Better known as the second Englishman to lead an expedition around the world, Thomas Cavendish also played an important role in the expeditions know as the Roanoke Voyages. In 1585 he participated with Sir Richard Grenville in planting the Ralph Lane colony by bringing his ship Elizabeth to the area now known as North Carolina.
Born at Grimston Hall near the port of Harwich in Suffolk, England, circa 1555, Cavendish, like many others of his generation and class, turned to piracy in order to make his fortune. His first recorded adventure was the 1585 voyage to Roanoke Island. In addition to Cavendish's Elizabeth (50 tuns), Grenville and Lane sailed with Tyger (160 tuns), Roebuck (140 tuns), Lyon (100 tuns) and two smaller pinnaces. They departed from Plymouth on 9 April 1585 and planned for the fleet to sail together to the West Indies via the Canary Islands; however, in bad weather off the coast of Portugal, one of the pinnaces sank and the other ships separated. In his ship Tyger, Grenville sailed on alone to the rendezvous point off Puerto Rico where he constructed a fortification and built a new pinnace.
Cavendish and Elizabeth, last seen a month earlier and 3000 miles away, joined them there. Here Cavendish also participated in the capture of Spanish ships, an activity that held greater interest for him than colonization did. The English did continue their voyage and on 26 June 1585 they arrive at Wococon Inlet (somewhere near today's Ocracoke Inlet) on the Outer Banks. Three days later Tyger ran aground with the loss of most of the supplies that it carried. This loss contributed greatly to the eventual failure of the colony.
Among the men on the expedition were John White, the artist whose paintings would soon portray the area, and Thomas Harriot, the brilliant scientist whose written accounts later excited Englishmen. Cavendish joined Grenville, White, Harriot, and others in exploring the area. They visited the Indian villages of Secotan and Pomeiooc, both painted by John White, and Aquascogoc, burned in a dispute over a missing silver cup. Cavendish participated both in the gathering of valuable information and in an event which led to lasting problems with the Native Americans and to the eventual abandonment of the colony.
Although the records are not clear, Cavendish probably sailed with Grenville on 25 August 1585 and arrived in Plymouth on 18 September. Cavendish did not return to Roanoke Island the next year and had no more involvement with the Roanoke voyages. Instead he immediately began preparations for an expedition to circumnavigate the globe as Sir Thomas Cavendish had done eight years earlier. On 10 June 1586 with three ships - Desire (140 tuns), Content (60 tuns) and Hugh Gallant (40 tuns) -- Cavendish and a total of 123 men sailed from London. After a brief stop at his home port of Harwich they made a final call at Plymouth, from which they sailed on 21 July. Five days later, off Cape Finisterre they were involved in a minor skirmish with five Biscayne ships. Sailing past the Canary Islands they reach Sierre Leone on 21 August. While there Cavendish captured a Portugese ship and attempted to burn a native village. In September he departed for Brazil, where he took on water and built a pinnace. On the way to the Straits of Magellan he discovered, and spent Christmas at, Port Desire. On 6 January 1587, he began the difficult passage through the Straits of Magellan and finally reached the Pacific Ocean on 24 February. Sailing up the coast of Chile he captured several Spanish ships. He also repaired two of his own ships, Desire and Content, and burned Hugh Gallant because he lacked the men to sail her. In one attack on the Spanish, he learned of a prize, the 700 tun Great St. Anna, on its way from the Philippines. He cruised the coast until she arrive on 14 November, and after a six hour battle, he captured her. In the booty were 22,000 pesos and 600 tuns of merchandise. Able to add only 40 tuns of the latter to his already heavily laden ships, Cavendish burned the prize and the loot that he could not take with him. He then sailed to the Philippines where he arrived on 15 January 1588. After two months in the Philippines and Indonesia he set sail for Africa on 11 March 1588. He arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on 19 March, at St. Helena on 8 June, and finally reached the coast of England on 3 September 1588. There he learned of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada. His voyage ended in Plymouth on 10 September 1588.
Cavendish was now rich and famous. His voyage was celebrated in several ballads, and the record of his voyage is included both on Molyneux's globe and on maps of the period. Unfortunately Cavendish soon squandered the fortune he made on the voyage. In an attempt to regain his wealth he planned a second voyage around the world. He had outlived his greatness however, and the venture was to be a disaster. Departing from Plymouth in August 1591 he reached Brazil in November. Separated from the rest of is fleet by bad weather in January, Cavendish did not see it again until he reached Port Desire on 18 March 1592. The fleet then sailed on to the Straits of Magellan where the ships encountered furious storms and remained anchored near Cape Froward until mid-May. Winter in the Southern Hemisphere was now upon them and Cavendish was unnerved by all that he and his men had suffered. Against the advice of Captain John Davys, he turned back and attempted to return to Brazil. Later, he changed course and became separated from the other ships. Cavendish died a few days later, accusing Davys of deserting him. Davys, however, was waiting at the arranged rendezvous place. After three more unsuccessful attempts to sail through the Straits, Davys returned to England. He arrived in Ireland on 11 June 1593, over a year after Cavendish died. Only fifteen of seventy-six crewmen survived the voyage.
Text by John D. Neville, Chairman, North Carolina 400th Anniversary Committee
Last updated: April 14, 2015