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Book VIII: Sir Humphrey Gilbert. (A. D. 1583.)


Eastward from Campobello
     Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed:
Three days or more seaward he bore,
     Then, alas! the land-wind failed.

Alas! the land-wind failed,
     And ice-cold grew the night;
And nevermore, on sea or shore,
     Should Sir Humphrey see the light.

He sat upon the deck,
     The Book was in his hand:
‘Do not fear! Heaven is as near,’
     He said, ‘by water as by land!’

In the first watch of the night,
     Without a signal's sound,
Out of the sea, mysteriously,
     The fleet of Death rose all around.

The moon and the evening star
     Were hanging in the shrouds;
Every mast, as it passed,
     Seemed to rake the passing clouds.

They grappled with their prize,
     At midnight black and cold:
As of a rock was the shock;
     Heavily the ground-swell rolled.


The death of Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

[Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed from England for Newfoundland with a fleet of five vessels. The largest of these (two hundred tons), fitted out by Sir Walter Raleigh, soon returned to England; the next in size was lost; and the three others were the ‘golden hind,’ forty tons; the ‘Swallow,’ of the same size; and the ‘Squirrel,’ of only ten tons,— merely a sail-boat. The loss of their largest vessel, or ‘admiral,’ discouraged the crews very much; and they finally insisted on returning, as appears in the narrative which follows. The original account is in Hakluyt's voyages (Edition of 1810), vol. III. p. 199.]

Our people lost courage daily after this ill-success, the weather continuing thick and blustering, with increase of cold, winter drawing on, which took from them all hope of amendment, settling an assurance of worse weather to grow upon us every day. The lee-side1 of us lay full of flats and dangers inevitable, if the wind blew hard at south. Some, again, doubted2 we were ingulfed in the Bay of St. Lawrence, the coast full of dangers, and unto us unknown. But, above all, provision waxed scant, and hope of supply was gone with loss of our admiral.3 [170]

Those in the frigate4 were already pinched with spare allowance, and want of clothes chiefly. Whereupon they besought the general5 to return for England before they all perished. And to them of the ‘Golden Hind’ they made signs of their distress, pointing to their mouths, and to their clothes thin and ragged. Then immediately they also of the ‘Golden Hind’ grew to be of the same opinion, and desire to return home.

The former reasons having also moved the general to have compassion of his poor men, in whom he saw no want of good-will, but of means fit to perform the action they came for, [he] resolved upon retire;6 and, calling the captain and master of the ‘Hind,’ he yielded them many reasons enforcing this unexpected return, withal protesting himself greatly satisfied with that he had seen and knew already.

Reiterating these words, ‘Be content: we have seen enough, and take no care of expense past. I will set you forth royally the next spring, if God send us safe home. Therefore, I pray you, let us no longer strive here, where we fight against the elements.’ . . .

How unwillingly the captain and master of the ‘Hind’ conceded to this motion, his own company can testify; yet comforted with the general's promise of a speedy return at spring, and induced by other apparent reasons proving an impossibility to accomplish the action at that time, it was concluded on all hands to retire. [171]

So, upon Saturday, in the afternoon, the 31st of August, we changed our course, and returned back for England, at which very instant, even in winding about, there passed along between us and the land which we now forsook, a very lion, to our seeming, in shape, hair, and color; not swimming after the manner of a beast, by moving of his feet, but rather sliding upon the water with his whole body—not excepting the legs—in sight; neither yet diving under, and again rising above the water, as the manner is of whales, dolphins, tunnies, porpoises, and all other fish, but confidently showing himself above water without hiding, notwithstanding we presented ourselves in open view and gestures to amaze him, as all creatures will be commonly at a sudden gaze and sight of men. Thus he passed along, turning his head to and fro, yawning and gaping wide, with ugly demonstration of long teeth and glaring eyes; and to bid us a farewell, coming right against the ‘Hind,’ he sent forth a horrible voice, roaring or bellowing as doth a lion; which spectacle we all beheld so far as we were able to discern the same, as men prone to wonder at every strange thing, as this doubtless was, to see a lion in the ocean sea, or fish in the shape of a lion. What opinion others had thereof, and chiefly the general himself, I forbear to deliver; but he took it for bonum omen,7 rejoicing that he was to war against such an enemy, if it were the devil. . . . . .

Leaving the issue of this good hope unto God, who knoweth the truth only, and can at his good pleasure bring the same to light, I will hasten to the end of this tragedy, which must be knit up in the person of our [172] general. And as it was God's ordinance upon him, even so the vehement persuasion and entreaty of his friends could nothing avail to divert him from a wilful resolution of going through in his frigate, which was overcharged upon the decks with fights,8 nettings, and small artillery, too cumbersome for so small a boat that was to pass through the ocean sea at that season of the year, when by course we might expect much storm of foul weather, whereof indeed we had enough.

But when he was entreated by the captain, master, and other his well-willers of the ‘Hind,’ not to venture in the frigate, this was his answer: ‘I will not forsake my little company going homeward, with whom I have passed so many storms and perils.’ And in very truth he was urged to be so over hard by hard reports given of him that he was afraid of the sea; albeit this was rather rashness, than advised resolution, to prefer the wind of a vain report to the weight of his own life. Seeing he would not bend to reason, he had provision out of the ‘Hind’ such as was wanting aboard his frigate. And so we committed him to God's protection to set him aboard his pinnace; we being more than three hundred leagues onward of our way home.

By that time, we had brought the islands of Azores south of us, yet we then keeping much to the north until we had got into the height and elevation of England, met with very foul weather, and terrible seas, breaking short and high, pyramid-wise. The reason whereof seemed to proceed either of hilly grounds, high and low, within the sea,—as we see hills and dales upon the land,—upon which the seas do mount and fall; or [173] else the cause proceedeth of diversity of winds, shifting often in sundry points: all which having power together to move the great ocean, which again is not presently settled, so many seas do encounter together as there had been diversity of winds. Howsoever it cometh to pass, men which all their lifetime had occupied the sea never saw more outrageous seas. We had also upon our mainyard an apparition of a little fire by night, which seamen do call Castor and Pollux;9 but we had only one, which they take an evil sign of more tempest: the same is usual in storms.

Monday, the 9th of September, in the afternoon, the frigate was near cast away, oppressed by waves; yet at that time recovered, and giving forth signs of joy, the general, sitting abaft, with a book in his hand, cried out to us in the ‘Hind,’—so oft as we did approach within hearing,—‘We are as near to heaven by sea as by land,’ reiterating the same speech, well beseeming a soldier resolute in Jesus Christ, as I can testify he was.

The same Monday night, about twelve of the clock, or not long after, the frigate being ahead of us in the ‘Golden Hind,’ suddenly her lights were out, whereof, as it were in a moment, we lost the sight; and withal our watch cried [that] the general was cast away, which was too true; for in that moment the frigate was devoured and swallowed up of the sea. . . . .

Thus have I delivered the contents of the enterprise and last action of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Knight, faithfully, for so much as I thought meet to be published; wherein may always appear, though he be extinguished, some sparks of his virtue; he remaining firm [174] and resolute in a purpose, by all pretence honest and godly as was this, to discover, possess, and to reduce unto the service of God and Christian piety, those remote and heathen countries of America not actually possessed by Christians, and most rightly appertaining unto the crown of England.

1 i.e., the north side, if the wind was south.

2 Suspected.

3 The ‘Delight,’ the flag-ship.

4 The ‘Squirrel.’ The name ‘frigate’ was first given to a kind of boat still used in the Mediterranean, propelled by both sails and oars. It was afterwards given to a war vessel, built also for speed.

5 Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

6 i.e., to retire.

7 A good omen. This was probably a large seal, or sea-lion.

8 Warlike preparations.

9 This electric light is often called ‘St. Elmo's fire.’

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