In the Elizabethan era, when maritime discovery was being actively pursued by England’s adventurous spirits, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, the founder of Virginia, took possession of Newfoundland, with feudal ceremony, in the name of the Virgin Queen. Sir Humphrey’s expedition was barren of results in the way of colonization, and even in the way of discovery on the island; while it proved fatal to its leader, and those who sailed with him on the Squirrel, for on the return voyage to England the vessel foundered at sea, and only the companion-ship, the Golden Hind, reached the port of Falmouth, Devon. But the formal occupation of Newfoundland at that early period makes it the most ancient colony of the British crown, English settlement beginning shortly after Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s visit, though interrupted between the years 1692 and 1713 by French attempts at conquest.
This selection is from Newfoundland: The Oldest British Colony by Moses Harvey published in 1883. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Moses Harvey made himself Newfoundland’s most prominent citizen and booster, writing books and articles on the islands business, fish, wildlife, plants, people, culture, and history. He also served on a variety of Newfoundland’s boards and commissions.
Place: St. Johns, Newfoundland
Up to this time no attempt had been made to colonize Newfoundland or any of the neighboring lands. The hardy fishermen of various nationalities, among whom Englishmen were now much more numerous than formerly, were in the habit of frequenting the shores of the island during the summer and using the harbors and coves for the cure of their fish, returning home with the products of their toil on the approach of winter. Eighty-six years had passed away since Cabot’s discovery, and we now arrive at the year 1583, a memorable date in the history of Newfoundland. On August 5th of that year there were lying in the harbor of St. John’s thirty-six vessels belonging to various nations, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English, all employed in fishing. In addition to these there were four English warships which had arrived the day before. They were the Delight, the Golden Hind, the Swallow, and the Squirrel. Early on this morning boats were lowered from the English ships, and the commanders and officers went on shore. Soon a goodly company had assembled on the beach, then lined by a few rough wooden huts and “flakes,” or stages for drying cod. The rude inmates of these huts gathered round the company that landed from the English ships; and the captains and officers of the other vessels were there by special summons. A very curious and motley group was that which then stood on the beach of St. John’s harbor — swarthy, bronzed sailors and fishermen of Spain, Portugal, and France, in the costumes of the sixteenth century. Soon a circle formed round one commanding figure — a man of noble presence, wearing the richly slashed and laced doublet, velvet cloak, trunk-hose, and gay hat and feather which constituted the dress of gentlemen in the days of Queen Elizabeth. This was no other than Sir Humphrey Gilbert, one of the gallant knights of Devonshire. He unrolled a parchment scroll, and proceeded to read the royal patent authorizing him to take possession of Newfoundland on behalf of his royal mistress, and exercise jurisdiction over it and all other possessions of the crown in the same quarter. Twig and sod were presented to him in feudal fashion, and, in the name of Queen Elizabeth, he solemnly annexed the island to the British Empire. The banner of England was then twisted on a flag-staff; the royal arms, cut in lead, were affixed to a wooden pillar, near the water’s edge, and the ceremony was complete. The grant gave Sir Humphrey Gilbert jurisdiction for two hundred leagues in every direction, so that the limits included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, part of Labrador, as well as the islands of Newfoundland, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island — a right royal principality.
This Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the first settler in Newfoundland, who, with some two hundred fifty followers from Devonshire, had arrived with the view of making the western wilderness a home for Englishmen, was a son of Sir Otho Gilbert, of Compton castle, Torbay. His mother was a Champernoun of purest Norman descent, and “could probably boast of having in her veins the blood of Courtneys, Emperors of Byzant.” Sir Otho had three sons by this lady, John, Humphrey, and Adrian, who all proved to be men of superior abilities. They were all three knighted by Elizabeth, a distinction which, coming from the hands of the great Queen, marked its recipient as a gentleman and a brave warrior. Sir Otho died, and his widow married Walter Raleigh, a gentleman of ancient blood but impoverished, and at the time living at Hayes, Devon. To her second husband the fair Champernoun bore a son whose fame was destined to be world-wide, and who, in a period more prolific of great men and great events than any before or since, played a gallant part, and was also knighted, as Sir Walter Raleigh, by Queen Bess. Thus Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh were half-brothers, each being trained in the simple and manly yet high-bred ways of English gentlemen. When Humphrey Gilbert grew up he embraced the profession of arms, and won high distinction in Continental and Irish wars. At length, in his mature manhood, he and his distinguished half-brother Raleigh formed the design of first colonizing Newfoundland, and then the neighboring islands and continent. Hence we find him on August 5, 1583, standing on the beach in the harbor of St. John’s. Sir Walter Raleigh had embarked on the same expedition, but a contagious disease broke out on board his ship which compelled his return.
The enterprise of Sir Humphrey Gilbert was worthy of a heroic and patriotic nobleman. It was, nevertheless, doomed to end in disaster and death. In prosecuting further explorations one of Sir Humphrey’s vessels was wrecked and the whole crew perished. The little fleet had struggled with contrary winds for many days. Eventually the Delight, the largest vessel, drifted into the breakers on a lee shore and struck upon a rock. She went rapidly to pieces. Seventeen of the crew got into the longboat, and, after seven days, fifteen of them reached port. But the captain, Morris Browne, refused to leave the ship. “Mounting upon the highest deck,” says the ancient chronicler, “he attained imminent death, so inevitable.” The other vessels stood out to sea and saved themselves. As winter was approaching and provisions getting low, Sir Humphrey deemed it wise to steer for England. He had planted his flag on board the Squirrel, a little cockle-shell of ten tons, and though earnestly entreated to go on board the larger vessel, the Golden Hind, he refused to abandon his brave comrades. A great storm overtook them near the Azores. The Golden Hind kept as near the Squirrel as possible; and when in the midst of the tempest the crew saw the gallant knight sitting calmly on deck with a book before him, they heard him cry to his companions, “Cheer up, lads, we are as near heaven at sea as on land!” When the curtain of night shrouded the little bark, she and her gallant crew disappeared beneath the dark billows of the Atlantic. Thus perished Sir Humphrey Gilbert, scholar, soldier, colonizer, philosopher, one of the noblest of those brave hearts that sought to extend the dominion of England in the New World.
To Newfoundland this sad loss was irreparable. Had Sir Humphrey lived to reach home, no doubt he and Sir Walter Raleigh would have renewed their efforts at colonization, and, profiting by past errors, would have settled in the island men of the right stamp. Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s failure was the result of a succession of uncontrollable disasters. Fully appreciating the immense value of the fisheries of Newfoundland, he seems to have been thoroughly impressed with the idea that the right way of prosecuting those fisheries was to colonize the country, and conduct them on the spot, whereby he would have established a resident population, who would have combined fishing with the cultivation of the soil. It was a departure from this policy, and a determination, at the behest of selfish monopolists, to make the island a mere fishing-station, that postponed for many weary years the prosperity of the colony, blighting the national enterprise, and paralyzing the energies of the people.
This concludes Harvey’s article, encompassed in just this one page.
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