doomed to failure.

Gilbert commanded the Ann Ager, the admiral 250 ton-vessel carrying 126 gentlemen, soldiers and sailors. Is motto was "Quid  non?" which Gilbert has inscribed on his coat-of-arms.
The other boats were:
- The Hope, 160 tons with Gilbert’s brother Carye Raleigh captain and 80 men. 
-  The HMS Falcon, a 100 ton-ship having belonged to the Queen captained by Sir Walter  Raleigh with master Simon Ferdinando (Simao Fernandes), 70 men. 
- The Red Lyon, 110 tons, Myles Morgan, captain, 53 men. 
- The  Gallion, 40 tons, Richard Veall, captain, 28 men. 
- The Swallow, 40 tons, John Vernye, captain, 26 men. 
 - The Squirrel 8 tons, 8 men. 
The expedition started with beef for 3 months, biscuits, fish, peas and bones for a year.
Having sailed a few days, Gilbert lost his way in the fog off Land's End, allowing questions about his actual skills at sea. The fleet had then to make stopover in Cork due to waterleaks in the
Ann Ager and the Falcon. They were also problems with reserves. What happened to the fleet during winter remains curiously a mystery. Gilbert indeed made no account of his journey but presumably never reached the American coast. There is no doubt, however, that the Red Lyon
was lost in a storm.

It is possible that Humphrey Gilbert was engaged in some acts of piracy but there is no proof even if the Spanish authorities expressed repeatedly doubts and made protests to England. Some even pretended he fought in joint operations with Knollis. 

April 1579 - Gilbert's fleet goes back to Dartmouth. 

Only the Falcon commanded by Sir Walter Raleigh with first mate Simon Fernandes (aka Simon Ferdinando, a Portugese coxswain captured in the Carribean and sold to Gilbert by Walsingham) reached Canary Islands but they didn't go further and were back to Plymouth in May. The expedition resulted in a complete failure, revealing serious misjudgments and especially Gilbert's gaps in command. The hardest thing for him was that he had lost in this misadventure a part of his personal and wife's fortune.

June, 1579 - Gilbert receives from William Drury, Lord deputy of Ireland the command of a small 3-boat fleet with mission to block the Spanish ships bringing help to the rebels of Munster.
He commands the Anna Ager, his admiral 250 ton-vessel (perhaps named after his wife), the Relief and a small 10 ton-frigate the Squirrel. 

Once again, Gilbert could not follow his route during a storm and got lost in the Bay of Biscay while a Spanish supply ship entered triumphantly Dingle Harbour in Ireland. It was a slight to the English government, involving Gilbert's seafaring skills. Further to this new disappointment, he went back to his American plans. The mishap of 1578 had the effect of rejecting the idea to make the detour by the Caribbean in concentrating only on the New World and New England.
He fitted to this end his small frigate, the
Squirrel. Including only 10 crewmen under Simon Fernandes' command, it made a round trip towards America in barely three months. The place where they landed remains unknown but it is likely that they reached the Maine coasts. At the same moment, Dr John Dee has convinced Gilbert that the ultimate aim should be the Norumbega River, the famous Refugio discovered by Giovanni Verazzano in 1524 (Narangasett Bay, R.I.), whereas he acquired for himself rights on all territories north of the 50th parallel including Northern Newfoundland, a large part of the St Lawrence valley, Labrador and the Northwest Passage as indicated by a map dated 1580. This would seem to imply that Gilbert planned to settle further south.

Spring 1581 - Gilbert sits in Parliament of Kent and is foreseen as President of Munster but however not confirmed in this duty.

Over the years, he had to fulfill his settlement project before the expiry of his 6-year license planned in 1584. To attract volunteers, Gilbert asserted that there were over there huge and fertile lands, good climate and it lacked only Englishmen. That is why he promised vast estates. 

Those who showed the most interest were gentlemen remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, regarded as renegades as long as they refused to comply with the Church of England but who so far did not want to be exiled on the continent. Sir George Peckham of Denham (Bucks.) and Sir Thomas Gerrard of Bryn (Lancs.) came as the spokesmen for this group and did their utmost to bring their co-religionists behind Gilbert. 

April 1582

Christopher Carleill, Sir Francis Walsingham's son-in-law, on whom depended in wide part the tolerance granted in high places to Gilbert’s project, is about to set up his own expedition. Benefiting from the commitment of the Bristol merchants and Muscovy Company, he has planned to found a 100-men settlement near the 40th parallel and to build a fishery and a warehouse to trade with Indians.

Carleill agreed however that Gilbert leaves the first one.

May 1582
- The geographer Richard Hakluyt publishes the "
Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America and the Ilands Adjacent unto the Same, Made First of all by our Englishmen and Afterwards by the Frenchmen and Britons".

This work consisted of a number of printed stories and handwritten sources on the subject introducing documents as the the letters patent granted to John Cabot in 1496, the narrative of Verazzano's journey in 1524 and Ribault's report on the Florida colony in 1562, up to the list of products found in America and various opinions on the colonization. David Ingram, Simon Fernandes and a certain John Walker who had just achieved a round trip to Penobscot were also consulted by Walsingham and others. 

Humphrey Gilbert studied the detailed map of North America drawn by John Dee for the Queen which resumed all the knowledge of the time. He also acquired from Dee a world map made especially for him. These items had a significant influence on his geographical conceptions. Dee was convinced that the passage across the continent would be found at temperate latitudes sailing up the St Lawrence or Norumbega Rivers.

Humphrey Gilbert got a set of instructions for mapping out the coasts and make an inventory of natural resources, including wildlife, flora and Indians which he entrusted to a certain Thomas Bavin. The discovery of these instructions suggests that Gilbert’s draft had a scientific level which was until then admitted even if his ambition was certainly out of proportion compared to the resources available.

June 1582 - Gilbert has granted the catholic gentlemen no less than 8.5 millions acres of land in America in the area located around the Norumbega River and the bay of the five nearby islands.

Gilbert also summoned up gentlemen of the south and southwest of England (the city of Southampton being even granted a monopoly on trade with the future colony), promising them land and additional benefits. However, the Catholic group lost soon most of his members further to operations of the clergy and Spanish agents, threatening to make them guilty of treason to their religion. Consequently, no ship in the Catholic banner was to set sail in early 1583 contrary to what was originally planned.

March 1583 Queen Elizabeth goes back on her refusal to let Humphrey Gilbert sail, up to there considered as hapless at sea, and sends him an encouraging message. 

June 11, 1583 - The fleet gathered by Humphrey Gilbert leaves Plymouth to Newfoundland. It consists of five ships carrying 260 men including:

- The Delight, the 120 ton-admiral vessel commanded by Humphrey Gilbert and Master William Winter. 
- The Bark Raleigh, 200 tons, vice-admiral commanded by Sir Walter Raleigh, Master Butler, captain. 
- The Golden Hind, 40 tons, captain Edward Hayes and William Cox, master. 
- The Swallow, 40 tons, Maurice Browne, captain 
- The Squirrel, 10 tons, William Andrews, captain. This frigate, already famous for the round trip led four years earlier by Simon Fernandes was especially useful for the coastal and inlet exploration but could hardly bear the extreme conditions at sea.
Disputes arose from the outset on the route to follow. Most of the crew were not true sailors but men used to drink and living on poor jobs.The gentlemen on-board had from their part only a limited sailing experience. None of them was paying to receive orders and indiscipline ruled. Some wanted to follow the southern way, sure to have a better weather, others preferred the northern one, more direct. This shortest route was finally chosen. 

June 13, 1583 - Having suffered a gale from the start, it turns out that men are already sick. 

According to captain Edward Hayes, some of the crew fell sick before departure and quickly spread the disease on board. Believing to be unable to continue the expedition, Sir Walter Raleigh prefered to go back to Plymouth.

June 15-28, 1583 - Despite fair winds, the four remaining ships trudge between fog and rain.

July 20, 1583The lasting bad weather scatters Gilbert's fleet. The Swallow and the Squirrel get lost in the fog.

July 27, 1583 - The Gilbert expedition meets the first icebergs.

July 30, 1583 - Humphrey Gilbert and his crew approach the coast of Newfoundland.

It seemed at once inhospitable. There were only sad dark rocks rising from the sea and bare hills where grew no tree.They met these wingless birds called penguins and entered Conception Bay where they found the Swallow already at anchor with her whole crew. They learned that its members had taken advantage of the dispersal of the fleet to be engaged in acts of piracy against fishermen. They soon found that the Squirrel cast anchor a little farther. 

August 3, 1583 - Gilbert enters St John's harbour discovering with some surprise the presence of 36 fishing boats, French, English, Spanish and Portuguese.

They first denied access to Humphrey Gilbert, believing that he was trying to get hold some ships engaged in piracy but decided otherwise having learnt that he was Lord Parmount and came to claim the land on the Queen of England's behalf. Gilbert intended to make a grand entrance in the port but the Delight was suddenly driven by currents towards rocks into which it  would have smashed if the fishermen's boats had not quickly gone to her help. 

August 4, 1583 - Humphrey Gilbert lands in St John's harbor, a place of the most rustic where grow fragrant roses and quantity of raspberry bushes.

August 5, 1583 - Gilbert makes set up a tent on a small promontory overlooking the harbor from where he reads the Queen's statement, receiving in exchange a hazel rod and a portion of local turf in the sound of the music played by the small band embarked for the expedition. 

Taking possession of the territory on the Queen's behalf was rather welcomed by the fishermen who felt in fact hardly concerned by the land and used St John's harbor only a few months, the time of their fishing campaign. They were clearly unimpressed by the show in which was engaged Sir Humphrey Gilbert, realizing that despite his haughty position, he would not change habits taken for years.
The Natives remained meanwhile altogether unseen. The most disappointed were the gentlemen who, apart from the fact that Gilbert reminded them that the English laws would be relentless applied in this new country, did not feel charmed by an area that had nothing to do with what was promised. Gilbert had granted them vast portions of land but they were eager to leave this thankless territory to more hospitable skies.

August 28, 1583 - After a few days of quiet sailing, Gilbert's ships face a sudden storm during which the Delight is wrecked on shoals not far from Sable Island. On 100 men aboard, 80 perish drowned in front of the powerless crew of the Golden Hind whereas the remaining 20 succeed in climbing aboard a pinnace. Most supplies are lost.

Gilbert had just decided to set sail to Sable Island that the Portuguese had unsuccessfully colonized in 1520. They had left there horses and hogs which since had multiplied. He thought the place would therefore be convenient to a settlement.
The fleet sails off Cape Race, at the extreme tip of Newfoundland. 

September 2, 1583 -Gilbert is welcomed aboard the Golden Hind in order to have an injured foot treated, after stepping on a nail. He decides however to re-board the Squirrel despite the advice of his men.

September 9, 1583 - The 2 boats have been driven by the storm to the Azores . The Squirrel has miraculously escaped but the respite will last only a few hours. Sir Humphrey Gilbert is seen reading in the stern of his boat and is heard from the Golden Hind constantly repeating «We are as near to heaven by sea as by land” . 
Around midnight, the last light turns off and the frigate disappears in the waves.


Gerard Tondu - august 18, 2013