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Not the stuff of a tourism brochure


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath


Unless one had stowed away in a Viking longboat or was in company with St. Brendan and his band of Irish monks, it is safe to say that Stephan Parmenius was the first Hungarian to set foot in Newfoundland. Parmenius was born Istvan Paizsos at some point after 1541 in the pashalik of Buda, in the Turkish-controlled part of eastern Europe that forms the modern day country of Hungary. Buda is one half of the city that forms the Hungarian capital, the other half being the city of Pest on the opposite side of the River Danube.
It is most likely that he was born between 1555 and 1560, as he left Buda in 1579 to attend university in northern Europe, and, in all probability, would have been in his early twenties at that time.
His parents, although their names are unknown, are believed to have been Protestant Calvinists, as Stephan had very strong Calvinist views, which are quite evident in his writings. The Calvinists were well-established in that area, even though it was under the control of the Turks, who were Muslims.
Finishing school
It was common in the 16th century for students from Hungary to travel and finish their education in universities in western Europe. For Protestants, that usually meant Germany or England. There is a record of Parmenius being at Heidelberg University, in Germany, in 1579.
He did not remain in Heidelberg long, as he had arrived in England certainly by 1581 and possibly earlier. He settled at Oxford University. Although there is no record of him having enrolled there as a student, he did share lodgings at Christ Church College with Richard Hakluyt, later renowned for his cartographic research and writings on the early voyages of exploration to the New World.
Parmenius also developed a firm friendship with Henry Unton, a young Englishman of about the same age. They might have met some years earlier on the continent, as Parmenius appears to be fast friends with both Henry and his family in 1582.
Hakluyt and Unton were both friends of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, an English adventurer who had received letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I in 1578 to establish an English colony in the new found land. A preliminary colonization venture in 1579 met with failure.
A second was planned for 1583. Either or both men may have introduced Parmenius to Gilbert.
Hakluyt was employed by Gilbert to research previous voyages to the New World, including the Cabots, the Zeno brothers and Verrazzano. The result was a book - titled Divers voyages touching the discoverie of America - published in 1582. It was both a justification of Gilbert's proposed colonization attempt and welcome publicity, as any such colonies would need settlers.
While Hakluyt was at work on Divers Voyages, Parmenius was also busy writing. In 1582, he published two works. The first was a Latin hymn of thanksgiving entitled Paean. It was addressed to Unton, "famous for his noble ancestry, personal qualities and wide learning."
The second work was also composed in Latin: De Navigatione, an embarkation poem "for the voyage projected by the celebrated and noble Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Golden Knight, to take a colony to the New World."
Parmenius was so taken with Gilbert and his proposed adventure that he signed on as recorder for the expedition.
Gilbert's armada, consisting of five ships, left Plymouth, England, on June 11, 1583 and headed west. Parmenius was aboard the Swallow. They arrived in St. John's harbour on Aug. 3; two days later, Gilbert proclaimed the area, presumably the whole island of Newfoundland, as a part of the realm of Queen Elizabeth, thereby making it the first official English colony in the New World.
An ill-fated end
After 17 days in St. John's, Parmenius left aboard the ship Delight for points west. The ship ran aground on the shoals of Sable Island on Aug. 29 and Parmenius was one of the crew members who drowned.
He did begin a poetic account of the voyage but that was lost with him. Gilbert was also lost, when his ship, the Squirrel, was destroyed in a storm.
One of Gilbert's ships, the Golden Hind, did make it back to England. The captain of the ship, Edward Hayes, was entrusted with a letter written by Parmenius at St. John's on Aug. 6.

It was addressed to his friend, Hakluyt. It gives a brief account of the voyage across the ocean and of the first three days spent in Newfoundland.
While he was discouraged "when I see nothing but desolation," Parmenius does provide a picture of relative prosperity for those who might take the chance. "There are inexhaustible supplies of fish, so that those who travel here do good business. Scarcely has the hook touched the bottom before it is loaded with some magnificent catch."
He went on to describe the terrain: ("hilly and forested"), the grasses ("scarcely any different from ours"), the fruit ("blackberries ... very sweet strawberries"), the climate ("huge masses of ice out to sea have taught us how cold it is in winter" ... "there is continuous fog" ... "there is scarcely a day without rain").
His report was hardly the copy that tourist brochures are made of, but Parmenius does give a first-hand, accurate account of Newfoundland in 1583, one which we would find it hard to disagree with.
Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...


This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: May 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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