The terrible disasters in Florida did not altogether stop French adventurers from going to the New World. But to avoid conflict with Spain they sailed henceforth more to the northern shores of America, and endeavoured to found colonies there. This made Englishmen angry. For by right of Cabot's voyages they claimed all America from Florida to Newfoundland, which, says a writer in the time of Queen Elizabeth, "they bought and annexed unto the crowne of England." The English, therefore, looked upon the French as interlopers and usurpers. The French, however, paid little attention to the English claims. They explored the country, named mountains, rivers, capes, and bays, and planted colonies where they liked. Thus began the long two hundred years' struggle between the French and English for possession of North America.
The French had already planted a colony on the St. Lawrence when an Englishman, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, determined also to plant one in North America.
He was the first Englishman ever to attempt to found a colony in America. Many Englishmen had indeed sailed there before him. But they had only gone in quest of gold and of adventures, and without any thought of founding a New England across the seas. This now, with Queen Elizabeth's permission, was what Sir Humphrey hoped to do.
He set out with a little fleet of five ships. One of these was called the Raleigh, and had been fitted out by the famous Sir Walter Raleigh who was Gilbert's step-brother. Walter Raleigh, no doubt, would gladly have gone with the company himself. But he was at the time in high favour with Good Queen Bess, and she forbade him to go on any such dangerous expedition. So he had to content himself with helping to fit out expeditions for other people.
The Raleigh was the largest ship of the little fleet, and Sir Walter spared no cost in fitting it out. But before they had been two days at sea the Captain of the Raleigh and many of his men fell ill. This so greatly discouraged them that they turned back to Plymouth.
Sir Humphrey was sad indeed at the loss of the largest and best-fitted ship of his expedition, but he held on his way undaunted. They had a troublous passage. Contrary winds, fogs and icebergs delayed them. In a fog two of the ships named the Swallow and the Squirrel separated from the others. But still Sir Humphrey sailed on.
At length land came in sight. But it was a barren, unfriendly coast, "nothing but hideous rocks and mountains, bare of trees, and void of any green herbs," says one who went with the expedition. And seeing it so uninviting they sailed southward along the coast, looking for a fairer land.
And now to their great joy they fell in again with the Swallow. The men in the Swallow were glad, too, to see the Golden Hind and the Delight once more. They threw their caps into the air and shouted aloud for joy.
Soon after the re-appearance of the Swallow the Squirrel also turned up, so the four ships were together again. Together they sailed into the harbour of St. John's in Newfoundland. Here they found fishermen from all countries. For Newfoundland had by this time become famous as a fishing-ground, and every summer ships from all countries went there to fish.
Sir Humphrey, armed as he was with a commission from Queen Elizabeth, was received with all honour and courtesy by these people. And on Monday, August 5th, 1583, he landed and solemnly took possession of the country for two hundred leagues north, south, east and west, in the name of England's Queen.
First his commission was read aloud and interpreted to those of foreign lands who were there. Then one of Sir Humphrey's followers brought him a twig of a hazel tree and a sod of earth, and put them into his hands, as a sign that he took possession of the land and all that was in it. Then proclamation was made that these lands belonged to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England by the Grace of God. "And if any person shall utter words sounding to the dishonour of her Majesty, he shall lose his ears, and have his ship and goods confiscate." The arms of England, engraved on lead and fixed to a pillar of wood, were then set up, and after prayer to God the ceremony came to an end. Thus Newfoundland became an English possession, and by right of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's claims it is the oldest colony of the British Empire.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert had taken possession of the land. But it soon became plain that it would be impossible to found a colony with the wild riff-raff of the sea of which his company was formed. Troubles began at once. A few indeed went about their business quietly, but others spent their time in plotting mischief. They had no desire to stay in that far country; so some hid in the woods waiting a chance to steal away in one or other of the ships which were daily sailing homeward laden with fish. Others more bold plotted to steal one of Sir Humphrey's ships and sail home without him. But their plot was discovered. They, however, succeeded in stealing a ship belonging to some other adventurers. It was laden with fish and ready to depart homeward. In this they sailed away leaving its owners behind.
The rest of Sir Humphrey's men now clamoured more than ever to be taken home. And at length he yielded to them. But the company was now much smaller than when he set out. For besides those who had stolen away, many had died and many more were sick. There were not enough men to man all four ships. So the Swallow was left with the sick and a few colonists who wished to remain, and in the other three Sir Humphrey put to sea with the rest of his company.
He did not, however, sail straight homeward. For he wanted to explore still further, and find, if he could, an island to the south which he had heard was very fertile. But the weather was stormy, and before they had gone far the Delight was wrecked, and nearly all on board were lost.
"This was a heavy and grievous event, to lose at one blow our chief ship freighted with great provision, gathered together with much travail, care, long time, and difficulty. But more was the loss of our men to the number almost of a hundred souls." So wrote Master Edward Hay who commanded the Golden Hind, and who afterwards wrote the story of the expedition.
After this "heavy chance" the two ships that remained beat up and down tacking with the wind, Sir Humphrey hoping always that the weather would clear up and allow him once more to get near land. But day by day passed. The wind and waves continued as stormy as ever, and no glimpse of land did the weary sailors catch.
It was bitterly cold, food was growing scarce, and day by day the men lost courage. At length they prayed Sir Humphrey to leave his search and return homeward. Sir Humphrey had no wish to go, but seeing his men shivering and hungry he felt sorry for them, and resolved to do as they wished.
"Be content," he said. "We have seen enough. If God send us safe home we will set forth again next spring."
So the course was changed, and the ships turned eastward. "The wind was large for England," says Hay, "but very high, and the sea, rough." It was so rough that the Squirrel in which Sir Humphrey sailed was almost swallowed up. For the Squirrel was only a tiny frigate of ten tons. And seeing it battered to and fro, and in danger of sinking every moment, the captain of the Golden Hind and many others prayed Sir Humphrey to leave it and come aboard their boat. But Sir Humphrey would not.
"I will not forsake my little company going homeward," he said. "For I have passed through many storms and perils with them."
No persuasions could move him, so the captain of the Golden Hind was fain to let him have his way. One afternoon in September those in the Golden Hind watched the little Squirrel anxiously as it tossed up and down among the waves. But Sir Humphrey seemed not a whit disturbed. He sat in the stern calmly reading. And seeing the anxious faces of his friends he cheerfully waved his hand to them.
"We are as near to heaven by sea as by land," he called, through the roar of waves.
Then the sun went down. Darkness fell over the wild sea, and the ships could only know each other's whereabouts by the tossing lights.
Suddenly to the men on the Golden Hind it seemed as if the lights of the little frigate went out. Immediately the watch cried out that the frigate was lost.
"It was too true. For in that moment the frigate was devoured and swallowed up by the sea."
Yet the men on the Golden Hind would not give up hope. All that night they kept watch, straining their eyes through the stormy darkness in the hope of catching sight of the frigate or of some of its crew. But morning came and there was no sign of it on all the wide waste of waters. Still they hoped, and all the way to England they hailed every small sail which came in sight, trusting still that it might be the Squirrel. But it never appeared. Of the five ships which set forth only the Golden Hind returned to tell the tale. And thus ended the first attempt to found an English colony in the New World.