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Of Raleigh And The First Plantation
The Elizabethans and America: Part II -- The fate of the Virginia Colony rested on the endurance of adventurers, the financing of London merchants, and the favor of a courtier with his demanding spinster Queen.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
In the marvelous 1580s everything was beginning to ripen together in the heat of the tension between England and Spain. Poetry and the drama that had been so sparse and backward were coming to a head with Sidney and Spenser and Marlowe; the first Elizabethan madrigals appear in the very year the war against Spain begins. And this is the moment when the idea of American colonization takes shape and wing—or, perhaps I should say, takes sail.
The person who had first undertaken to carry out the idea, as to which there had been so much discussion and so many abortive gestures in the direction of it, was Humphrey Gilbert. And from the Crown’s patent he was granted in 1578 sprang the ultimate achievement. That patent gave him license for six years “to search, find out and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people.” That was the regular formula, in pursuance of the government’s consistent stand on American settlement.
Humphrey Gilbert had been from the days of his youth a personal servant of Queen Elizabeth, from the time when, as Princess, she was in disgrace with her sister Mary. We know little of Gilbert’s expedition of 1578, which was secret, very mixed in its make-up—to which some genuinely piratical elements were attached and which turned out a complete failure. It is thought that he was aiming at settlement in Florida. The Queen contributed a ship of her own, the Falcon: captain, Walter Raleigh. I cannot help thinking she must have known him, certainly have known of him, long before the traditionally romantic account of her sudden falling for him—to which we have all subscribed.
Walter Raleigh was no new man: he came from a very old family which had already made its place by the time of Henry II. But by Raleigh’s time the family had lost must of its property and become rather impoverished—a most humiliating and irritating situation, especially for an ambitious young man, to feel that you are somebody and haven’t a bean. Something of this irritation may be seen all through Raleigh’s career: he was always a man in a hurry, conscious of his gifts and abilities, yet always made to wait on circumstances—and maddened by frustration. And there was a yellow streak in Raleigh too—he was a great liar—a rift in him by which perhaps came the genius, for men have the qualities of their defects. There is no doubt of the genius; he bore all the stigmata of it.
Raleigh’s mother was by birth a Champernowne, and widow of a Gilbert, so that these Gilberts—John, Humphrey, Adrian—were half brothers of Walter and Carew Raleigh. The Gilberts were brought up at Greenway on the Dart, the family seat being Compton Castle, that delightful rose-red H-shaped house of the fourteenth century, near Torquay, of which the roofless hall has been restored by Commander Walter Raleigh Gilbert in recent years. Humphrey Gilbert was some fifteen years older than Raleigh, and to him the young Walter owed his lead in sea enterprises and ideas of American colonization. Where Gilbert led—at Oxford, in France and Ireland, at sea, over America—Raleigh followed. They had strong family characteristics in common: they were impulsive and intemperate, impatient of any opposition (they had all the more to put up with). They were not very nice men, but they had fascination and they were well educated. They were men of ideas—indeed with them ideas went to their head—and they had great imagination: they were projectors.
Gilbert’s failure and, no doubt, the Queen’s intimate knowledge of his defects of temperament made her reluctant to support his last and most elaborate project, which has been described as branching out into “a maze of individual and corporate enterprises for the conquest and settlement of North America. …” She held Gilbert to be “a man noted of not good hap by sea”; however, against her better judgment, she relented and gave him permission to go. Before he left, with characteristic graciousness, she sent him by Walter Raleigh—now in the first flush of favor—her good wishes, with a jewel for token, “an anchor guided by a Lady.” She asked him to leave his portrait with Raleigh for her; she did not invest in the voyage. Gilbert went, took possession of Newfoundland, lost his flagship with all his stores, and was drowned in the barque Squirrel on the way home.
Walter Raleigh was the heir to Gilbert’s colonizing projects, the man who carried them into execution. But it was entirely his favor with the Queen that gave him the resources to put his plans into operation: the prestige and opportunities of his position, the support and service he could now command, the gifts of lands and licenses, the cash. Notice that the Queen’s favor was not given for nothing: there was an implied contract of service. It was her way of attaching men of ability to the service of the state, and from the men she delighted to favor, the state got good service. In all Raleigh’s efforts for Virginia she was behind him: she backed him, she provided his resources. In addition, she made her own direct contribution.