- Historic Sites
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 preparation for Raleigh’s first Virginia colony, the geographer Richard Hakluyt wrote his Discourse of Western Planting: “Certain Reasons to induce her Majesty and the state to take in hand the western voyage and the planting therein.” It was an extremely able state paper, unique in that age in putting forth a complete argument for colonial expansion, on every ground—economic, political, strategic, religious—with a plan for its execution and a program of settlement. Raleigh got Hakluyt an audience with the Queen, to whom he presented it on his knees. No doubt she read it: it was meant for her eyes, and was never printed until our own time. But she was not persuaded.
The argument was that only the resources of the state could accomplish the colonization of America. There was something in that: so many were to fail, fall by the wayside, having ventured everything and lost; the sacrifices in wealth and manpower, in suffering, privation, and human life, were immense and terrible. But—a state enterprise? In that age everyone plundered the government and every governmental undertaking. The Queen knew that better than anyone. Had she not often had occasion to utter a cri de coeur against the “insatiable cupidity of men”? Then, too, a state enterprise meant a head-on collision with Spain, a frontal challenge from which no retreat was possible. Failure would mean a total loss of prestige to the state. There can be no doubt that the Queen was right to put it aside, and there it remained unknown till our day.
But this did not mean that she was not as anxious as anyone that colonization should succeed. Ultimately it did, under a characteristically mixed English form of enterprise, with private and public elements, and the Crown making a quasi-official contribution. The colonizing Queen made a good profit on her investments, and not least important, she contributed the symbolic name to Virginia.
Everything with this politic woman meant something. The permission to use the name was not mere coquettishness, not only the suggestion of romance which, genuine enough in that day, it has come chiefly to signify for us. It was, like everything with her, an intensely personal act, calling attention to an aspect of her personality which, if not unique in a ruler, was an unforgettable element in her fame. But it was also politics, a characteristically ambivalent notice to the world that she personally was involved as well as the Crown of England; her good name pledged. It was therefore an unmistakable underlining of her claim, which could not chivalrously be disregarded, a warning to others to keep off.
The name caught on at once—it evidently had life in it—with the poets no less than the seamen, the politicians, and merchants. In these same eighties, while Ralph Lane was writing from Virginia to her Secretary Walsingham of the “assurance of her Majesty’s greatness hereby to grow by the addition of such a kingdom as this is to the rest of her dominions,” Raleigh’s friend Edmund Spenser was writing:
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever view?
In April, 1584, Raleigh dispatched two barques, under Captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlow, to reconnoiter a site for a colony in the southern section of the North American coast. They went out by the southern route via the Canaries and West Indies and then up to Cape Hatteras to the low-lying coast of what is now North Carolina, where among the shoals and lagoons they pitched on an island which they considered a promising site. The advantages of an island for purposes of defense are obvious, and the fact that it was situated among those sounds, with about the most difficult navigation in the world, afforded it some protection from Spanish attentions. Amadas and Barlow brought back a lyrical account of the country and its commodities, and also two lusty young Indians of standing, Wanchese and Manteo, the first of whom was to belie these sanguine hopes, the second to remain ever faithful to the English. In that, the pattern of so much in the subsequent story of relations between the races was foreshadowed early.
That same year, while they were away, Raleigh’s first big colonial effort was taking shape. In December the bill confirming his letters patent was before Parliament, and on second reading was handed over to a committee with an interesting membership. There were the Queen’s Vice-Chamberlain, Sir Christopher Hatton; her principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham; Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Richard Grenville, Sir William Courtenay, Sir William Mohun, and other West Country members specially interested in these matters. Upon third reading, the bill, “after many arguments and a proviso added unto it, passed.” No one has observed that this long proviso was directed against the expedition undertaking hostilities by sea or land; no doubt that was due to Lord Burghley’s influence, and represented a concession to his point of view. By the time the little fleet set sail, open war with Spain made the proviso out of date—and privateering on the way home more than paid the expenses.