‘We were upon them unawares’

Paul Sparkes
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Gilbert loses his biggest ship, his charts, books and his ore sample to Sable Island shoals

Author Frank H. Mason, whose drawing of an Elizabethan carrack is reproduced here, says that at sea these vessels, built with a lot of top-heavy structure, including poop decks and forecastles, rolled and pitched excessively “and were entirely prevented from making any headway other than before the wind.” — From The Book of British Ships (1911)

“They knew not the danger before they felt the same; too late to recover it … soon after they struck a ground and had soon after her stern and hinder parts beaten to pieces.”


Despite the 16th-century language, there is a clear drama in the account of the loss of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s ship, Delight, in the late summer of 1584.

At 120 tonnes, the largest of the vessels by which he had come out from England, Delight had earlier put into St. John’s harbour, cautiously creeping nearer and nearer in the company of the Golden Hind, the Swallow under Captain Maurice Brown (which had joined up with them over on this side) and the frigate Squirrel; cautiously because in those days of wanton robbery at sea and of piracy, the belligerent looks of the harboured fishermen were understandable.

The approach was not cautious enough in another respect. In an ominous sign of what was to come, Delight grounded on a rock in The Narrows and had to be pulled off.

Once ashore, Gilbert read a proclamation claiming Newfoundland for the British Crown.

Prof. David B. Quinn (1909-2002) has written this declaration was made on “very tenuous authority.” I gather Gilbert’s concern was not only for Good Queen Bess and her right to infinite chunks of the New World; noble Sir Humphrey took advantage of his visit to map out as his own personal domain a vast enclosure of the Avalon Peninsula.

In piecing together part of Gilbert’s story for the confines of this column, I am reading from a segment in  “Great Sea Stories of all Nations,” published in 1930. The source of this segment was Edward Hayes (as recorded by Richard Hakluyt, 1552-1616, an English writer particularly interested in colonizing the New World). Hayes accompanied Gilbert and was likely interviewed by Hakluyt upon his return to England.

After a tour of St. John’s, with its tangle of fallen pine trees obscuring good views of the harbour, and after relieving some fishing interests of appreciable quantities of product, the Gilbert party ordered Swallow to return home with the ill, the homesick and the disillusioned. Capt. Brown, however, was assigned to the big Delight.

At the top of this column, we picked up the story as the Delight is breaking up on those insidious shoals around Sable Island. The small Gilbert flotilla had intended to explore other harbours and islands to the south of St. John’s. But it was a plan that fell apart.

The contemporary account by Edward Hayes builds a certain tension as the ships creep through near -impenetrable mist, sounding an unnerving sea bottom as they proceed. They were sailing westwards, below Newfoundland’s south coast:

“The wind rose and blew vehemently at South and by East” (given this is late August, this sounds to me like the outside winds of a hurricane) … “bringing withal raine and thicke mist so that we could not see a cable length before us. … In the morning we were in amongst flats and sands amongst which we found shoale and deep in every three or four shippes’ length after we began to sound. But first we were upon them unawares. … immediately tokens were given unto the Delight to cast about to seaward … keeping so ill watch they knew not the danger.”

The small frigate, the 10-tonne Squirrel which was actually Gilbert’s ship, and the Golden Hind turned east and headed south (“even for our lives into the winde’s eye because that way carried us to the seaward”). There seems to be near panic as they sought to avoid the danger that was consuming the Delight. The two smaller vessels were sounding madly: “making out from this danger wee sounded one while seven fadome, then five fadome, then four fadome and less, again deeper, then four fadome, then but three fadome, the sea going mightily and high” (a fathom is six feet, or 1.8 metres).

“At last we recovered, God be thanked, in some despaire, to sea roome enough.”

The sounding men in the Hind had even described in those dangerously fluctuating depths: “the ground coming upon our lead, being sometimes oozie sand and otherwise, a broad shallow with a little sand about it.” You can visualize that sea bed easily.

But Delight was lost.

“We desired to save the men by every possible means, but all in vain, since God had determined their ruine, yet all that day and part of the next, we beat up and downe as near unto the wracke as was possible for us, looking out if by goodhap we might spy any of them.”

With many of the complement of Delight lost by drowning — some did get off in the shallop towed behind and eventually made it to Newfoundland where, in time, they were shipped back to Europe with Basque fishermen.

But Gilbert’s valuable charts and records (and especially a lump of ore in which he was enamoured) were lost. With tempestuous weather persisting and nervousness and dark feelings running high, Gilbert saw no recourse but to head east for home. In fact, the crews of the two ships were signalling that they were likely to run short of food and their clothing was not good enough for the conditions they had been experiencing.

While praising the “Admirall” to the skies (“compassion for his poore men in whom he saw no want of good will”) Hayes inadvertently shows Sir Humphrey in a less than benevolent light, for he was seen to lament “greatly the loss of his great ship, more of the men, but most of all of his bookes and notes, and what else I know not.”

It was clear, however, that he was especially irked at losing that ore sample picked up near St. John’s (it had gone to the bottom with the Delight). He seems to have picked on “his boy,” the cabin attendant, for having been told earlier to make sure when they were aboard the Delight, that the ore sample was brought back with him when they transferred to the frigate Squirrel. The young man had (apparently) forgotten.

The ships had “brought the Islands of Acores south of us, yet wee then keeping much to the north until we got into the height and elevation of England” when they encountered “very foule weather and terrible seas, breaking short and high, Pyramid wise” and the mariners imagined “hilly grounds high and low within the sea as we see hills and dales upon the land.” These, they concluded, were natural features “upon which the seas do mount and fall.” We can imagine waves thin or pointed at their crest when the wind is sharp — they might even be viewed as pyramid-wise.

But it was on a night soon afterwards that Hayes on the Golden Hind, which was following Squirrel as closely as it could, recalled, “suddenly her lights were out, whereof it was in a moment — we lost the sight, and withall our watch cryed, the Generall was cast away, which was too true.”

Hakluyt gives us Hayes’s sad words: “For in that moment, the Frigat was devoured and swallowed up of the sea. Yet still we looked out all that night and ever after until we arrived upon the coast of England.”


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: England, Newfoundland and Labrador, Sable Island The Narrows Europe Acores

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  • wavy
    June 19, 2013 - 09:14

    Been enjoying these historical write-ups by the Telegram, Steve Bartlett's story on Octagon castle, etc. It offers a nice balance to the doom and gloom stuff, political-scandal-de-jour. It lets the boiling blood settle down to a low simmer and I actually learn a thing or two in the process; win-win. Good stuff- keep it up.