During the 16th and 17th Century, Europeans where racing to lay claim to the newly ‘discovered’ America’s. It was a New World, filled with promise and mystique. Europeans were lured by the tales of riches, resources and land that was just begging to be developed and shaped in their favour. But that’s not to say that it was an easy case. The world was New to the Europeans and as a result, unknown and dangerous. Hundreds would die in the early colonial years. Many colonies would be abandoned due to harsh winters, poor harvests and ongoing hostilities with the indigenous peoples. However one colony in particular shrouded in mystery, the first English settlement, Roanoke. It all began in 1578, Elizabeth I assigned Sir Humphrey Gilbert with the task of exploring North America to lay claim to any land not yet claimed by ‘Christian kingdoms’. This obviously was a direct stab at the Spanish as well as a play for colonial power. Although a decorated war hero, Gilbert didn’t succeed in even reaching North America. It was a combination of being ill-equip, the lack of discipline in the crew and poor command on Gilbert’s part. Luckily he was able to salvage his reputation in the summer, when he returned to England to help crush rebellion in Ireland. His second attempt in 1583 was also ineffectual. He annexed Newfoundland but failed to establish the North American Colony that England desired. Although- he did die whilst on this campaign, drowning near Newfoundland.

Elizabeth I transferred the task of establishing English colonies to Humphrey’s brother Adrien Gilbert and their half-brother Walter Raleigh. Raleigh of course was a favourite of the Queen, but they had learned their lesson with the experiences of Humphrey Gilbert. Their goal would be better achieved by dividing the responsibilities by two people. Raleigh did not waste time, he launched a ship to the coast of North Carolina in 1584, although he never set foot in North America himself. The feedback from his company was overwhelmingly positive, allegedly the natives informed them that Roanoke island would be a perfect settlement. The English called it a ‘New Eden’, a land with endless crops and game. Keen to pursue the lead, Raleigh sent more men to explore the land on yearlong campaign in the name of the Queen. The area they would travel to, just outside North Carolina, would be named ‘Virginia’ in her honour. According to the observations for the commander, Ralph Lane, it was no ‘Eden’ and the shallow waters would not be suitable for warships. This would compromise the potential for the colon to serve as a base for attacking Spanish ships. However, the inkling of potential was too much for Raleigh to just throw away. He had invested a great deal of effort to make the colony look viable, court painter, John White had travelled purely to paint the landscape and plant life, whilst famed mathematician Thomas Harriot had designed navigational charts and learned parts of the Algonquian language from the Croatoan tribe member, Manteo.

The first stage of the colony was not the plain sailing that Raleigh had hoped for, mid 1586 brought increased tensions with the natives and ever dwindling supplies. Worse, communications and aid from England was continuously slow, worsening morale for the poor settlers who were well and truly out of their element. The way the colony was handled was shamefully hands off, Francis Drake had been charged with delivering supplies of Spring of that year…but not before he raided a few Spanish ships in the Caribbean.  By the time Drake arrived, Lane was overwhelmed and lacking confidence in the colony. If the trend of late supplies continued, the colony would have been chancing their lives. Drake himself was forced to stay whilst the ships where repaired, having been damaged by a hurricane on the shores. Ralph Lane ended up making the choice to leave the colony, sailing back to England with all of the colonists. In yet another unfortunate mistake, a supply ship arrived, under the control of Richard Grenville. He was obviously confused and panicked to find an abandoned colony. He wasted no time in capturing and integrating natives. Eventually being given the story of Lane’s desertion. Frustrated, Grenville returned to England leaving behind 15 men to maintain English presence. 

The Roanoke colony had a resurgence in 1587, John White had sought out Raleigh to personally elect himself for a third expedition to the area. His optimism had not yet died, he was living on that glittering promise the few weeks he had spent there had given him. With him he brought equally hopeful middle-class Londoners and his own family. However White was quickly brought back down to reality. Upon their arrival they found the remaining buildings sacked and torn down by the Croatoan people, the 15 men left by Grenville where nowhere to be found and a significant amount of their food supplies had spoiled during the voyage. Rightly taking all of this as a bad sign, White indicated that he wanted to move the colony site to north, where deeper waters would surround them, making it easier for supply ships too access the area with the added bonus of being close to mountains thought to hold valuable ore. Alas, the ship’s captain refused to sail any further.

In August 1887, they tried fruitlessly to establish peace with the Croatoan people. But we will be revisiting the turbulent relationship of the colonists and natives in the following post. White began to realise that the only way they would stand a chance would be if he returned to England to make a personal appeal to Raleigh. It was a tough choice, the colonists where still uneasy in their new home and he would be leaving his wife, daughter and newborn granddaughter, who was the first English Child born in America: Virginia Dare. However after receiving the blessing of the colonists, White reluctantly departed on the 27th August.

True to the ongoing pattern of disasters, White returned to find England at war with Spain, all sea travel having been suspended with the news that The Spanish Armada on its way. The Winter had also brought terrible weather, also delaying White’s return and he resorted to joining the ships defending the English Coast. He had gained all the supplies he required but was just stuck, agonising over the thought of how the colonists and his family where coping. Delays continued until 1890, when White finally had permission to return. Finally, after 3 years, White returned to the colony. What he found chilled him to the bone. The Roanoke colony was gone, the buildings neatly taken down, no signs of anyone alive or dead. The only hint being two carvings. On a large tree they found “CRO” and a fence post bearing the craving “CROATOAN”  

What happened to Roanoke…?

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