British Explorers: The 16th Century

The sixteenth century may justly be called the century of discovery. The bold push of Columbus across the ocean to America and of Vasco da Gama around Africa to the East Indies broke the chains of timidity with which the world had hitherto been bound. They were followed by a succession of daring and reckless navigators, who quickly made the world their home, and sought new lands with an avidity and enthusiasm with which the thirst for fame and the spirit of adventure had as much to do as the love of gold. The English were somewhat late in following the lead of the Spanish, Portuguese, and French discoverers, but prosecuted their researches with vigor after they had once commenced. One of their adventurers, Sir John Hawkins, engaged in the slave-trade, which had been early instituted by the Spaniards, and carried cargoes of negroes to the West Indies in 1562 and 1564. In 1567 he was in the Gulf of Mexico, in conflict with the Spaniards at San Juan de Ulloa, in which expedition he was accompanied by the celebrated Sir Francis Drake. In 1570, Drake started on a privateering excursion against the Spaniards, and for years he did them immense damage. In 1573 he crossed the Isthmus and attacked the Spanish settlements on the Pacific shores. In 1577 he sailed southward along the Brazilian coast, entered the Rio de la Plata (which had been discovered in 1526 by Sebastian Cabot), and passed through the Straits of Magellan. Thence he followed the coasts of Chili and Peru, attacking the Spanish ships and settlements as he advanced, and explored the shores of western America as far north as 48 deg N. lat., in the hope of discovering a passage to the Atlantic. He returned home by way of the Cape of Good Hope, accomplishing the first circumnavigation of the globe by an Englishman. Attempts were made in the same period to discover a northwestern passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific by Willoughby and Chancellor, Frobisher, Henry Hudson, and others.

JOINT-STOCK companies for the discovery of unknown lands were first formed in 1555. The marriage of Mary with Philip of Spain brought the magnificent discoveries and productions of that country into a closer proximity with England, and a desire to emulate the successes of Spain in the New World was excited.

The spirit of Elizabeth seconded that of her people. The nation had now assumed a more determined and a prouder front in their resentment of the attempt of Spain to render them an appendage to the Spanish crown, and by the successful struggle of Protestantism against Catholicism. England strengthened her navy; frequented the bays and banks of Newfoundland; sent out adventurers to Russia and Africa; endeavored to reach Persia by land, and enlarged her commerce with the East, whilst her privateers lay in wait at sea for the rich galleons of Spain. The study of geography was universally cultivated, and books of travels and adventures by land and sea were eagerly read. Frobisher, the boldest mariner who ever crossed the ocean, set forth to discover the long-sought-for northwest passage, and Queen Elizabeth waved her hand to him in token of favor, as he sailed down the Thames. Frobisher, like all the rest of the world, hoped to find gold. If the Spaniards had found gold in the south, England was confident of finding gold in the north. Elizabeth entered enthusiastically into the scheme of planting a colony among the wealthy mines of the polar regions, where gold, it was said, lay on the surface of the ground.

Whilst Frobisher and his ships were thus vainly endeavoring to find an E1 Dorado in the north, Sir Francis Drake was acquiring immense wealth as a freebooter on the Spanish main, and winning great glory by circumnavigating the globe, after having explored the northwestern coast of America as far north as the forty-third degree. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, also, a man of sound judgment and deeply religious mind, obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1578 for the more rational purposes of colonization. He set sail with three vessels, accompanied by his step-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh; but a series of disasters befell them; the largest vessel was wrecked, and a hundred perished, among whom was Parmenius, a Hungarian scholar, who had gone out as historian of the expedition. On the homeward voyage they were overtaken by a great storm. "We are as near to heaven on sea as on land," said Sir Humphrey Gilbert, sitting abaft with a book in his hand. And the same night his little vessel went down, and all on board perished.

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