The Great Claim Jumper

JOHN BULL is the greatest claim jumper in history. After Spain had discovered the New World, she staked out for herself the whole western hemisphere, with the exception of Brazil, which fell to Portugal. France entered a counter claim to Canada, and then England wedged in between the Spanish and French claimants. The English-speaking people kept on wedging until they crowded France off the continent and pushed the Spanish back behind the Rio Grande.

England contributed nothing to the discovery of America and almost nothing to the exploration of its coast. Her only title she derived from a voyage made five years after Colombus' discovery, when John Cabot, or Giovanni Cabotto, a Genoese like Columbus, sailed from Bristol, with only 18 men on an English boat of 40 tons. Cabot returned in a few months with a vague report of having landed somewhere between Halifax and Hudson Strait, where he saw snares for game and needles for making of fish nets, but did not see any of the people who had devised them. After receiving the meagre reward of 10 pounds from King Henry VII—and, that $50 is all that England ever paid for her claim to North America—the voyager put off again into the stormy Atlantic and disappeared below the horizon of history.

Through the 80 years that followed, crowded with explorations all around the earth, no other English explorer ventured forth, and England added not a line to the fast-evolving map of the globe. The only ships from her ports that sailed to the west in that age of discovery went to catch codfish or for the less honest purpose of peddling negroes in the West Indies and plundering the Spanish plunderers of Mexico and Peru.

For having been the first slave-catcher to pollute the virgin hemisphere with African slavery, John Hawkins was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. For having rounded Cape Horn, sailed up the California coast and returned with millions of Spanish loot—gold dust, silver ingots, pearls, emeralds and diamonds—Francis Drake was knighted by Elizabeth on the deck of his ship, and she stuck in her royal crown the stolen jewels that he gave her.

Plainly that was not an age that knew the moralities of this day. It behooves us to judge not that we be not judged according to the moralities of a coming day. Even highway robbery was not an ungentlemanly adventure in a time when Lord Chief Justice Popham, while yet a law student of the Middle Temple in London, delighted to test his youthful sporting blood and increase his pocket money by donning mask and pistols in the evening and taking purses on Hounslow Heath.

All that was before the Puritan had sternly risen up to insist on linking religious piety with social morality. No Christians more sincerely pious ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat than Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake, that one-time vicar of a parish and chaplain in the navy.

Moreover, Spain having fenced it off as her property alone, any Englishman who sailed the Atlantic Ocean was a pirate in the eyes of the Spanish. In the eyes of the English, on the contrary, he was a patriot hero and a defender of the true faith. For England dared not yet measure strength with Spain in open war. She was still, when Elizabeth came to the throne, only a third-rate country, with not a foot of earth outside the British Isles. Even there she had not yet added Scotland to her crown or subdued Ireland. John Bull is a Winter apple, which outlasts the varieties that ripen more quickly.

Notwithstanding the popular notion today that the brine is in their blood, the British really were not a seafaring people, until the daring voyages of Hawkins and Drake and of the lesser buccaneers widened the horizon of this fog-bound, insular race. The ancient Britons did not go out in boats but rode into the waves on horseback to challenge Caesar's conquering galleys. The Angles, the Saxons, the Danes and the Normans, in turn, found the harbors of England open and undefended, and their invasions were resisted only on land, when it was too late.

After Elizabeth, with feline agility, had been for 30 years twisting and turning her policy to avoid an open break with the Spanish King, Spain challenged her with the Grand Armada. The manly Queen had no navy that amounted to anything, and she was forced mainly to rely for her defense on a scratch fleet of volunteer merchantmen and whatnot. It was a motley array of tubs that stood off the Spanish until "the Lord sent his wind and scattered them," as Elizabeth inscribed on the medals that commemorated the great victory.

The sea power of Spain was shattered beyond recovery, and the trident fell from her hands. At last, the shores of the New World lay really open to England.

Thomas More had dreamed of a Utopia across the sea, a dream that remains Utopian. England herself was busily evolving into the first free modern State in those years, while the Spanish and the French were taking their pick in the grab bag of a new world. All unaware the English were nurturing the political and social institutions and individual liberties best suited to thrive in the virgin soil of America, where the still medieval system of Spain and France could not take root and would wither away.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 13, 1927, p. 18