The Search for Norumbega by Thomas Wentworth
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, colonel of the British forces in the Netherlands,
was poring over the manuscript narrative of David Ingram, mariner. Ingram
had in 1568-69 taken the widest range of travel that had ever been taken
in the new continent, of which it was still held doubtful by many whether
it was or was not a part of Asia. "Surely," Gilbert said to his
half-brother, Walter Raleigh, a youth of twenty-three, "this knave hath
seen strange things. He hath been set ashore by John Hawkins in the Gulf
of Mexico and there left behind. He hath travelled northward with two of
his companions along Indian trails; he hath even reached Norumbega; he
hath seen that famous city with its houses of crystal and silver."
"Pine logs and hemlock bark, belike," said Raleigh, scornfully.
"Nay," said Gilbert, "he hath carefully written it down. He saw kings
decorated with rubies six inches long; and they were borne on chairs of
silver and crystal, adorned with precious stones. He saw pearls as common
as pebbles, and the natives were laden down by their ornaments of gold and
silver. The city of Bega was three-quarters of a mile long and had many
streets wider than those of London. Some houses had massive pillars of
crystal and silver."
"What assurance can he give?" asked Raleigh.
"He offers on his life to prove it."
"A small offer, mayhap. There be many of these lying mariners whose lives
are as worthless as the stories they relate. But what said he of the
"Kindly disposed," was the reply, "so far as he went, but those dwelling
farther north, where he did not go, were said to be cannibals with teeth
like those of dogs, whereby you may know them."
"Travellers' tales," said Raleigh. "Omne ignotum pro mirifico."
"He returned," said Gilbert, disregarding the interruption, "in the
Gargarine, a French vessel commanded by Captain Champagne."
"Methinks something of the flavor represented by the good captain's name
hath got into your Englishman's brain. Good ale never gives such
fantasies. Doth he perchance speak of elephants?"
"He doth," said Sir Humphrey, hesitatingly. "Perchance he saw them not,
but heard of them only."
"What says he of them?" asked Raleigh.
"He says that he saw in that country both elephants and ounces; and he
says that their trumpets are made of elephants' teeth."
"But the houses," said Raleigh; "tell me of the houses."
"In every house," said Gilbert, reading from the manuscript, "they have
scoops, buckets, and divers vessels, all of massive silver with which they
throw out water and otherwise employ them. The women wear great plates of
gold covering their bodies, and chains of great pearls in the manner of
curvettes; and the men wear manilions or bracelets on each arm and each
leg, some of gold and some of silver."
"Whence come they, these gauds?"
"There are great rivers where one may find pieces of gold as big as the
fist; and there are great rocks of crystal, sufficient to load many ships."
This was all which was said on that day, but never was explorer more
eager than Gilbert. He wrote a "Discourse of a Discoverie for a New
Passage to Cathaia and the East Indies"—published without his knowledge
by George Gascoigne. In 1578 he had from Queen Elizabeth a patent of
exploration, allowing him to take possession of any uncolonized lands in
North America, paying for these a fifth of all gold and silver found. The
next year he sailed with Raleigh for Newfoundland, but one vessel was lost
and the others returned to England. In 1583, he sailed again, taking with
him the narrative of Ingram, which he reprinted. He also took with him a
learned Hungarian from Buda, named Parmenius, who went for the express
purpose of singing the praise of Norumbega in Latin verse, but was drowned
in Sir Humphrey's great flag-ship, the Delight. This wreck took
place near Sable Island, and as most of the supplies for the expedition
went down in the flag-ship, the men in the remaining vessels grew so
impatient as to compel a return. There were two vessels, the Golden
Hind of forty tons, and the Squirrel of ten tons, this last
being a mere boat then called a frigate, a small vessel propelled by both
sails and oars, quite unlike the war-ship afterwards called by that name.
On both these vessels the men were so distressed that they gathered on the
bulwarks, pointing to their empty mouths and their ragged clothing. The
officers of the Golden Hind were unwilling to return, but consented
on Sir Humphrey's promise that they should come back in the spring; they
sailed for England on the 31st of August. All wished him to return in the
Golden Hind as a much larger and safer vessel; the Squirrel,
besides its smallness, being encumbered on the deck with guns, ammunition,
and nettings, making it unseaworthy. But when he was begged to remove into
the larger vessel, he said, "I will not forsake my little company going
homeward with whom I have passed so many storms and perils." One reason
for this was, the narrator of the voyage says, because of "hard reports
given of him that he was afraid of the sea, albeit this was rather
rashness than advised resolution, to prefer the wind of a vain report to
the weight of his own life."
On the very day of sailing they caught their first glimpse of some large
species of seal or walrus, which is thus described by the old narrator of
"So vpon Saturday in the afternoone the 31 of August, we changed our
course, and returned backe for England, at which very instant, euen in
winding about, there passed along betweene vs and towards the land which
we now forsooke a very lion to our seeming, in shape, hair and colour, not
swimming after the maner of a beast by moouing of his feete, but rather
sliding vpon the water with his whole body (excepting the legs) in sight,
neither yet in diuing vnder, and againe rising aboue the water, as the
maner is, of Whales, Dolphins, Tunise, Porposes, and all other fish: but
confidently shewing himselfe aboue water without hiding: Notwithstanding,
we presented our selues in open view and gesture to amase him, as all
creatures will be commonly at a sudden gaze and sight of men. Thus he
passed along turning his head to and fro, yawning and gaping wide, with
ougly demonstration of long teeth, and glaring eies, and to bidde vs a
farewell (comming right against the Hinde) he sent forth a horrible voyce,
roaring or bellowing as doeth a lion, which spectacle wee all beheld so
farre as we were able to discerne the same, as men prone to wonder at
euery strange thing, as this doubtlesse was, to see a lion in the Ocean
sea, or fish in shape of a lion. What opinion others had thereof, and
chiefly the Generall himselfe, I forbeare to deliuer: But he tooke it for
Bonum Omen [a good omen], reioycing that he was to warre against such an
enemie, if it were the deuill."
When they came north of the Azores, very violent storms met them; most
"outrageous seas," the narrator says; and they saw little lights upon the
mainyard called then by sailors "Castor and Pollux," and now "St. Elmo's
Fire"; yet they had but one of these at a time, and this is thought a sign
of tempest. On September 9, in the afternoon, "the general," as they
called him, Sir Humphrey, was sitting abaft with a book in his hand, and
cried out more than once to those in the other vessel, "We are as near to
heaven by sea as by land." And that same night about twelve o'clock, the
frigate being ahead of the Golden Hind, the lights of the smaller
vessel suddenly disappeared, and they knew that she had sunk in the sea.
The event is well described in a ballad by Longfellow.
The name of Norumbega and the tradition of its glories survived Sir
Humphrey Gilbert. In a French map of 1543, the town appears with castle
and towers. Jean Allfonsce, who visited New England in that year,
describes it as the capital of a great fur country. Students of Indian
tongues defined the word as meaning "the place of a fine city"; while the
learned Grotius seized upon it as being the same as Norberga and so
affording a relic of the visits of the Northmen. As to the locality, it
appeared first on the maps as a large island, then as a smaller one, and
after 1569 no longer as an island, but a part of the mainland, bordering
apparently on the Penobscot River. Whittier in his poem of "Norumbega"
describes a Norman knight as seeking it in vain.
"He turned him back, 'O master dear,
We are but men misled;
And thou hast sought a city here
To find a grave instead.
* * * * *
"'No builded wonder of these lands
My weary eyes shall see;
A city never made with hands
Alone awaiteth me.'"
So Champlain, in 1604, could find no trace of it, and said that "no such
marvel existed," while Mark Lescarbot, the Parisian advocate, writing in
1609, says, "If this beautiful town ever existed in nature, I would like
to know who pulled it down, for there is nothing here but huts made of
pickets and covered with the barks of trees or skins." Yet it kept its
place on maps till 1640, and even Heylin in his "Cosmography" (1669)
speaks of "Norumbega and its fair city," though he fears that the latter
It is a curious fact that the late Mr. Justin Winsor, the eminent
historian, after much inquiry among the present descendants of the Indian
tribes in Maine, could never find any one who could remember to have heard
the name of Norumbega.
The narrative of Champlain's effort to find Norumbega in 1632 may be
found in Otis's "Voyages of Champlain" (II. p. 38), and there is another
version in the Magazine of American History (I. p. 321). The whole
legend of the city is well analyzed in the same magazine (I. p. 14) by Dr.
De Costa under the title "The Lost City of New England." In another volume
he recurs to the subject (IX. p. 168), and gives (IX. p. 200) a printed
copy of David Ingram's narrative, from the original in the Bodleian
Library. He also discusses the subject in Winsor's "Narrative and Critical
History" (IV. p. 77, etc.), where he points out that "the insular
character of the Norumbega region is not purely imaginary, but is based on
the fact that the Penobscot region affords a continued watercourse to the
St. Lawrence, which was travelled by the Maine Indians." Ramusio's map of
1559 represents "Nurumbega" as a large island, well defined (Winsor, IV.
p. 91); and so does that of Ruscelli (Winsor, IV. p. 92), the latter
spelling it "Nurumberg." Some geographers supposed it to extend as far as
Florida. The name was also given to a river (probably the Penobscot) and
to a cape. The following is Longfellow's poem on the voyage of Sir
SIR HUMPHREY GILBERT
Southward with fleet of ice
Sailed the corsair Death;
Wild and fast blew the blast,
And the east-wind was his breath.
His lordly ships of ice
Glisten in the sun;
On each side, like pennons wide,
Flashing crystal streamlets run.
His sails of white sea-mist
Dripped with silver rain;
But where he passed there were cast
Leaden shadows o'er the main.
Eastward from Campobello
Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed;
Three days or more seaward he bore,
Then, alas! the land-wind failed.
Alas! the land-wind failed,
And ice-cold grew the night;
And nevermore, on sea or shore,
Should Sir Humphrey see the light.
He sat upon the deck,
The Book was in his hand;
"Do not fear! Heaven is as near,"
He said, "by water as by land!"
In the first watch of the night,
Without a signal's sound,
Out of the sea, mysteriously,
The fleet of Death rose all around.
The moon and the evening star
Were hanging in the shrouds;
Every mast, as it passed,
Seemed to rake the passing clouds.
They grappled with their prize,
At midnight black and cold!
As of a rock was the shock;
Heavily the ground-swell rolled.
Southward through day and dark,
They drift in close embrace,
With mist and rain, o'er the open main;
Yet there seems no change of place.
Southward, forever southward,
They drift through dark and day;
And like a dream, in the Gulf-Stream
Sinking, vanish all away.