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WYET (Wyeth or Wyatt), SYLVESTER, English sailing-master and fisherman who visited Anticosti; fl. 1594.

Nothing is known of Wyet except in connection with the voyage of the Grace of Bristol (35 tons), belonging to Rice Jones, of which he was master in a voyage to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1594. The English interest in St. Lawrence voyages goes back to 1591 [see Fisher and La Court de Pré-Ravillon], but this is the first known English voyage to the western coast of Newfoundland and to Anticosti.

The bark left Bristol on 4 April 1594, and after sighting “Cape d’Espere” (Cape Spear), Newfoundland, on 19 May worked her way south and then west to the Bay of Placentia where cod fishing was in the hands of Basque (French and Spanish) fishermen. Wyet saw only two ships of “Sibiburo” (Ciboure) before he rounded Cape de Rey and located the wrecks of two Basque ships which, according to survivors who reached Saint-Jean-de-Luz, had gone ashore in 1593 with a valuable cargo. On the southern side of St. George’s Bay he found the ships, much battered, but got from them 700 to 800 whale-fins (that is whalebone) and some other gear, but no whale oil. Going round to Cape St. George and “being informed” (i.e., having Basque information) that wounded whales were cast ashore on the island of Assumption or Natiscotec (Montagnais: Natiskotek, our Anticosti) – which was, he knew, “in the very mouth of the great river that runneth up to Canada” – he took the Grace across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the eastern end of the island. He worked round to the northern shore of the island and then back to the southern, seeing a little of the vegetation but finding no stranded whales. That being so, Wyet retreated again to the southern shores of Newfoundland, this time sighting Cape Breton to starboard on his way, and entered the Bay of Placentia where there were no less than 60 Basque vessels, only eight of them Spanish, engaged in fishing. They proved most co-operative, giving the English two pinnaces so as to enable them to complete a lading. Retiring to “Pesmarck” (either the Horse Chops in Fortune Bay or “Pesmarq,” in the vicinity of Oderin in Placentia Bay), they made good progress until the Beothuk Indians set their boats adrift. Though they recovered the boats, they thought it wiser to move, and worked round to “Farrillon” (Ferryland), where there were 20 English fishing vessels. They filled their ship with fish and set off for home on 24 August, and re-entered the Hungroad, near Bristol, on 24 September.

It is clear from the narrative that Wyet is keeping back his evidence of how the ship was able to find her way so easily and to deal so expertly with the Basques. The reason was that she almost certainly had on board an expert Basque pilot called Stevan de Bocall. In an unaddressed and unsigned letter of 6 March 1595, information is given, probably to Lord Burghley, that a Basque pilot, then in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, called Stevan de Bocall, is anxious to re-enter the English service. He has an expert knowledge of the fisheries and fur trade of Canada and has dealt with the Indians. He has, moreover, already spent two seasons at Bristol and has taken out expeditions but, as the letter says, “he could not have that as he would for the victualling, and when he came thither his men would do nothing, and in a bark of 35 tons.” The bark is almost certainly to be identified with the Grace, so that he is clearly the source of the information about the Basque wrecks and about the whales stranded on Anticosti, and also the cause of Basque friendliness at Placentia Bay. What the men would not do is less clear: perhaps Wyet would not take the risk of hunting whale the Basque way. If the reference to a 1593 pilotage does not refer to the Grace, and we have no record of her being in the gulf earlier, then Bocall may have piloted George Drake in his voyage of that year to the Magdalens [see Fisher].

Wyet’s journal, printed by Hakluyt in 1600, is a good one, valuable for its clear account of the ship’s progress, for place-names, for brief descriptions of natural resources at the places visited, and, above all, for a detailed and perceptive description of a Beothuk settlement on St. George’s Bay, deserted though it was when they found it. He is the first known Englishman to have described the western coast of Newfoundland and Anticosti Island.

David B. Quinn

PRO, S.P. 94/5, ff.9–10v. Hakluyt, Principal navigations (1903–5) VIII, 162–65. W. P. Anderson, “Place names on Anticosti Island,” Geog. Bd. Can. 17th Report, pt.iii (1922), 53–65; “Nomenclature géographique de l’Île Anticosti,” Soc. de géographie de Québec, Bull., XVIII (1924), 297–300; XIX (1925), 47–50, 95–99, 174–78. Biggar, Early trading companies.

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Cite This Article

David B. Quinn, “WYET, SYLVESTER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wyet_sylvester_1E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wyet_sylvester_1E.html
Author of Article:   David B. Quinn
Title of Article:   WYET, SYLVESTER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1966
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 22, 2023