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Newfoundland - Introduction

Sir Humphrey Gilbert reading his commission

Newfoundland is not usually a place that we think of anymore when we think about English colonies, but Sir Humphrey Gilbert received the first patent from Queen Elizabeth in 1578, and Robert A. Williams, Jr., calls his project "the first Protestant crusade to America" (The American Indian in Western Legal Thought 151-72). Furthermore, major documents framing his unsuccessful colony -- Gilbert drowned on the return trip to England in 1583 -- constitute the substantial foundation of England's literature of justification.

Works by Gilbert himself, both Richard Hakluyts, and Christopher Carleill show that even before Gilbert formally took possession of Newfoundland in a "feudally derived ceremony" (Williams 163), "the Elizabethans had already mobilized a colonizing discourse to accompany England's will to empire in the New World."  The cluster of ideas including economic benefit, national leadership, relief from overcrowding, and receptive Indians articulated by these men became "staples of English colonial promotional literature" (162).

Moreover, Gilbert associates Edward Hayes and Sir George Peckham saw to it that the momentum for rationalizing colonization continued beyond the tragedy of lost leadership.  Hayes "appropriated and economized early Puritanism's 'planting' metaphor and applied it to America: planting colonies of English farmers in America meant planting the seeds of civility and Christian religion."  Hayes saw conquest through divinely ordained covenant, as predestined reality (164-65).  Peckham incorporated the Law of Nations rhetoric of Franciscus de Victoria (Vittoria) "recognizing the right of Christian Europeans to invade infidel territories for violations of natural law" (166): "He explained the benefits of Christianity and civilization offered to the savages of America by English conquest, and demonstrated that it would be irrational for the Indians to refuse the bargain" (172).

The ideological contribution of Newfoundland to the evolving literature of justification, then, far outweighs the historical significance of the short-lived colony.

Wes Atkinson initiated this chapter of our project in spring 2004.  We hope that other students and faculty, even beyond Lehigh University, will further his work, so we welcome suggestions, corrections, questions, and, especially, appropriate contributions of all types from bibliographical entries through full essays.

Contact Professor Edward J. Gallagher, Department of English, Lehigh University via e-mail at