The Tudor guide to colonising the world

Cannibalism, plunder, starvation and murder - they all appear in an epic Tudor account of English voyages of discovery, compiled by a man who rarely left the country. Here, Claire Jowitt hails one of history's greatest travel books

An illustration showing the last moments of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the explorer, soldier and half-brother of Sir Walter Ralegh. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Sir Humphrey Gilbert was hailed a hero – not so much for the way he lived, but the way he died. In June 1583, the explorer, soldier and half-brother of Sir Walter Ralegh led a fleet of five ships from Plymouth to explore and colonise North America under the terms of a Letters Patent granted by Elizabeth I in 1578. Unfortunately, it was to be his last adventure, for on 9 September 1583 poor Gilbert drowned when his ship, the Squirrel, was lost on the return leg from Newfoundland.

According to the eyewitness report of Edward Hayes, captain of the Golden Hind, when Gilbert’s fleet encountered a violent storm near the Azores, he refused to abandon his small pinnace and transfer to the relative safety of Hayes’s ship. Gilbert was last seen on deck reading a book – probably either More’s Utopia or Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. His final words, which Hayes claimed to hear, were: “We are as neare to heaven, by sea as by land.”

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