Monday, September 14, 2015

Reader's Diary #1193- James Baldwin: Sir Humphrey Gilbert


If you went through the Newfoundland school system, chances are you know who Sir Humphrey Gilbert is. Basically he was was an early British explorer and colonialist who claimed Newfoundland for England in the late 1500s. He was also known for his famous last words, "We are as near to Heaven by sea as by land!" which some of you may recall from Kevin Major's Newfoundland history book, As Near to Heaven By Sea. I stumbled upon "Sir Humphrey Gilbert" the story last week while searching Project Gutenberg.

Written by an American educator named James Baldwin in the 1800s, who liked to retell classical stories and stories about famous people, "Sir Humphrey Gilbert" comes from one of his collections. It also shows its age. In an effort to impress upon his readers the bravery of Gilbert to exploring North America in those days, Baldwin references the "wild Indians." Oh boy. He also claims that there were no white people in the land at the time, suggesting that Humphrey was the first. Also not true.

So, fine, we take it as a racist piece of historical fiction. It's flash fiction, at least, so it's over quickly, but if that's the best I can say, it doesn't bode well. I guess if it was written for children, it may have made for a quick bit of excitement and Gilbert, especially with his death, comes across as brave and a bit crazy, so perhaps compelling enough to have enticed kids to want to learn more. But his quote is paraphrased into a more awkward form of the one referenced above, so more points have to be taken off for that.


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