- Historic Sites
Four hundred years ago the first English settlers reached America. What followed was a string of disasters ending with the complete disappearance of a colony.
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
Roanoke is a twice-lost colony. First its settlers disappeared—some 110 men, women, and children who vanished almost without a trace. Ever since, it has been neglected by history, and few Americans of today are aware that the English tried and failed to colonize this continent long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Four hundred years ago, between 1584 and 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh and his associates made two attempts to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. One colony returned to England; the other disappeared in America. The effort at plantation was a dismal failure; later colonies survived, however, partly because of Roanoke’s costly lessons.
Sir Walter Raleigh was a rising young man of thirty in 1584, when he decided to found the first English colony in North America. He was a younger son of a distinguished but impoverished family, and his parents had managed to give him the education of an aristocrat. He had spent his youth serving in the French civil wars, had seen action in England’s brutal effort to solidify its control over Ireland, and had been commander of a ship in the fleet of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, his much older half brother.
By 1581, when he was twenty-seven, Raleigh was a veteran of the kind of experiences that had prepared countless other sons of the gentry for lives as country gentlemen. But at this point he was noticed by Queen Elizabeth, and he became a member—for a while the most important member—of a charmed circle of young men who played her lovestruck suitors. Raleigh was a master at the punning word games she loved. His poetry was prized, and his exotic good looks, enhanced by flamboyant clothes, made him stand out. The queen loved him; most people found him too arrogant, “damnable proud,” as John Aubrey wrote.
Becoming the queen’s favorite meant wealth beyond imagining. Over the next several years Elizabeth bestowed on Raleigh land and houses all over England and Ireland. Moreover, she gave him monopoly control of the wine and woolen-cloth industries, and his agents raked off a percentage of the profits to subsidize his extravagant life.
In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert died at sea, attempting to start a colony in Newfoundland, and Raleigh asked the queen to transfer to him his half brother’s exclusive right to colonize in North America. In 1584, with his patent in hand, Raleigh sent two ships to reconnoiter the southern coast of North America.
That year was a turning point in Queen Elizabeth’s foreign policy; it was no accident that Raleigh’s colonizing activities began then, for that was when the growing animosity between Spain and England erupted into open war. The immense wealth flowing from its American possessions had helped make Spain the superpower of the sixteenth century; England was seen even by its own citizens as a scrappy underdog. Moreover, the English saw Spain, “the swoorde of that Antychryste of Rome,” as the leader of an international conspiracy to crush Britain and restore it to papal control. Spanish agents were in fact active in the country, focusing their plans on the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots; they assumed that an English majority loyal to the old religion would greet Spanish “liberators” with joy.
In 1584 these tensions came to a head. The Spanish ambassador, whose plotting had become intolerable, was expelled from England. The next year all English ships in Spanish harbors were seized. The breach was irreparable, and a sea war was on.
Elizabeth conducted it as she did her other enterprises: by issuing licenses and patents to private citizens. In theory, commissions to go after Spanish ships were strictly controlled; in practice, corruption allowed wide access to privateering licenses, and legalized piracy became big business for the next decade and a half, sometimes bringing in 10 percent of the nation’s imports. Gentlemen like Raleigh, joining forces with merchants to field large fleets, saw themselves as patriots, and history has celebrated their exploits.
Though all Spanish ships were vulnerable, attention focused on the treasure fleet, heavily laden cargo ships that annually carried the wealth of the Indies to Spain. By the mid-1580s Spain was so overextended that this treasure was no longer a luxury. By seizing Spanish ships, English privateers could set themselves up for life and cripple the enemy at the same time.
Roanoke initially was planned purely to make preying on the treasure fleet easier. A base near the West Indies, yet hidden away, could make privateering a year-round occupation, even during fall and winter storms. Colonization, like privateering, was licensed by the government, but since each expedition had to pay its own way, a colony at Roanoke would never have been attempted without the tie to privateering. Spanish treasure partially repaid Roanoke’s investors, yet privateering also killed the plantation and led to the tragedy of the Lost Colony.
Raleigh’s reconnaissance fleet, commanded by Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas, was sent in April 1584. They followed the route normal at the time: south along the coast of Europe to pick up the trade winds off the Canaries and then west to the Caribbean and the coastal current that helped propel them northward. After several weeks of exploration around the Outer Banks, Amadas and Barlowe were sure they had found a perfect location for the new settlement: sheltered yet providing easy access to the treasure fleet’s homeward path.