- 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
Hariot was particularly interested in Indian religion, and his description allows us to understand some of their theology. The priest, a man chosen for his wisdom, was responsible for overseeing his people’s relationship to the deity and maintaining the round of ceremonies that helped the crops grow. Another figure, whom White called the Flyer, was a much younger man, chosen for his magical powers, which derived from a personal relationship with a supernatural being. This conjurer wore a small black bird on the side of his head and a skin with an animal’s face on his front. Because disease was thought to be caused by the vengeful spirits of improperly killed animals and because the conjurer had magical relationships with animals, he was considered able to effect cures. The Flyer probably represented an older, individualistic hunting cult that was being edged out by the newer, more abstract religion of the priest.
The English admired Indian society, but they did not entertain a vision of coexistence.
The English were pleased to find that the Indians lived in towns organized around village greens and surrounded by cornfields just like familiar towns at home. Yield was, to Hariot’s mind, almost miraculous: “at the least two hundred London bushelles … [whereas] in England fourtie bushelles of our wheate yeelded out of such an acre is thought to be much.” Corn was planted in hills, with beans growing up the stalks; the beans, with their nitrogen-fixing properties, fertilized the corn as it grew, and the two crops eaten together formed superior protein. There is incontrovertible evidence of the efficiency of Indian agriculture: the Carolina Algonquians had on hand enough surplus food to keep more than one hundred colonists alive during the winter of 1585–86.
Praise for Indian society did not imply a vision of coexistence; even Europeans like Hariot who were truly interested in the natives saw themselves as bringing the priceless gifts of Christianity and civilization. Indian sophistication simply meant that the job of conversion would be easier; the natives would see the superiority of English culture and spontaneously choose it for themselves.
The Indians showed interest in Hariot’s magnet, compass, and books and in the colonists’ guns and “spring clocks that seeme to goe of themselves,” and according to Hariot, they assumed such technology was a divine gift. When many Indians died of European diseases to which they had no immunity while the English did not suffer, the natives saw the hand of a powerful god at work.
The Indians were not, however, ready to give up their own culture wholesale. Like Indians all over America, the Carolina Algonquians picked and chose from the Europeans those items of technology, particularly metal tools, that made tasks within their own economy easier; they wanted to enhance their way of life, not relinquish it. Moreover, it is easy for us to exaggerate the apparent superiority of European technology; what the Indians saw at Roanoke was a large party of men who were so helpless that Gov. Ralph Lane at one point accused the Indians of making war simply by cutting off all contact with the English.
While the Roanoke colonists were learning about the Indians, they were revealing a great deal about themselves. The Indians must have been deeply disturbed by what they saw. Almost as soon as the first colony arrived, in 1585, Grenville took his small boats and went exploring on the mainland. The explorers at one point discovered a silver cup missing from their baggage and returned to a village they had visited two days previously to demand its return. When they found that all the inhabitants had fled, they “burnt, and spoyled their corne, and Towne. …”
It is hard for us to understand why Grenville would have ordered an act so damaging to friendly relations—especially since the colonists, whose supplies had been destroyed in the accident to the flagship, would be totally dependent on the Indians until spring. His thinking rested on a view of human nature prevalent in that age: All relationships, even among Europeans, were seen as involving domination and submission. The colonists revealed again and again their assumption that anyone who showed vulnerability would be a victim of treachery and would deserve it. Grenville thought that by exacting severe vengeance on those he suspected of stealing, he was protecting the colonists, not damaging their chances. And though the backers in England had counseled the colonists to win the Indians through loving kindness, they had ensured the policy of intimidation by sending over veterans of the Irish and continental wars as colonists. We will never know if a peaceful relationship might have been possible; it was not given a chance.
The English were also obsessed with control within their own settlement. The relation between leaders and the “meaner sort” was expected to be one of iron discipline; the rank-and-file colonists, whom Gov. Ralph Lane referred to as “wild men of mine own nation,” would be mutinous if given a chance. Lane believed that the low rate of disease in his colony’s year in America was a direct product of his “severely executed” discipline. We have veiled hints of trouble in the colony; apparently the taverns of England rang with complaints once the soldiers returned home, and Hariot pointed out that those who complained were men who had been disciplined in America.