Newfoundland, Britain’s oldest colony, now Canada’s tenth province, was officially claimed for Britain by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who sailed into St. John’s Harbor on August 3, 1583. Two days later, on the spot where Newfoundland’s war memorial now stands, he planted the cross of St. George.
Newfoundland was discovered long before, probably by Norsemen, Icelanders and adventurers from Ireland. There are no definite dates for their landings, however, so John Cabot usually receives the credit. He sighted Newfoundland in 1497 and shouted “Bona Vista,” which is how Cape Bonavista got its name. Cabot was given £10 by King Henry VII for his discovery.
Cabot reported that, a few days before sighting Newfoundland, he sailed over waters where codfish were so thick that a boat could hardly be rowed through them! Soon fishermen from Europe were in the area, catching cod by the ton and drying them on the shore. Britain decided to claim the new land and sent out Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578. One of Gilbert’s two ships was attacked and sunk by Spaniards, so he returned to Britain.
Sir Humphrey then sold half of his estates, and fitted out five ships with 250 men, including carpenters, blacksmiths, masons and musicians! One of the ships deserted for the more profitable trade of piracy, but the others arrived at St. John’s on August 3, 1583.
The ceremony claiming Newfoundland for Britain was attended by all the inhabitants. Sir Humphrey wore leather top boots, velvet surtout (cloak) with a lace collar about his neck, and a breastplate of armour. He proclaimed the Church of England as the official church of Newfoundland. Any man who spoke disrespectfully of the Queen would lose his goods, and his ears! A piece of turf with a twig was presented to Sir Humphrey as a sign that “The Newfoundlande” was now British.
Sir Humphrey was lost about a month later when his fleet was caught in a storm. The last that was seen of him was when he was reading the Bible on the lurching deck of the Squirrel, to which he had transferred. He shouted, “Cheer up, Boys, we’re as near to Heaven by sea as on land!” The Squirrel went down in the storm, while the Golden Hind managed to return to Britain.
If you want to learn more about today’s post, I suggest visiting Nobles and Courtiers.org, and Callaway Family Association Blog, and then the History Discussion Forum / User Coeur De Lion. All good places to start!