"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.' "
Elizabeth had been Queen of England for twenty years before any steps were taken to colonise the New World, towards which all eyes were turned. But while she and her adventurers were dazzled by dreams of gold in the frozen regions of the north, one of her subjects was watching the English fishermen on the coasts of Newfoundland and planning homes for them in America.
This man was Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Year by year ships came from Spain and Portugal, England and France, to the shores of this Newfoundland, and here it was that Gilbert planned a little colony of his own countrymen. His most faithful friend and adviser was his step-brother, Walter Raleigh, who was hereafter to play a large part among Elizabeth's seamen. Both were Devonshire men, like Drake and Hawkins; but Gilbert was among the first Englishmen to see that the love of adventure, which was leading so many at this time to annoy the Spaniards, might be turned to better account. England, he thought, was playing an ignoble part. Instead of taking the lead in voyages of discovery, as she might have done, with the best of ships and sailors, she had given herself up to plundering the treasure-ships of Spain. Drake was the hero of the hour. The queen herself had shared his ill-gotten plunder. The cry of Elizabeth's England was for gold.
So when Gilbert undertook the task of carrying English colonists to the shores of the New World, Elizabeth tried to turn him from his purpose. He was willing to brave the displeasure of his royal mistress. There was no gold to be got out of his lofty scheme, but he stood firm. He had dreams of making his colony a starting-point for the north-west passage. He was no common adventurer. He had a great mind and a great soul.
"He is not worthy to live at all that, for fear or danger of death, shunneth his country's service and his own honour, seeing death is inevitable and the fame of virtue immortal," he used to say when pleading for the Arctic voyage.
In 1578, when Drake was sailing round the world in his little Pelican, and Frobisher was fighting his way amid the frozen seas of the north, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was collecting ships and men to plant his colony over the seas. With eleven ships and some 500 men he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland, but from the very beginning the expedition was a failure. One of the ships was lost, and misfortune after misfortune compelled the rest to return.
Undaunted, he tried again. With Walter Raleigh's help he fitted out a second expedition. In 1583 the little fleet left England with a parting gift from the queen in the shape of a golden anchor. But again a series of disasters overtook the expedition. Two days after leaving harbour the largest ship in the fleet deserted. Angrily Gilbert sailed on without it, arriving in safety on the shores of Newfoundland. Summoning Spanish and Portuguese together, he raised a pillar with the arms of England engraved on it, and formally took possession of the country in the queen's name.
But it was not easy to keep order. The sailors, after the manner of their day, were lawless adventurers, pirates, and robbers. They only wanted to make their fortune; they had no industry, perseverance, or endurance—qualities needed for all colonisation.
Everything went wrong, and at last the would-be colonists begged to be taken home. Only two ships were left, the Squirrel and the Golden Hind. Gilbert commanded the Squirrel, the smallest of the two, and totally unfit to "pass through the ocean sea at that season of the year."
But "I will not forsake my little company going homeward, with whom I have passed through so many storms and perils," said their commander. The weather was very wild, the oldest sailor on board had never seen "more outrageous seas."
The Squirrel could not weather them, and one night she foundered with all hands. Gilbert was last seen, his Bible in his hand, bidding his terrified companions be of good cheer.
"We are as near to heaven by water as by land," he cried as the little Squirrel went down into the deep Atlantic with her brave commander. Though he failed, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was called the Father of American colonisation, because it was he who first turned men's thoughts from plundering exploits to the higher aims of civilisation.