Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (ca. 1537-1583), English soldier and colonizer, failed in his attempt to settle Newfoundland. Nevertheless he took the first step toward building a British colonial empire in America.

Humphrey Gilbert was born at Greenway, Devonshire. His family was well-to-do, but as a younger son he inherited only enough to pay for his education. He entered the service of Elizabeth before she became queen, and her friendship endured until his death.

Gilbert accompanied the Earl of Warwick's expedition to France in 1562 to aid the Huguenots, then hard pressed by their own government. It is supposed that Gilbert's interest in America dated from this experience and that he here met André Thevet, the French geographer who had visited the New World and written two books about Brazil.

By 1565 Gilbert had become interested in a northern route to the Pacific. He petitioned the Queen for permission to discover a passage to China and wrote A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia, advocating an English colony on the west coast of North America. Nothing came of this. Gilbert then served in Ireland, intermittently, until 1570, for which he was knighted. During the next few years Gilbert represented Plymouth in Parliament and saw military service in the Netherlands. In 1576 his Discourse was published.

In 1578 Gilbert received letters patent from the Crown empowering him to make Western discoveries on the condition that he not harm Spanish subjects. The Northwest Passage is not mentioned in this grant. Gilbert probably wished to establish a colony between the Hudson River and Cape Hatteras. What actually happened on his voyage of 1578 is uncertain; he may have attacked the West Indies, but he founded no colony and was back in England by April 1579. Unable to sail again immediately, he went once more to Ireland, then returned to England to prepare for another voyage of colonization.

Gilbert's small ship sent out for reconnaissance in 1580 does not seem to have visited Newfoundland. After much trouble with the financing, he embarked from a point near Plymouth with five ships and about 260 men in June 1583. Reaching St. John's Bay in Newfoundland in August, he took possession for the Queen. During an exploration of the adjacent mainland coast he lost a ship and all the prospective colonists. It seemed necessary to take what was left of the expedition back to England and return the following spring. Against others' advice, Gilbert insisted on sailing in the Squirrel, a tiny ship that was too heavily laden to be seaworthy. On the night of Sept. 9, 1583, watchers on a nearby ship saw the Squirrel's lights vanish, and it and Gilbert were seen no more.

Gilbert is remembered as the first English colonizer. He was not a sailor, and although he studied and understood navigation he felt uncomfortable on shipboard. Before his last voyage the Queen wrote suggesting he not go along, being "a man of not good hap by sea."

Further Reading on Sir Humphrey Gilbert

A biography of Gilbert and essential documents, including his own writings, are contained in David Beers Quinn, ed., The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (2 vols., 1940). William G. Gosling, The Life of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, England's First Empire Builder (1911), still has value. A. L. Rowse, The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955), has interesting sections on Gilbert. E. G. R. Taylor, Tudor Geography, 1485-1583 (1930), provides useful information about Sir Humphrey's plans and aspirations.

Additional Biography Sources

Public Archives of Canada. British Archives., What strange new radiance: Sir Humphrey Gilbert and the New World: exhibition, brochure, and catalogue, Ottawa: Public Archives, Canada, 1979.