A Short History Of The English People "We Are As Near To Heaven By Sea As By Land"

"We Are As Near To Heaven By Sea As By Land"

Context: Sir Humphrey Gilbert, stepbrother of Sir Walter Raleigh, was one of the many Elizabethan navigators, explorers, and soldiers who added luster to that period of history. He was educated at Eton and Oxford and was intended for the law, but adopted a military career instead. He served with distinction in Ireland and in France, and was knighted in 1570. As early as 1566 he and Anthony Jenkinson had petitioned Queen Elizabeth for a voyage to discover the Northeast Passage, and again the same year for a similar effort to locate the Northwest Passage; the latter petition was in his own name. After a year as a member of Parliament in 1571 he campaigned in the Netherlands; following this episode, he wrote a book on the desirability of a search for the Northwest. The work was widely circulated and encouraged a number of other adventurers. His charter was granted in 1578, authorizing him to discover new lands and occupy them. His first expedition, undertaken that year, was unsuccessful. In 1583 he set out again with a small fleet, arriving at Newfoundland in August. Here, at St. John's harbor, he established the first British colony in North America. He lost the largest of his ships near Cape Breton, and his party set out for England in the two remaining vessels. Gilbert was in the smaller of the two, the Squirrel. A tempest was encountered off the Azores; the Squirrel nearly foundered but recovered herself; and Gilbert, a book in one hand, called across to the Golden Hind that they were as close to heaven by sea as by land. That night the Squirrel's lights were seen to go out suddenly, and the crew of the Golden Hind knew she had been swallowed by the sea. In his Short History of the English People, Green recounts the great struggle between Puritanism and the government of England, which resulted in the stern despotism of James I and the Puritan migration to New England. He then summarizes British activities in the New World prior to 1620:

. . . England had reached the mainland even earlier than Spain, for before Columbus touched its shores Sebastian Cabot, a seaman of Genoese blood born and bred in England, sailed with an English crew from Bristol in 1497, and pushed along the coast of America to the south as far as Florida, and northward as high as Hudson's Bay. But no Englishman followed on the track of this bold adventurer; and while Spain built up her empire in the New World, the English seamen reaped a humbler harvest in the fisheries of Newfoundland. It was not till the reign of Elizabeth that the thoughts of Englishmen turned again to the New World. The dream of finding a passage to Asia by a voyage round the northern coast of the American continent drew a west-country seaman, Martin Frobisher, to the coast of Labrador, and the news which he brought back of the existence of gold mines there set adventurers cruising among the icebergs of Baffin's Bay. Luckily the quest for gold proved a vain one; and the nobler spirits among those who had engaged in it turned to plans of colonization. But the country, vexed by long winters and thinly peopled by warlike tribes of Indians, gave a rough welcome to the earlier colonists. After a fruitless attempt to form a settlement, Sir Humphry Gilbert, one of the noblest spirits of his time, turned homewards again, to find his fate in the stormy seas. "We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land," were the famous words he was heard to utter, ere the light of his little bark was lost for ever in the darkness of the night. . . .