The hero of this hour ought to be David Ingram. But let me start with the begetter of that map (and a chance for rude raspberries all round) …
(Sir) Humphrey Gilbert
After Eton and Oxford, Humph was at a loose-end. Fortunately his aunt was Katherine ‘Kat’ Ashley, the Princess Elizabeth’s governess at Hatfield. The family connection brought Gilbert into the household. That would be around 1554-5. In 1558 the Princess Elizabeth ascended the throne, and Kat Ashby became First Lady of the Bedchamber. Gilbert was again twiddling his fingers, so did what every idling toff does, and buzzed off to the Inns of Court to become a lawyer.
That achieved, Gilbert took to a bit of soldiering, with the Newhaven expedition (1562-3), to assist the Huguenots of France. He received a good reference from the commanding officer, the earl of Warwick.
More significantly, in 1562 Gilbert was at Le Havre with:
- Richard Eden (translator of several Spanish writings on naval voyages) and
- Thomas ‘the Lusty’ Stukley (a double-, if not triple-agent, who had served in France, and had come up with a plan to plant Florida).
- Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon (who had plans to export Huguenots to Brazil),
- those inspired by Jacques Cartier (the French explorer of the St Lawrence river) aiming for French settlements in Canada, and
- Jean Ribault (the main agent in attempting a French settlement in Florida).
The Irish business
A bit of ‘time out’ is necessary here.
Once O’Neill had been assassinated, Gilbert put his mind to plantations, particularly a plan with Sir Warham St Leger to settle Munster. Gilbert then found himself colonel, and military governor of Munster, suppressing the rising of James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald. This is where Gilbert earns his rightful place in the recital of MOPEry. Thomas Churchyard’s A general rehearsall of warres recorded, approvingly, Gilbert’s way of winning hearts and minds:
His manner was that the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies, and brought to the place where he encamped at night, and should there be laid on the ground, by each side of the way leading to his own tent, so that none could come unto his tent for any cause, but commonly he must pass through a lane of heads, which he used ad terrorem, the dead feeling nothing the more pains thereby, and yet did it bring great terror to the people, when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they came to speak with the said colonel.
The Lord Deputy knighted Gilbert for that service. A beneficial marriage to a landed Kentish heiress, Anne Ager, or Aucher ensued.
Allow me to get back on track, by leaping a few years.
By 1577-78 Gilbert was using his Court friends to launch schemes to annoy the King of Spayne. He aimed to destroy the Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets working the Newfoundland Banks, and he received Letters Patent to search out and possess remote heathen and barbarous landes.
His first attempt, setting out in November 1578 came adrift. He fell out with his co-mate, Henry Knollys (another dodgy bloke), who promptly tried to get advantage. The result was Gilbert back in port with a bedraggled expedition within months. Gilbert was then instructed to use his ships to patrol the Munster coast: he ‘forgot’ to pay his sailors, who upped-and-offed with two of his vessels, making another hole in Anne Ager’s marriage portion.
By late 1582 Gilbert had put together a speculative proposition for a second effort. On 11 June 1583 his five ships (one of which was The Golden Hind) left Plymouth, Gilbert waved his Letters Patent at the Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets, and reached St John’s on 3 August. Gilbert then claimed the harbour and two hundred leagues in all directions for Queen Elizabeth.
Three weeks later Gilbert with three ships headed south (there is some evidence that Gilbert had always set his eyes on the Caribbean). One of his ships was wrecked, and the remaining two crews had had enough, and decided to return home. On 9 September Gilbert was caught in an Atlantic storm, and was lost at sea. End of that story.
The amazing Ingram
The above account, however rudimentary, suggests several attractions for the Newfoundland venture:
- English settlements in the New World were a fashionable topic in Elizabethan England. The all-purpose Dr John Dee was a particular propagandist;
- the Newfoundland Banks, and the cod, were a very promising resource;
- it was off the beaten track for the Spanish, so less chance of small English ships being caught by a massive Hispanic galleon (see below for that eventuality);
- the French were already on the spot, and poking a rough stick at that lot was ever good english practice;
- St John’s (latitude 47°33′) is close to a rhumb line from the west of Britain (Bristol is 51°45′). Until John Harrison had his chronometers working (and that’s two centuries after Gilbert & co.), longitude was problematic.
There was one more factor, which brings me back to the extraordinary story of Barking-boy David Ingram. Were his traveller’s tale not verified by others, this could be another wild fantasy. There’s a far more detailed essay, by Charlton Ogburn, here.
Ingram had been with John Hawkins and Francis Drake in scourging the Spanish trade in the Caribbean. Hawkins took his six vessels to revictual at San Juan de Ulúa (think Veracruz). Alas! The annual flotilla, thirteen great ships, dropped in soon after, with the new Viceroy of Mexico, Don Martín Enríquez de Almanza, on board. Despite initial negotiations, Martín suddenly broke any agreement, and a one-sided battle ensued. Only two of Hawkins’s ships escaped.
Heavily overburdened, Hawkins unloaded the excess ‘self-loading freight’ on the Texas coast. This group aimed to head north. Ingram and two companions, named as Brown and Twyde, apparently hiked all the way to Cape Breton. Which, if true, would be the earliest exploration of the Atlantic coast.
That’s all in 1568. Only in 1582 was Ingram was interrogated by Sir Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth’s ‘M’) and Sir George Peckham (that’s the Gilbert link). Much of Ingram’s story, which was published in 1583, stretches the imagination, and Ogburn’s essay treats it as Walsingham’s propaganda. John Toohey for The Public Domain Review was able to find parallels, and is far more positive than the sceptical Ogburn. Hakluyt included Ingam’s tale in his first edition (1589), but not the second (1598) — which might be taken as dismissive.
I’ll stake a claim to David Ingram as ‘Impossible Journey #1’.
I welcome others to suggest stories that beat it. But I have a couple already in mind.