1583 - Sir Humphrey Gilbert Sets Out to Find the Northwest Passage

Even though Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s motto was “Quid non?” [“Why not?”], it took him four years to plan a proper expedition to fulfill his patent. By that time he was forty-four years old. It was during this preparation, in 1581, that Sir Francis Walsingham interviewed the illiterate seaman David Ingram about his experience walking the North American coastline through ‘Norembega’.

Walsingham, Michael Lok, John Dee, Richard Hakluyt, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert were much encouraged by Ingram’s promise of crystal chariots and silver. One of Gilbert’s main objectives for colonizing North America was to take advantage of the resources it promised.

A closer look at the chart Michael Lok drew in 1582 reveals how much the English knew about the coastlines surrounding the Northern Atlantic Ocean, and how much they did not know about what lay beyond. They thought the Eastern Sea, which they called ‘Verrazzano’s Sea,’ was on the other side of a short passage. They must not have been privy to the maps held by the Portuguese, or Arabs like Piri Reis, or the Venetians like the author of the Cantino Map, and the Chinese surveys that revealed a much boarder North American continent.

Notice the break in the land at the point where the Hudson River was later discovered and how it leads to Mare da Verra Zana [Verrazzano’s Sea]. This incorrect information will confuse Henry Hudson into thinking there was another passage through North America to the Eastern Sea. Some other things to notice:

Robert Aldworth, a prominent gentleman and alderman from the West Country port of Bristol, helped smooth Sir Gilbert’s path. Aldworth belonged to Bristol’s Society of Merchant Adventurers, the same society that sponsored John Cabot eighty-six years earlier. Aldworth was so excited about Frobisher and Gilbert’s quest that he convinced the society to come up with money and some ships.

The extremely powerful Society of Merchant Adventurers controlled all shipping in and out of Bristol, still England’s second most important port. The society was officially chartered in 1552 at the end of Edward VI’s short seven-year reign as king(1) and only three years prior to the formation of the Muscovy Company.

The society was created to protect the merchants of Bristol from the competition of foreign shipping. It set shipping standards and regulations. Every time a ship entered the port of Bristol, and before it could dock, a representative from the Society of Merchant Adventurers sailed out to meet her to determine how much the captain or master could charge for her cargo. Later, as a result of slaving and the tobacco trade, the organization became even more powerful.

Gilbert collected a tiny fleet of five ships that will carry 260 gentlemen, soldiers, and mariners. The largest vessel, displacing 200 tons, was a ship from Walter Ralegh’s fleet named the Bark Ralegh. Ralegh commissioned it for the voyage. He also invested some money in his brother’s venture, but Queen Elizabeth forbade him from leaving her court. Ralegh was forced to find another captain to take the Bark Ralegh’s helm.

The next largest vessel, and the admiral of the fleet, was the Delight of 120 tons, followed by two ships of 40 tons: the Golden Hind(2) and the Swallow. The smallest was a pinnace named the Squirrel, of a mere 10 tons. She was Humphrey Gilbert’s favorite.

The Golden Hind will be the only ship to return to England three and a half months later. Sir Gilbert will meet a tragic death. But the commander of the Golden Hind, Captain Edward Hayes, will relate the story to Richard Hakluyt, who will publish it for all to read. We will paraphrase Hayes’ testimony for this article, modernizing some of the vernacular. Gilbert’s men will call him ‘the Governor’ just like Frobisher’s men did.

We left from Causand Bay, Devonshire [one account states from Bristol] in the middle of June 1583. The Governor’s first mission was to establish a colony in Newfoundland. Even though ships from all over Europe had been fishing there for years, no country had officially staked her claim. Our fleet set out with shipwrights, masons, carpenters, and smiths, along with mineral men and refiners. There were also several musicians. Toys and trinkets were stored in the hold to delight the natives of our future conquests.

On the second day, a horrible sickness consumed the crew of the Bark Ralegh. She could not proceed any farther, especially in the chilly polar seas. The Governor was extremely vexed [angry and concerned] when she turned back for England. But there was nothing he could do about it.

He commanded his remaining four ships to follow a typical method of navigation: head straight toward the north latitude we desired [in this case 48 degrees], then turn toward the western position(2).

Soon after we turned west, a fog descended upon us that was so dense we in the Golden Hind and Delight lost sight of the Swallow and Squirrel. When the mist cleared, we were surrounded by mountainous icebergs that terrified the crew. Only a few had seen such monsters before. The Governor gave us no alternative but to stay on course.

We reached Newfoundland a few weeks later. As we closed in on the island, we saw other ships anchored there: Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Basque. We knew the ships would stay through the summer fishing season. My bosun [boatswain] did not need to sound for depth because the abundance of birds feasting upon the garbage thrown out by the fishermen was a clear enough indication we had arrived upon the Great Banks. We were happy to be in the familiarity of a hundred or more sail [other ships], even if they were chiefly Portuguese and French.

As we passed Penguin Island – so named because of the flightless, exceedingly fat little black and white birds that resided there – we met up with the Swallow. We were so excited we threw our caps into the air, losing many overboard.

The three ships continued southward until we came to Saint John’s Harbour, which has been a fishing port for sixty or more years. The Frenchies call it Bacalhaus(4). There we spied the Squirrel lying at anchor at the entrance. More caps were tossed. Our fleet of four was united once more.

The Governor invited the masters and captains of the other ships in the harbour to gather together on the Delight. There he showed the other captains his commission from Queen Elizabeth. He announced his purpose to take possession of the lands on behalf of the crown of England, and that he expected the captains in the adjoining harbours to support him, which they did. Every ship sent a present. These served like a tax to the new possessors and included wines, marmalades, sweet oils, biscuits, fish, and lobsters.

The Governor organized a ceremony the following day. He erected his tent on the beach at Saint John’s and summoned back all the merchants and masters, both English and strangers. Once they were gathered, he announced that the Queen’s Majesty had given him the power to take possession of the lands. The territory was to include the harbour and everything within 200 leagues [600 miles] in every direction. Then the Governor set forth three laws with orders to follow them immediately.

The first of these laws established the religion of the place to be that of the Church of England. The second was that all laws in Newfoundland were to follow England’s laws. And the third requirement was that if anyone uttered a word that sounded to the dishonor of Her Majesty, he would lose his ears and have his ship and goods confiscated.

Once the laws were published [copied out by hand so others had a copy], everyone promised obedience. Our blacksmith engraved the arms of England on a lead plate and affixed it to a pillar of wood that was erected on a hill.

When the ceremony ended, some of the crewmembers hid in the woods, hoping to find English fishing boats to take them home. This reflected a typical problem for journeys like ours. Many seamen were afraid to venture farther into the unknown. There were also many men who had become sick and weary. The Governor relinquished. He let the sick, weary, and disgruntled leave for home in the Swallow.

That left us in Newfoundland with three ships. We proceeded to explore the island, coasting in and out of the many small inlets. To maneuver among the narrow harbors and creeks more easily, the Governor insisted on sailing in the 10-ton Squirrel. The trouble with his design [plan] was that he also insisted on loading his large guns, making the Squirrel dangerously top-heavy.

Things were sorted out for awhile as we explored the local subsidiary islands and became acquainted with the populace. What the Governor really hoped to find were precious metals and gems. One day, to his delight, his inspectors brought a large shiny rock he believed to be silver. Trying hard to hide his excitement, the Governor insisted that his crew keep news of the discovery quiet. He feared that if other nations learned of his find, they might challenge his authority to the lands for their own gain. He stashed the shiny rock into a secret hiding place in the Delight.

Mid-August, our tiny fleet of three ships left Saint John’s Harbour [on the northwest corner of the island]. We coasted south and then westward under Newfoundland [toward later-named Nova Scotia]. Ten days along we ran into a storm. The Delight, carrying most of the expedition’s provisions, as well as the Governor’s precious shiny rock, wrecked upon some shoals [hidden sand bars]. As waves thrashed the ships about, we on the Golden Hind and the Squirrel tried desperately to reach the Delight. But come nightfall, she was lost from sight. The seas calmed by daylight, but we in the two smaller vessels had been washed far from the area with the shoals. We searched for the Delight for two days only to find nothing.

Greatly grieved at the loss of nearly a hundred souls and the bulk of our provisions, we felt we were too pinched to go forward. In an appeal to the Governor, my men on the Hind pointed to their thin bodies, ragged clothes, and our empty mouths. The Governor relinquished and agreed to return to England before we all perished. On the last day of August, the Golden Hind and the Squirrel turned for home.

Storms continued to torment us as we journeyed through the frigid seas. Then one day in September things calmed. The Governor joined me on the Golden Hind for some entertainment and companionship. The two of us feasted and drank, while the Governor lamented the loss of the Delight. He was particularly sorrowful about the loss of his notes and the piece of silver ore. They were his proof that it was worthwhile to explore the whole of America. I heard him say that when he returned to England he would ask the Queen to send two good fleets, one to explore the northern shores [later New England] and one to explore the southern shores [later Virginia]. The Governor was sure he could pay for those expensive excursions with the silver he knew was in Newfoundland.

When the Governor and I were ready to retire for the evening, he returned to the Squirrel. I begged him not to, pointing out that the Squirrel was wobbly and unsteady. But he declared he would not forsake the men with whom “he had passed through storms and peril.”

Once on board his beloved Squirrel, the Governor guided her past us to take the lead. I looked down upon him as his ship glided by and saw him sitting in a chair on his deck with a book(5) in his hand, saying, “Cheer up, lads. We are as near to heaven by sea as by land.” That was my last memory of our beloved Governor.

At midnight that very night, as we on the Hind behind her watched, the lights on the Squirrel went suddenly out. She had been devoured by the sea in one silent gulp. We spent the rest of the night looking for her and continued looking for her ever after until we reached England. But we found not a broken board or a scrap of cloth.

The Golden Hind arrived to Falmouth Harbour on Sunday, September 22, 1583.

Next article: 1584 Walter Ralegh Sends Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to Virginia


  1. Edward was Henry VIII’s son and heir. He died young and was succeeded for a day or two by Lady Jane Grey, then by Bloody Mary.
  2. This was a different Golden Hind from the ship Francis Drake sailed. Drake’s ship had been dry-docked as a memorial to his history-making voyage.
  3. It was like sailing the two sides of a right triangle instead of following the hypotenuse. Theoretically, the technique lessened the risk of missing the landmark.
  4. Newfoundland was called Terre de Bacalhaus [Land of the Codfish] by the Portuguese.
  5. By the quote, it is believed the book was Thomas More’s Utopia. Thomas More was an English philosopher, theologian, statesman, and humanist from Henry VIII’s era. When he refused to convert to Protestantism, Henry had him executed.