The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. The Literature of the Sea

§ 7. Sir Humphrey Gilbert

The project of passing by the north-west to Cathay and the Spice islands had long inspired Sir Humphrey Gilbert. His Discourse of a Discoverie for a new passage to Cataia was issued in April, 1576, in a black letter tract of great rarity, written some seven years before. In a prefatory note, it is introduced to the reader by George Gascoigne, a friend of the author, who tells us that a worshipful knight, Sir Humphrey’s brother, was “abashed at this enterprise,” because he had no heir but the author, and that to him the enterprise seemed “unpossible unto common capacities.” The brother, therefore, misliked Sir Humphrey’s resolution, and sought to dissuade him, and it was in order to overcome his objections that this Discourse was prepared. Gascoigne, being on a visit to Gilbert at his dwelling at Limehouse, had a sight of the Discourse. Being a short essay, and Martin Frobisher (whom he calls “Fourboyser, a kinsman of mine”) having engaged in the same enterprise, it seemed to him that it would be useful to make public the tract. He compared it with the tables of Ortelius and sundry other cosmographical maps and charts, and said it was approved by the learned Dr. Dee, whose house at Mortlake was the seat of astronomical and nautical knowledge. In this remarkable letter, Gilbert tells his brother that he might have charged him with an unsettled head if he had taken in hand the discovery of Utopia, but Cataia was no country of the imagination, and the passage thereto by sea on the north side of Labrador had been mentioned and proved by the most expert and best learned amongst modern geographers. To Gilbert, the continent of America was an island representing the Atlantis of Plato and of other writers of antiquity. If Atlantis were an island, the cataclysm in which it had been partly overwhelmed, would, said Gilbert, make more practicable the navigation of its northern coasts. He was confirmed in his opinion by Gemma Frisius, Münster, Regiomontanus, Peter Martyr, Ortelius and other modern geographers, as well as by the experience of certain navigators, including Othere in king Alfred’s time and others more recent.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s tract remains amongst the most notable literary contributions to the subject of exploration which preceded the publication of the monumental work of Hakluyt. At the conclusion of his discourse, he writes: “He is not worthy to live at all who, for fear of danger or death, shunneth his country’s service or his own honour, since death is inevitable and the fame of virtue immortal.” This discourse has the true ring of a scholarly and patriotic Englishman, and there is much freshness in its persuasive earnestness.

This great Englishman made his first voyage of discovery to North America, with his half-brother, Sir Walter Ralegh, in his company, in 1578. Hakluyt has preserved a narrative of Gilbert’s last enterprise, in 1583, in which he perished; and there are few more striking pictures in English narrative literature than that of the old seaman, on the September afternoon upon which his vessel, the “Squirrel,” was overwhelmed, sitting abaft on his quarter-deck with a book in his hand, hailing the men in the “Golden Hind,” which was following in the wake, whenever she came within hailing distance, with the old seaman’s phrase, uttered, says the narrator, with signs of joy, “We are as near to heaven by sea as by land.” These were the last words of this good Englishman before he went down. A speech, says the narrator, “well beseeming a soldier resolute in Jesus Christ, as I can testify he was.”