Sir Humphrey Gilbert was an English explorer, politician and soldier who in 1583 established the first English colony in North America at St Johns, Newfoundland. He was a famous name in the court of Elizabeth I as the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh.
Gilbert was born in 1537 in Devon and was educated at Eton, Oxford and at the Inns of Court. His military career led him to Normandy, where he was wounded in the siege of Newhaven. He then served in Ireland, fighting against Irish rebellion led by Shane O’Neill and in 1569 he was made governor of Ulster and a member of the Irish parliament. He continued to fight the Irish until he returned to England in 1570.
On his return he married Anne Aucher with whom he had seven children. His political career developed in England when in 1571 he was elected to parliament as a member for Plymouth and in 1572 for Queenborough. He also spent his time writing and helped to establish both Gresham College and the Society of the New Art.
Gilbert campaigned for a north-west passage to the East, arguing that a north-east route would be far too dangerous. He hoped to explore west and seize territory for the crown and in 1583 he raised enough money to set sail with a small fleet. His crew consisted of pirates and criminals and while lack of discipline caused problems, Gilbert seized Newfoundland on 5th August.
He began to tax the local fishing stations but due to lack of supplies was unable to make the settlement permanent. His fleet left for England a few weeks later but sailed into heavy storms. On 9th September 1583 his ship HMS Squirrel went down in one storm and Gilbert and all of his crew were drowned.
While Gilbert’s attempts at American colonisation were unsuccessful, his achievements were finally completed when Newfoundland was formally annexed in 1610.