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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
How to strike a balance in estimating Raleigh’s colonial achievements, his services to America? He was criticized in his own day, as he has been in ours, for not doing more. That splendid intellect but not very nice man, Francis Bacon, who was not above kicking a man when he was down, wrote in his essay “Of Plantations,” “it is the sinfullest thing in the world to forsake or destitute a plantation once in forwardness, for besides the dishonour, it is the guiltiness of blood of many commiserable persons.” Everyone would know whom he had in mind. But Hakluyt, who knew all the facts and was in a better position to judge, says simply that Raleigh was disheartened by the great expense and by the unfaithfulness of those he employed, “after he had sent (as you may see by these five several times) colonies and supplies at his own charges and now at length both himself and his successors [are] thus betrayed.”
We have seen something, not only of his difficulties and disappointments, the obstacles in the way, but of the sheer impossibility of getting his orders executed on the other side of the Atlantic in his own enforced absence. Armchair critics of today often do not have the imagination to appreciate the physical and other conditions upon which achieving anything in the Elizabethan Age depended, how much men were at the mercy of circumstances, of wind and weather, of personal caprice or royal favor, the undependability of agents, the perversity of things.
Yet Raleigh’s efforts did bear fruit: a people’s memory is more generous, and perhaps speaks more truly, than the professors’. Raleigh put Virginia on the map. The first Roanoke colony was of prime formative significance; subsequent colonial enterprise in America built on that foundation. By his position at Elizabeth’s court he gave the most powerful impetus in practice to the idea of English settlement in America. Even his patronage of smoking tobacco, giving it social cachet, was not without its effect in helping Virginia’s staple product, the crop by which she ultimately achieved economic viability.
The approaching end of the war with Spain, at the turn of the century, made it certain that the English would now resume their efforts to settle in North America. After all, that was what they had fought Spain for—with success. The Queen would not make peace without guarantees for the Netherlands and the principle of the open door in America. On that, negotiations had broken down in 1598 and 1599. When they were renewed, after her death, Spain was in a still weaker position to insist, and peace was made in London, the negotiations dominated by Cecil, who represented the continuity of Elizabethan policy. The government obtained all that it wished in regard to the Netherlands. With regard to America, there was no agreement. The Spaniards refused to accept the English position of freedom of trade with all parts not in effective occupation: hence the continuance of “war beyond the line,” i.e., the Pope’s line, and the subsequent romantic and bloody history of the buccaneers. On the subject of English colonization, most important of all, nothing was said. The English were not going to admit that it was a subject for discussion. The only implication to be drawn was that they would now go ahead.
Already, exploratory voyages to the coast had been resumed, and with a clear sense, expressed in the narratives, of the continuity with those of the 1580s. The French, also, now released from civil war and from war with Spain by the Treaty of Vervins (1598), took up once more their long-suspended colonial ambitions, and there followed the first settlement in Acadia, at Port Royal. In these years the great Champlain was exploring these coasts and in 1608 clinched French power in the St. Lawrence with the founding of Quebec. Already the intrepid navigator Henry Hudson was scouring the Arctic ice from Greenland to Spitsbergen to find a way through to the East, and the next year (1609) was exploring the Hudson and the Delaware river valleys on behalf of the Dutch. A new phase of international rivalry for North America was beginning.
In 1606 a body chiefly of West Countrymen came together to petition James I for license to plant a colony—Raleigh’s rights having lapsed by his condemnation for treason. From this patent the subsequent colonization sprang, in the northern part of Virginia (i.e., New England) as well as the south. For it constituted two companies to carry out the twin projects envisaged in north and south. The southern company was to plant between 34 and 41 degrees north, and was backed mainly from London. The northern colony was to plant between 38 and 45 degrees north; it was backed mainly from Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth, but came to be known as the Plymouth Company. The strength of the Plymouth Company, it was hoped, would lie in its fishing interests; the London Company’s in finance. Finance and fishing—there could be no doubt which would emerge the stronger. Though there was some interaction between the two, and more friction, I leave the Plymouth Company to a later article: from it sprang, if in various ways and in varying degrees, the colonization of New England.