Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gilbert, Humphrey
GILBERT, Sir HUMPHREY (1539?–1583), navigator, was the second son of Otho Gilbert of Compton, near Dartmouth. Sir Walter Raleigh was his step-brother by the second marriage of his mother, Catharine, daughter of Sir Philip Champernowne. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, and devoted himself to the study of navigation and the art of war. His first public service appears to have been under Ambrose Dudley [q. v.], earl of Warwick, at Havre in Normandy, where he was wounded in fighting against the French catholics, 26 Sept. 1563 (Stow, p. 654; Cotton. MS. Aug. I. ii. 78 a). In July 1566 he served as captain under Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland, and in the ensuing autumn took part in the operations against Shane O'Neil. In November, being sent home with despatches by the lord deputy Sidney, he took the opportunity of presenting to the queen a petition for privileges 'concerning the discoueringe of a passage by the North [west] to go to Cataia,' as an alternative to an earlier one presented by Anthony Jenkinson and himself in the previous April for discovery by the North-east (Morgan and Coote, ii. 177-9). The queen found other employment for both petitioners. Early in 1567 Gilbert was sent back to Ireland in order to assist Sidney in establishing an imported colony of West of England men near Lough Foyle in Ulster, with Gilbert for president. The undertaking failed, however, and Gilbert returned once more to soldiering.
Sent back to England in the summer of 1568, Gilbert there fell dangerously ill. The queen told Sidney that he was to have his full pay during his absence, and promotion on his return to Ireland. In October 1569, after defeating the celebrated McCarthy More, Gilbert was placed in entire charge of the province of Munster, where he had to keep the Irish chieftain and his followers in subjection. In December he wrote to the lord deputy saying that he was determined to have neither parley nor peace with any rebel, as he was convinced that no conquered nation could be ruled with gentleness. Thereupon Sidney knighted him at Drogheda, 1 Jan. 1570. Shortly afterwards Gilbert returned to England and married Anne, daughter of Sir Anthony Ager of Kent, by whom he had five sons and one daughter. In 1571 he was returned as M.P. for Plymouth. While in parliament he was' sharply rebuked by Peter Wentworth for 'untruly informing her majesty of a motion made in the house on the queen's prerogatiue,' and was called 'a flatterer, a lyer, and a naughtie man,' and when he would have spoken in self-defence, ' had the denial of the house three times’ (Dev. Assoc. Trans. xi. 466, 479).
In the autumn of 1572 Gilbert was sent to the Netherlands with a band of fifteen hundred English volunteers to assist the Zeelanders against their Spanish tyrants. After making an incursion nearly up to the gates of Bruges he crossed the Wester Schelde to Flushing. He was repulsed in an assault upon Goes, and his raw levies were not allowed to take refuge in Flushing until they had withstood a night attack by the Spaniards from Middelburg. At the end of August Gilbert again assaulted Goes unsuccessfully, as he was obliged to raise the siege by Mondragon's famous march of eight miles across the ‘drowned lands’ of the Ooster Schelde from Bergen-op-Zoom. The English fled before the more disciplined troops of Spain, and Gilbert returned to England in disgust (Fox Bourne, English Seamen, i. 114; Markham, Fighting Veres, pp. 43–8). For the next five years (1573–8) Gilbert lived in retirement at Limehouse, where he had resided for a year before he went to the Netherlands. During the winter of 1574, being visited here by George Gascoigne [q. v.], the poet, and asked by him ‘how he spent his time in this loitering vacation from martial stratagems,’ Gilbert took his friend into his study and there showed him ‘sundry profitable and very commendable exercises which he had perfected plainly with his own pen’ (Gascoigne's Pref. to Gilbert's Discourse). One of these ‘exercises’ was Gilbert's ‘Discourse of a Discouery for a New Passage to Cataia.’ It was written partly in support of his still unanswered petition of November 1566, and partly to quiet the fears of his elder brother, Sir John, who, having no issue, was adverse to Sir Humphrey embarking personally in such an enterprise. It led to the bestowal of a license (5 Feb. 1575) upon Sir Martin Frobisher [q. v.] for his discovery towards Cathay. It was afterwards edited by George Gascoigne in 1576, with additions, and probably without Gilbert's authority. On 6 Nov. 1577 Gilbert set forth another ‘discourse:’ ‘How Her Majesty might annoy the King of Spain by fitting out a fleet of war-ships under pretence of a voyage of discovery, and so fall upon the enemy's shipping, destroy his trade in Newfoundland and the West Indies, and possess both Regions’ (State Papers, Dom. cxviii. 12). There was no response to this discourse, but on 11 June 1578 Gilbert obtained from the queen his long-coveted charter for discovery, to plant a colony, and to be governor (Hakluyt, iii. 135–7). The first expedition in connection with it, in which he was assisted by his step-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, left Dartmouth on 23 Sept. 1578. Owing to divided councils it was a failure from the outset, and after putting back into Plymouth the fleet left once more on 18 Nov., only to court disaster at sea at the hands of the Spaniards off Cape Verde. Gilbert, finding it impossible with the residue to carry out his project, returned to Plymouth in May 1579 (Holinshed, iii. 1369). Although Sir Humphrey had sunk all his money and his influence at court in this unfortunate venture, the project was not abandoned, but in the meantime he turned to his old employment in Ireland. The summer of 1579 saw him serving under Sir John Perrot, admiral of the queen's ships sent to encounter the insurrection raised by James Fitzmaurice, aided by Spanish ships off Munster [see Fitzgerald, James Fitzmaurice, d. 1579]. In July 1581 he writes to Walsingham from Minster in Sheppey that he might be paid a little sum of money for his work in Ireland in 1579, whereby he had lost so much that he was reduced to utter want. It was a miserable thing, he added, that after seven-and-twenty years' service he should now be subjected to daily arrests, executions, and outlawries, and have even to sell his wife's clothes from off her back (State Papers, Dom. cxlix. 66). The next four years appear to have been employed by Gilbert chiefly in raising money for his colonising scheme, and in collecting information. His charter would expire in 1584, and to facilitate his operations he resolved to assign some of the privileges contained in it to other speculators, on condition that their enterprises should be carried on under his jurisdiction. Thus we meet with ‘Articles of agreement between Sir H. Gilbert and such of Southampton as adventure with him’ (ib. clv. 86). The result was that in the summer of 1583 he was enabled to set out once more on his long-cherished project for the settlement of Newfoundland.
On Tuesday, 11 June 1583, Gilbert sailed out of Plymouth Sound with a fleet of five ships, viz. the Delight as admiral, the barque Raleigh (furnished by his step-brother, and the largest vessel), the Golden Hind (commanded by Edward Hayes, the narrator of the voyage), the Swallow, and the Squirrel. Two days later the barque returned to Plymouth, probably by the connivance of Raleigh, on the plea of sickness aboard. After parting company with the Swallow and Squirrel in a fog on 20 July, Gilbert proceeded with his two remaining vessels until 30 July, when he sighted the northern shores of Newfoundland, near the Straits of Bellisle. Following the coast to the south, and after crossing Conception Bay, where he met with the Swallow, he held on his course to the harbour of St. John. There on 3 Aug. he found the Squirrel at anchor. The next day being Sunday he went ashore, and was so delighted with his surroundings that he at once decided to make this harbour the centre of his colony.
On Monday, 5 Aug., Gilbert took possession, in the name of the queen, of the harbour of St. John and two hundred leagues every way for himself, his heirs, and assigns for ever. After his commission had been read and interpreted to all concerned, he proclaimed ‘that if any person should utter words sounding to the dishonour of her majesty, he should lose his ears and have his ship and goods confiscate.’ Thus was planted the first English colony in North America. Within a fortnight he found himself the governor of a mixed colony of raw adventurers, many of whom were lazy landsmen and sailors useless except at sea. Not a few had been taken out of English prisons and intended for servants to the colonists. The best of these begged that they might be taken back to England or anywhere from the lawlessness with which Gilbert was unable to cope. Leaving the Swallow to carry home the sick and those who wished to return direct to England, Gilbert left the harbour of St. John with his other three ships on 20 Aug. with a view of searching the coast towards the south on board the little Squirrel. In their attempts to make for Sable Island eight days later the ships fell in with the flats and shoals between Cape Breton Island and the edge of the bank of Newfoundland. On 29 Aug. the largest ship, the Delight, struck aground and was lost. Among the drowned was the learned Hungarian, Stephen Parmenius, whose elegant Latin verses upon Gilbert are preserved to us by Hakluyt (iii. 138–43). Two days later Gilbert, with his two remaining ships, changed his course for England, intending a speedy return in the following spring. At the moment of tacking about there was seen a great sea monster, which Hayes describes as ‘a lion in the ocean sea, or a fish in the shape of a lion.’ Gilbert ‘took it for bonum omen, rejoicing that he was to war against such an enemy, if it were the devil.’ The imaginations of the eye-witnesses were most probably assisted by their vivid recollections of the monsters so graphically depicted upon the famous Olaus Magnus map of 1539. On 2 Sept., after sighting Cape Race, Gilbert paid his farewell visit on board the Golden Hind, where he was entreated by his friends and followers to stay for his own safety, and to abandon his own smaller vessel, the Squirrel. This was a craft of ten tons, whose decks were already overloaded with small ordnance and nettings. With his characteristic waywardness he returned to the ill-fated Squirrel. On 9 Sept. in the afternoon, after emerging from a storm encountered to the south of the Azores, Gilbert was seen sitting abaft the Squirrel with a book in his hand; as often as he came within hearing distance of the Hind, he was heard to utter the well-known words, ‘We are as near to heaven by sea as by land.’ At midnight the watch on board the Golden Hind, observing the lights of the Squirrel to disappear suddenly, cried out ‘the general was cast away, which was too true; for in that moment the frigate was devoured and swallowed up of the sea’ (Hakluyt, iii. 159).
An unbiassed review of Gilbert's career serves to show that his fame deserves something better than the undiscriminating eulogies so lavishly bestowed upon his memory by his biographer in the ‘Biographia Britannica.’ Although usually described as a navigator, Gilbert was more of a soldier than a seaman; he seems to have been strangely wanting in the power of winning the unquestioning obedience of his followers. Of the genuineness of his patriotism, piety, and learning there can be no question. Another of his ‘exercises’ was written probably at Limehouse after his return from the Netherlands in 1572. From a literary point of view it adds more to Gilbert's fame as a gentleman and a scholar than anything he ever undertook either as a soldier or a colonist. It is entitled ‘The Erection of (Queen Elizabethes) Achademy in London for Education of her Maiesties Wardes and others the youths of nobility and gentlemen.’ It is a curious anticipation of recent efforts to obtain a charter for the establishment of a teaching and examining university in London. Three clauses relating to library economy may be a specimen: ‘ There shalbe one keeper of the Liberarie of the Achademy, whose charge shall be to see bookes there saffely kepte, to cawse them to be bound in good sorte, made fast orderly set, and shall keepe a Register of all bookes in the said Librarie, that he may give accompte of them when the Master of the Wardes or the Rector of the Achademy shall appointe; and shalbe yearely allowed 26 li. Note.—This keeper, after every marte, shall cawse the bringers of bookes into England to exhibit to him their Registers before they vtter any to any other person, that he may peruse the same, and take choyse of such as the Achademie shall wante, and shall make the Master of the Wardes or Rector of the Achademy, privy to his choyse, upon whose warrante the bookes so provided shalbe payed for. And there shalbe yearly allowed for the buying of bookes for the said Liberary and other necessary instruments … 40 li.’ The next clause anticipates the provisions of the Copyright Act, and directs all printers ‘to deliuer into the Liberary of the Achademy, at their own charges, one copy, well bounde, of euery proclamacion, or pamflette, that they shall printe’ (Brit. Mus. Lansdowne MS. 98 I.). Dr. Furnivall printed Gilbert's scheme in a volume entitled ‘Queen Elizabethes Achademy’ (Early English Text Soc. 1869). A portrait of Gilbert will be found in Holland's ‘Herωologia,’ p. 64.
[Biog. Brit. vol. iv. 1750; Sir H. Ellis in Archæologia, xxi. 506; Fox Bourne's English Seamen under the Tudors; Furnivall's Queen Elizabethes Achademy (Early English Text Soc.), extra series, No. viii.; Sir H. Gilbert's Discourse, ed. G. Gascoigne, 1576; Hakluyt's Voyages, 1599; Holinshed's Chronicles, 1587, fol.; C. R. Markham's Fighting Veres, 1888; Morgan and Coote's Early Voyages to Russia, &c. (Hakluyt Soc.), 1886, 2 vols.; Sir G. P[eckham's] True Report, 1583; Stow's Annales, 1615; State Papers, Dom. Series (Lemon), 1577–83; Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. App. pp. 40 a, 45 b, 97 aa; cf. Froude's Short Studies, ii. 136 sq.]