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A book grabbed at a sale

Late 16th-century vessels on exploration. The drawing is by C.W. Jefferys, 18969-1951, renowned Canadian historical illustrator. Reproduced from New World for Old, 1938.
Late 16th-century vessels on exploration. The drawing is by C.W. Jefferys, 18969-1951, renowned Canadian historical illustrator. Reproduced from New World for Old, 1938.

When I finally managed to get into The Arts & Culture Centre on Wednesday afternoon, March 29 to see what this year’s CFUW book sale had to offer, I went almost immediately to the Newfoundland section.

This part of the sale was well-stocked with titles from “the great outpouring.”

I am referring to what might also be called our soft-cover revolution. We published everything from war records to ghost sightings, we analyzed schools, boats and churches, we resurrected outport memories and people long-gone. From poetry to prose and fact to fiction. We swirled in a flood of literature in the 1980s and 1990s.

On a collectors’ table there were some church books, a few obscure novels and some aged relics with twisted spines. One small textbook that I grabbed with barely a glance was “Raleigh’s English Voyages” little thinking that Elizabeth I’s favourite sailor could have made nothing but English voyages.

Then I remembered, I had once, long ago read some reference to a renowned English prof with the surname Raleigh. So, what I had here for $10 was a book about English voyages of the 16th century written by an English prof, born in 1861, died in 1922 and named Walter Raleigh.

W.R. did some wonderful work for the language and for history, but he could occasionally be, as the saying goes, “off the wall.” A sketchy little bio of him by Wikipedia shows that during the First World War he expressed the belief that “German University Culture is mere evil,” and added that the deaths “of 100 Bosche professors ... would be a benefit to the human race.”


Gilbert’s failure

Our professor shows that of the five vessels which joined Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s voyage of 1583, one — the Delight — “struck a rock and was lost with its men and cargo of mineral.” That “rock” was Sable Island. He wrote that Gilbert made a three weeks’ “experiment in colonisation at St. John’s Harbour” and it failed. I guess it would, given only three weeks. He shows, in sync with other historians, that Edward Hayes (who captained the only ship of the five to return to England) soberly recorded the loss of the ship Squirrel with Gilbert and all hands on board on the high seas after both Hayes’ ship and Squirrel had been close enough earlier in the evening to hail each other: “At 12 o’clock that night the Squirrel’s lights suddenly disappeared and she was seen no more.”

The professor writes, “Gilbert, at least is esteemed in his own country as the pioneer of North West discovery and the first who set his hand to the building up of Greater Britain.” I was surprised to find that he does not say who discovered us. He does say who didn’t, as in this extract:

“In 1497, John Cabot, a citizen of Venice who had settled as a trader at Bristol, sailed with two ships out of Bristol and discovered the northern end of the Island of Cape Breton. As his expedition was believed to be the first to reach the mainland of America, which Columbus never set eyes on till a year later, much has been made in controversy of the priority of the English claim.”

If Newfoundland had a claim on Cabot, W.R. ignored it. He didn’t think a lot of Columbus as you can tell from the above, and also from this: “the marvel is less that Columbus crossed the Atlantic, than that by his resolute importunity he secured the help of the court of Spain. His scheme was little understood; but in Spain religion is understood, and, by long cherishing, his belief in his mission had acquired the intensity and the elevation of a creed.”

I looked in vain for some reference to the Norse voyages. Maybe they had discovered us. After all, our William Munn, was convinced enough in 1914 to publish a map of their landing point here.

He calls his fellow 16th century Englishmen “little parochial people who ... suddenly found themselves, by virtue of their shipping, competitors for the dominion of the earth.” Yet W.R. also shows that it was Spain’s avaricious appetite that stirred the British, and even then, slowly, to exploit what they had so early set eyes upon.

Some 30 years before Gilbert’s venture, W.R. writes that there was talk in Britain that the country should take possession of the land stretching from Florida to Newfoundland. And what would they do with this coast once taken?

“We might inhabit some part of these countries and settle there such needy people of our country, which now trouble the commonwealth and through want here at home are forced to commit outrageous offences, whereby they are daily consumed with the gallows.”

Short years after the 16th century closed, Baltimore’s efforts at Ferryland and John Guy’s at Cupids were noteworthy as determined ventures. And they were not mounted to “decrease the surplus population.”

By the way, as a venture in the New World, the Newfoundland fisheries were an “also ran” according to Charles Gibson who wrote “Spain in America” (1966): “European nations, not at first daring to interfere in regions where Hispanic peoples were obviously in control, had confined their exploits to the margins of the New World, the Newfoundland fishing banks and the protected logging coasts of Brazil.”

Go online to see a portrait of an extremely thin, long-faced Prof. Walter Raleigh. The portrait is by Francis Dodd; Wikipedia, Walter Raleigh (professor), external links, portrait.


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:



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