Sunday, September 1, 2013

As Near to Heaven

On August 31, 1583 – less than a year before Captains Barlowe and Amadas would make peaceful contact with Algonquian natives at Roanoke Island – Sir Humphrey Gilbert decided to return to England.  He had not deposited settlers at Norumbega  -- the Queen would surely fault him -- but he had declared Newfoundland an English possession.  Using his wit, his charm, and his half-brother’s recently-acquired influence -- Raleigh would happily assist him -- Gilbert felt confident that he could persuade Elizabeth to allow him to return.  Next summer he would plant the colony, it would become a privateering base, precious minerals would be mined, and a northwest passage to China might be found.  This expedition that he was concluding had ended badly.  Very badly.  Next year, outcomes would be quite different.     

His first mistake had been leaving Plymouth so late, June 11.  Five ships had sailed; he had now but two: the Golden Hinde, 40 tons, and the Squirrel, dangerously small at 8 tons.  The Bark Raleigh, 200 tons, had returned to Plymouth two days after it had left, too many of the crew members disobedient or sick.  He had arrived at St. John’s Bay in Newfoundland August 4.   

The following day Gilbert had declared all land 400 leagues north, south, east and west of St. John’s English territory.  For 16 days he had impressed upon the many Spanish, French, and Portuguese fishermen – from 36 ships in the harbor -- that Newfoundland would no longer be an international territory.  Fishing captains could not regulate local affairs.  English law would prevail.  The Church of England would be supreme.  Fishing licenses would be dispensed.  "If any person should utter words sounding to the dishonour of Her Majesty, he should lose his ears and have his ship and goods confiscated."  Attempting to win their allegiance, Gilbert had feasted them, using much of his dwindling ships’ stores.  Concerned solely about returning to their countries with full catches, content to wait for his departure after which they would ignore his declarations, they had regarded his antics as so much theater. 

The crews of Gilbert’s four ships had worked against him, his second major difficulty.  Blackguards, thieves, pirates, they had stolen fish.  A group had plotted to use one of Gilbert’s ships to privateer.  Foiled, they had stolen a foreign ship.  Every sailor, it had seemed, had been disgruntled.  This land, this enterprise, had offered him nothing.  And there had been much sickness.  This, that, the lateness of the season, and insufficient supplies to sustain through the winter months a yet to be founded settlement had convinced Gilbert that he had to quit Newfoundland. 

He had not, however, conceded defeat.  He had believed that he could still return to England in triumph, provided he obtained food immediately and planted his settlement at the mouth of what would eventually be called the Penobscot River.  Simon Fernandez had scouted Norumbega in 1579.  John Walker had done so in 1580.  Leaving Newfoundland, he would sail 100 miles out to sea from central Nova Scotia to Sable Island, where, years before, Portuguese explorers had released pigs to roam wild and procreate.  That would solve his food problem.  Shipping the worst of his disaffected and sick sailors back to England on his 30 ton ship Swallow would solve his crew management problem.  Accomplishing what remained had seemed straightforward, attainable.  Deposit his colonists and their necessities at Norumbega.  Sail to England.  Return to Norumbega with colonists and supplies in the spring.   

Gilbert had left St. John’s Bay August 20 aboard the Squirrel.  He had spent several days  separated from the Delight and the Golden Hinde reconnoitering the rocky inlets, creeks, and rivers of southern Newfoundland before rejoining them.  Experienced seaman at Newfoundland had warned him about Sable Island.  They had told him to avoid it altogether.  Many ships had been destroyed on its treacherous rocks.  If you had to go there, don’t approach it in a fog.  But if you did, lead with your smallest ship.  Gilbert had approached Sable Island ensconced in fog -- his largest ship, the Delight, 120 tons, leading.  The Delight’s master, Richard Clarke, had argued with Gilbert about the best course he should take.  Clarke had advised a south-west-south course, because “the wind was at South and night at hand and vnknowen sands lay off a great way from the land.”  Gilbert had declared that Clarke’s reckoning was untrue.  He had wanted Clarke to take a west-north-west direction.  Clarke had answered that the island “was Westnorthwest and but 15 leagues off; and that he should be vpon the Island before day, if hee went that course.”  Invoking Queen Elizabeth’s authority, Gilbert had demanded obedience.  Clarke had complied. 

The weather had then turned stormy.  Thick fog had shrouded the island.  At seven o’clock in the morning the Delight had run aground and broken apart.  100 crewmen, many having leaped into the water, had drowned.  Gilbert had backed “off to Sea, the course that I would haue had them gone before,” Clarke would later write.  Gilbert had stayed safely away from the island for two days before determining that none of the crew members had survived.  (Unbeknownst to Gilbert, Clarke and 14 of the crew had boarded the ship’s recently constructed pinnace, which had been towed behind the Delight.  I will relate this survival story in next month’s blog)  A great disaster had occurred, for which Gilbert was entirely to blame.  On August 31 he had come aboard the Golden Hinde to announce his decision to return to England.

Humphrey Gilbert was many things: soldier, scholar, writer, adventurer, visionary.  He was impulsive, hot-tempered, passionate, opinionated, and toward certain people exceedingly cruel.  In 1569, serving Queen Elizabeth in attempting to quell Irish resistance to English Protestant rule, he had committed terrible atrocities.  To inspire terror in those who had to appear before him, he had skulls -- “the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kindsfolke, and friends” – arrayed on each side of the pathway to his tent.  Upon boarding the Golden Hinde after the Delight had been destroyed, he had his cabin boy brought before him.  The lad had forgotten to transfer Gilbert’s charts, notes, and mineral samples from the Delight to the Squirrel, as he had been instructed, before leaving Newfoundland.  Using a cane, Gilbert delivered one stroke upon the boy for each chart and sample lost.

Thereafter, Gilbert told his officers that he would return to England on the Squirrel.  Warned that the undersized, heavily laden ship was in great danger of being swamped, he responded: "I will not forsake my little company going homeward, with whom I have passed through so many storms and perils.”  Well and good, you might think, but what might have been his true motives?  Was he punishing himself for his awful judgment and its tragic consequence?  By displaying singular courage did he believe he could expunge his guilt and neutralize forthcoming savage attacks on his reputation?

Gilbert’s two ships made their way across the Atlantic in manageable weather until they approached the Azores, off the coast of Africa.  On September 8 they passed through a strong weather front.  The men of the Hinde watched the Squirrel ride the huge peaks and descend into the deep valleys of a distressed sea.  The light on its main-mast appeared, disappeared, reappeared.  Gilbert remained seated on the stern deck, reading as he had said he would Thomas More’s Utopia.

When the Golden Hinde neared the Squirrel, Gilbert stood.  His red hair flapping, he leaned against the railing.  The wind carried his voice.  "We are as near to heaven by sea as by land," he shouted. 

A strange man with strange thoughts, the Hinde’s crew members must have thought.  Their vigil of the disappearance and reappearance of the Squirrel's light continued.  Just before midnight, the sailors of the Hinde saw the light a final time.  They waited, several minutes, before admitting that the sea had indeed swallowed Gilbert and crew.