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
The Queen at this time not being able to part with Raleigh, the command was handed over to his cousin. Sir Richard Grenville. There are things to be said against Grenville, all (and rather more than all) said by his second-in-command, Ralph Lane, a cousin of Sir Edward Dyer and an equerry to the Queen—but he did the job. He made a successful cruise to the West Indies, where he took on board horses and kine to stock the colony, and plants, including sugar, to plant. At the end of June he landed the colony on Roanoke Island. He remained there for a month exploring and prospecting, and then hovered off Cape Hatteras for another month—watching out for what he could find, I suppose—at the end of which he set sail for England. On September 18 “the general came with the prize to Plymouth and was courteously received by divers of his worshipful friends.”
That expedition to plant the first colony in America had an interesting membership. In addition to Grenville and Ralph Lane, there was the brilliant young navigator Thomas Cavendish from Suffolk, the second Englishman to make a successful voyage round the world. Also upon it were Thomas Hariot—the first scientist in the country—and John White, one of its best draftsmen, cartographer and illustrator of the expedition. Most of the leading spirits were West Country relations or neighbors of Grenville and Raleigh: one observes among the names an Arundell, a Stukeley, a Prideaux, a Bonython, a Kendall and, I am glad to say, Anthony Rouse, a friend of Drake.
Left to himself in command, Lane responded with a violent outburst against Grenville, full of the usual Elizabethan persecution mania and complaining of the unruliness of “the wild men of mine own nation,” let alone living among savages. It is clear that what they needed was a Grenville to keep them in order; it is also clear that the Queen’s equerry was not the type, and indeed he does not appear again in colonial enterprises.
It is not my purpose to tell once more the story of this first English colony in America, what happened to the hundred or so men—that became the usual number dispatched in these early efforts at settlement—upon Roanoke Island during the year almost that they remained there. But in fact, everything goes back to that first colony, to the colonial experience they gathered there, the knowledge as to the physical conditions, the flora and fauna, the products of the soil—above all, what they learned about Indian life, native ways and food, the difficulties of relations with the Indians.
The fundamental lesson that early colonists failed to learn was the absolute necessity of getting down to cultivate the soil. But we must remember to what an extent they consisted of rag, tag, and bobtail who would not learn anything, idle and listless, recalcitrant to all discipline. (Here is where the grand advantage of the Puritans came in, when it came to their turn, in moral fiber and self-discipline.) The dependence of the early colonists on the Indians for food supplies naturally created acute troubles between them, for there was not enough to go round. Their relations, the characters of the Indian chiefs, the troubles between the natives and the newcomers, provide the chief interest of the story.
Raleigh’s promised supply ship was late in getting to sea; meanwhile, Grenville was fitting out a larger expedition upon the North Devon coast. The Roanoke colonists were ready to remain and wait, when their nerve was suddenly broken by one of those tornadoes that that coast enjoys—and the prime defect of Roanoke was that it had no satisfactory harbor. When in June, 1586, Drake arrived off the coast with a powerful fleet from his West Indian expedition, on which he had wrought so much destruction, he offered to take the colonists back with him, and on a sudden impulse they decided to accept. If Lane had been a stronger man, he would have stuck it out. … And this provides one of the tantalizing “ifs” of history; for immediately after they had gone, Raleigh’s supply ship turned up, looked for the colonists and, not finding them, returned with her provisions to England. A fortnight after that, Grenville arrived with three ships well-provided. He himself traveled “up into divers places of the country” seeking for news of the colony in vain.
Then, “unwilling to lose the possession of the country which Englishmen had so long held, after good deliberation,” he left a post of fifteen men on Roanoke provisioned for two years, to hold the fort. He has been criticized for a wrong decision; but we do not know his circumstances or his instructions. It looks clear to me that he was expected to reinforce the existing colony, not plant a new one, nor is it likely that his people would volunteer to make a new settlement unprepared. The real point is that Drake’s unintended taking off of the colonists completely upset the planned synchronization of Raleigh’s efforts and spoiled the best chance of settlement. After that everything went wrong.