- Historic Sites
First Images Of The New World
“Lost Colony” Governor John White’s Early Paintings Colored European Views for Centuries
Fall 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 5
On that second voyage, White accompanied Thomas Harriot, Raleigh’s tutor in navigation, who was sent as a linguist, recorder, and surveyor to establish the land’s potential for farming and trade. White was to produce visual records and maps for the purpose of encouraging further investment in an English “plantation.” They anchored off the Outer Banks of what is now North Carolina, exploring the coastline and building a small fort on Roanoke Island. On a brief excursion to the mainland, Harriot and White also recorded the people, their language, and way of life, most spectacularly in White’s series of nearly 20 watercolors of the people and villages of Pomeiooc, Secotan, and Roanoke, and in his drawings of local wildlife and plants.
While some of the color and detail have been lost from White’s original paintings, as they survived a fire and flooding in the 19th century before they were bought by the British Museum, the watercolors of fish shimmer with gold and silver of the living creatures. The birds’ feathers, and each toe of a turtle and segment of a plant, are depicted with loving detail. In the images of the people—all the body paint and tattoos, every bead, the details of hairstyle, clothing, and jewelry—the layout and construction of the villages of Secotan and Pomeiooc, the fields and crops, the charnel house where dead chiefs were honored, the ceremonies, all are rendered with careful attention to color and, most probably, with great accuracy. Of course, White would have been familiar with the prints and great paintings of his time: invariably he saw some poses through an artist’s eye, and there are parallels in his works to familiar images of the gods Mercury and Apollo. But other gestures are known to be particular to the villages he depicted, and the rich, earthy colors and realistic physiognomies of the people match written accounts.
White painted not just in the name of science. He, Raleigh, and the other investors in these voyages needed to attract further capital for the next stage in the planned colonization of the New World: the plantation of colonists who would settle there, establish trade with the local people, and also defend against Spanish, French, or Portuguese invasions. Potential venturers needed to see a land that was rich-soiled, abounding in wildlife, its people friendly and forthcoming. The longbows, status-conscious jewelry wearing, organized religion, fortified villages, and other settlements laid out in lanes and fields with a central “green,” were all reassuringly familiar.
A recent close examination of White’s coat of arms has revealed his gentle descent from a line of Cornish heiresses. Other research has determined that he married in London in 1566 and had at least two children, one of whom, Elinor, accompanied her father and husband to the New World, where her daughter, Virginia Dare, was born. The expedition relied for its money upon friends of Raleigh, barristers, and other prominent Londoners; it is likely that White took a share.
In 1587 White, now governor, set out yet again, this time with 115 men, women, and children, to build the “Cittie of Raleigh” on the Chesapeake. But a gentleman, even a governor, did not command at sea, and the admiral of their expedition landed them again at Roanoke with insufficient supplies. White returned home to obtain assistance. The threat of Spanish invasion aborted the first relief expedition in 1588, and later relief ships were delayed. When White finally returned in 1590, the colonists had vanished. The mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains unsolved.
In the same year, Theodor de Bry published a volume with Harriot’s text describing the voyage of 1585, illustrated with engravings based on White’s images. Printed in four languages and distributed all over Europe, the Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia provided the people of the Old World with images of those of the New, haunting and memorable images not surpassed for more than 200 years. Now, 400 years later, visitors can see this vision of the New World for themselves.