Sir Walter Raleigh, Roanoke and the Virginia Colony

Sir Walter Raleigh and the Virginia Colony

Sir Walter Raleigh was granted the right to explore the new world and colonise it by Elizabeth I. In return for one fifth of gold and silver obtained in a seven year period, he could seize any lands not already occupied by a christian nation. Raleigh rose to prominence in the Court of Elizabeth I following his role on suppressing rebellions in Ireland. These skills and his wealth were to be used to attempt to colonise the Americas, first at Roanoke and later through the Virginia colony.

Raleigh’s charter enabled a colony to be established on land not already claimed by any ‘christian prince’. This would allow him to establish a colony or colonies along the coast of northern america. Once established such a colony could be used as a base from which exploration of the rest of the Americas could take place and from where privateers could plunder gold and silver from Spanish ships. Colonies and plunder from Privateering were both important for Elizabeth’s government. The treasury that she inherited had large debts.

Legend at the time had it that there was an “El Dorado”, a city of Gold. This was believed to be deep inside South America. Raleigh led expeditions into the Orinoco River to search for the fabled city on two occasions: 1595 and 1617. The colony that was to be established was done by men on Raleigh’s behalf. They set out to colonise Roanoke Island.

Further Reading: Anglo-Spanish Relations in Elizabeth’s reign

The Lost Settlers of the Roanoke Colony

The first English settlement in North America is one that is still surrounded by mystery and intrigue. The inhabitants of the colony, on Roanoke Island, simply vanished. These settlers are known to have constructed a large fort. The Roanoke Colony settlers left behind heavy items. No evidence of a struggle was found. A supply mission found just two clues as to the fate of the Roanoke colonists, leaving a mystery unsolved to this day.

Roanoke Colony

In March, 1584, Queen Elizabeth I of England issued a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh. The charter allowed Raleigh permission to:

discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories … to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy.

It was Royal assent to go to the New World, explore it and take it for England. It would provide a permanent settlement and become a base for privateers who hounded Spanish ships. The granting of this charter followed an abortive attempt the year before to establish a settlement in Newfoundland. Raleigh’s half-brother had led, and died in, that expedition.

Two ships were commissioned by Raleigh for the first voyage of exploration. On 27th April, 1584, the ships, captained by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, set off. The mission was initially to explore the east coast of America, to identify a site for a settlement.

The ships arrived off the east coast of America in July, 1584. They landed at Roanoke Island. The men of the two ships made contact with two local tribes: the Secotans and Croatoans. It became clear to Amadas and Barlowe that a settlement was possible at Roanoke. However further supplies, troops and settlers would be needed to make it viable.

Barlowe returned to England to inform Raleigh of the situation. He took with him two native North Americans. Manteo and Wanchese. Despite communication difficulties the two leaders were able to describe the area and it’s resources. Raleigh, buoyed by the news, set about organising a second, larger, fleet to travel to Roanoke.

107 men from this fleet were left under the command of Ralph Lane to create the first permanent English settlement on the Island. They built a fort and were promised that further supplies and men would arrive the following April. Lane and his men suffered greatly. Food was in short supply and there were clashes with the local tribes. The promised supply fleet didn’t arrive. Luckily for the colonists, Raleigh himself landed anchor at Roanoke in the summer. He offered them passage back to England. Some, though not all, returned to England, bringing with them tobacco and potatoes.

Raleigh was keen to make sure that his colony was a success. He again went about organising a fleet to travel to Roanoke Island. 115 colonists sailed in 1587. When they arrived they found nobody. White, the newly appointed Governor of the colony, was eager to have peaceful relations with the local tribes. As a result of this Manteo became the first Native American to be baptised into the Church of England. At about the same time the first English baby was born in the New World, a girl named Virginia Dare.

The tranquility that White had hoped for did not last long. Soon one of the colonists had been found murdered, by a local native. The colonists were fearful. White was persuaded to return to England to ask for help. Under usual circumstances such a journey would have been made the following spring.

Unfortunately, White was unable to return to Roanoke for two years. When he returned to England the threat of a Spanish attack, the Armada, was a real one. Raleigh’s work had to be concentrated on the defence of England at this time. It was not until spring of 1590 that the relief force was able to set sail.

Governor White set foot back on Roanoke on the third birthday of Virginia Dare, his granddaughter. He hoped to find her fit and well, along with the other colonists. When he had returned to England there had been 90 men, 17 women and 11 children on Roanoke Island. It was a small but established colony. He and his men found nothing.

The colony was intact. Buildings were intact. Belongings were on site. There were no signs of any struggle or fighting. Yet no sign of the colony having been lived in for some time. White and his men scoured the area. The only clues that they could find were the word CROATOAN carved into a post and CRO carved into a tree.

The colonists had an agreement that should they be in danger and have to abandon the site, that they would leave certain marks. The one for forced or danger was the Maltese Cross. As that was not carved but there were the two carvings, White assumed that this was a message that the people had decided to move to Croatoan. This was another island some fifty miles away.

Such a move would not have come as a surrise. New settlements often discover that other places are more suitable, safer or plentiful. White and his fleet would simply go there and find the colony. They did. Nobody was there either.

What happened to the colonists at Roanoke?

The simple answer is that nobody knows.

Raleigh tried to establish the facts but was arrested for Treason before he could do so. The Spanish were also interested in Roanoke, not because of the colonists but because they feared it was a base for English privateers. They too, never recorded anything of the colonists.

The first suggestions of the colonists fate came during the reign of King James I of England. As the colony of Jamestown was established, some twenty years after the “Lost Colony” was last explored, a native Indian chief is believed to have claimed responsibility for the slaughter of white settlers. It is a theory that can not be substantiated and has flaws due to locations. It is equally as likely that that there was a problem translating what a chieftain said.

Another theory is that the colonists assimilated into local tribes such as the Croatoan. This would make some sense as if disease struck the colony the inhabitants would be expected to split into smaller groups in order to limit the risk to the entire group. Doing so would leave smaller groups vulnerable though, so moving to local villages may have occurred.

The latter theory has lasted over the ages as there are stories and examples that add credence to it. They may be circumstantial but there have been examples of tribesmen knowing how to write obsolete English of the style used at the time of the colony and of native Americans claiming to be part descended from the Roanokan colonists.

The further reading section includes some detail about recent archaeological surveys around Roanoke Island that shed some light onto the Roanoke Colony.

Though the Roanoke Colony was a failure it paved the way for future colonisation. In the early 17th Century a Virginia Colony was established. This flourished and was the beginning of permanent colonisation of the North Americas by White Europeans. Many of the migrants to this and later colonies did so because of the religious freedoms that could be found in the new world. The Pilgrim Fathers are a famous example of this. For people like them, the Religious Settlement had not worked and migration to the new world was very appealing.

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