OTD: Humphrey Gilbert sails into St. John’s

On today’s date in 1583, English explorer Humphrey Gilbert sailed into present-day St. John’s Harbour, N.L., where he read a royal charter to claim the surrounding 320 kilometres for Queen Elizabeth I and found the first English colony in North America.

Born in circa 1537, Gilbert served as a soldier in Ireland before aspiring to establish a colony in the “New World.”

Owing to his connections with Queen Elizabeth’s court, he received a royal patent in 1578 to form a colony and embarked for North America later that year. The initial voyage failed, and it wasn’t until June 11, 1583, when Gilbert left Plymouth, England, with five ships. Four of them – the Delight, Golden Hind, Swallow and Squirrel – assembled off St. John’s later that year on Aug. 3.

Although nearly 40 fishing vessels were already in the harbour and resistant to Gilbert’s claims, two days later – 436 years ago today – Gilbert’s royal commission was reviewed and accepted as the explorer claimed the surrounding land for the Queen.

Two weeks later, he left St. John’s and attempted to establish his colony further south; however, with diminishing resources, Gilbert was forced to return to England. On his return trip, he was lost in the 10-ton Squirrel in a storm off the Azores, near Portugal.

Just before the Squirrel sank, Gilbert is reported to have shouted, “We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land.”

Before his death, Gilbert was knighted for his war-time service in Ireland.

His 1576 publication, A discourse of a discouerie for a new passage to Cataia (or A Discourse of a Discovery for a New Passage to Cathay), which discussed a Northwest Passage, inspired the later voyages of Martin Frobisher and John Davis.

The coin’s obverse depicts an anchor in the centre, dividing the Marconi Tower and a contemporary ship similar to one in Gilbert’s fleet.


In 1983, the Royal Canadian Mint commemorated the 400th anniversary of Gilbert’s landing in Newfoundland with a $100 half-ounce Proof gold coin.

The reverse, which was designed by John Jaciw, of Windsor, features an anchor dividing the Marconi Tower and a contemporary ship similar to one in Gilbert’s fleet.

The obverse depicts Arnold Machin’s effigy of Queen Elizabeth II.

The 22-karat Proof gold coin has a diameter of 27 millimetres, a weight of 16.97 grams and a mintage of 83,128 pieces.

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