Gilbert, Sir HumphreySir Humphrey Gilbert, explorer (b near Dartmouth, Eng c 1537; d at sea 9 Sept 1583). Gilbert was an early publicist for the idea of a NORTHWEST PASSAGE, compiling an influential Discourse (1576) on the subject, and his experience in colonizing Ireland suggested similar ventures farther afield. He received letters patent 11 June 1578 from Queen Elizabeth authorizing him to colonize the coast of N America.
His first attempt, in 1578, was frustrated by poor organization, desertion and storms. Undaunted, he regrouped and set out again 11 June 1583 with 5 vessels (Delight, Raleigh, Golden Hind, Swallow and Squirrel) ; the queen tried to persuade Gilbert to stay behind, noting he was a man "of not good happ by sea." The Raleigh turned back, but the other 4 ships arrived off St John's Aug 3. Brandishing his letters patent (known as "Gilbert's Charter"), he entered the harbour Aug 5 and formally took possession of Newfoundland. He dispatched Swallow to England with the sick and malcontents and left St John's Aug 20, losing Delight in shoals off Sable Island, and turned homeward in heavy seas. On the evening of Sept 9 Gilbert reportedly sat astern of Squirrel repeatedly calling out, "We are as neare to Heaven by sea as by land." Near midnight he and the Squirrel were "devoured and swallowed up of the Sea."The Golden Hind reached Dartmouth Sept 22.
Vain, tempestuous, even cruel, Gilbert was typical of the early adventurers who became obsessed with America. His own exploits were failures but his persuasive, if faulty, advocacy of a Northwest Passage spurred a lasting fascination, and although his seizure of Newfoundland seemed a formality, it was not seriously disputed and the colony became the first English possession in the New World.