July 27, 2010 9:42:00 AM
The Lost Colony of Roanoke was a failed initial effort of England to colonize America. It may have been a failure, but it continues to fascinate people; there is a famous outdoor stage production with music that attempts to dramatize the settlement at its site and a reconstructed fort.
The fascination isn''t so much because of historic significance, but because the 117 settlers vanished without a trace. That is, almost without a trace. In "A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke" (Basic Books), historian James Horn finds all the traces we can ever expect to turn up, and speculates on answers as close as we are going to get. That ought to make it an attractive volume for anyone who has heard of the colony''s mysterious disappearance.
The larger attraction of the book, however, is to put the colony into historic context. The colony was an attempted blow by Britain against Spain, and what''s more, it became lost at least partially because of the larger war between Britain and Spain. The hapless colonists, who if things had gone differently would have been celebrated as the Jamestown settlers are now, were instead the victims of a global war.
Horn imagines that Walter Raleigh, having moved to London in 1575, looked at a map of the New World and saw an extensive New France, and an even greater New Spain, but a "New England" was nowhere to be seen. During the reign of the father of Queen Elizabeth, Henry VIII, there was maritime trading with Europe and the Mediterranean, but little interest in America. Spain, however, had been particularly active in colonizing, and King Philip II had papal authority to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. He deliberately took action to destroy the French settlements on the coasts of what are now South Carolina and Georgia because he did not want the Protestant heretics to take hold. Philip would have felt the same way about the attempts by Elizabeth to settle her Protestant countrymen into the area, although the British settlers, of course, would feel compelled to convert the heathens to their true church.
Religious sentiment aside, there were fortunes to be made. Spain had conquered a region of the New World that had gold for the taking, and the new riches had caused a shift in the balance of power within Europe.
The potential for more wealth would have struck Ralegh as he looked at that map. For all he knew, there might have been a water channel through the land masses by which he could cross to the Pacific and to the Orient. There certainly had to be mountains of gold, silver, and copper such as Spain was already exploiting.
Ralegh was a dashing and handsome man who ingratiated himself to Queen Elizabeth, and was just one of the handsome young men the Queen, in her 40s, enjoyed being with. No other courtiers had Ralegh''s success, however, and he gained from the queen a palace, grants, and other gifts.
In 1583, he assumed the role of promoting colonies in America, which he told the queen was the best way of undermining Philip''s power, not only by means of being competitive colonizers but also by providing a base from which British privateers might harass Spanish ships.
He wanted to go to America himself, but he knew Elizabeth would not let her favorite take such a risk. He gathered around him scholars, mariners, and merchants who would go on his missions. One of his selections was particularly important, that of John White, who had made an Atlantic voyage before and rendered maps and portraits of the people that were found there.
There was a scouting expedition sent to the Virginia settlement in 1584 that explored the area around Roanoke Island. This was the start of the difficulties with the tribes in the area. Although the English might have made truces and friendships with individual tribes and Indians, there was an enormous gulf of understanding. It is hard to imagine that the Indians could have gotten any advantage by allying with the settlers except in increasing their own tribal power against other tribes; what they got in return was disease, demands on their food supply, and loss of land.
White and the other colonists got to Roanoke in 1587, and almost immediately found themselves in trouble with the Indians, who found the settlers unreliable and enigmatically violent, as well as being the source of contagion. The Secotan tribe stopped trading with the colonists, and fearing starvation, the settlers attacked the Secotans and killed their chief. The colonists were in danger of war and starvation and had no solution apparent; they petitioned their leader White to return to England and urge Ralegh to send supplies and military reinforcement. The colonists felt that White was the most likely person to influence Ralegh; he reluctantly returned in late 1587, leaving behind his daughter and her baby, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.
The timing for White''s campaign could not have been worse. England was obsessed with preparing for war with Spain, and indeed, the Spanish Armada was being readied with the aim of defeating England for good. Whatever Ralegh might have wanted for his colony, all English ships were needed for coastal defense.
Then once the Armada had been defeated, there was a far less successful naval campaign against various Spanish ports. It was not until 1590 that White was able to arrange a return to Roanoke, and then because of a series of misadventures, it was he alone returning, with no supplies or reinforcements.
He found that the Roanoke settlement had been abandoned. It seemed to have been a planned move; the settlers'' boats were gone, and it seemed that only after the settlers had left did the Secotans ransack the site. The word "Croatoan," which was the name of a friendly tribe and also of a nearby island, was carved on a gatepost, a pre-arranged way the settlers could have told where they were headed, and they had not included a code that would have indicated that they were under attack. If he were returning with reinforcements, White certainly would have headed to hunt for the settlers using these clues; but he was essentially operating independently, and the crew of the ship that brought him had no interest in following up the mystery. When bad weather came up, they returned to England.
And there is where the mystery has always stood. We don''t have diaries or first-hand reports about any of the members of the colony. There have been various explanations, all of which Horn considers in the final pages of his book. Maybe the soldiers of Philip II moved in to kill the settlers. Perhaps they simply moved away and starved.
The most likely outcome, Horn says, is that the colonists moved inland in expectation of White''s imminent return. When that didn''t happen, they probably simply joined Indian communities and lived with them for decades. There may well have been a disastrous end for them once the Indian tribes suspected that they might be serving the newly arrived soldiers in Jamestown. Suffice it to say that Horn does not clear up the mystery once and for all; a mystery it will remain, and this important episode in the steps toward colonization is all the more interesting for it.
This is a fast-moving account, agreeably focused on the personalities of Ralegh and White. Ralegh is well known, of course, but the heartbreaking fate of the thoughtful and sad White, who had to abandon his family at Roanoke and then was not able to return to rescue them, bears much contemplation. He did all that his duty compelled him to do, but could not overcome the forces of nationalism or human nature to find his colony and family again.
After he returned to England, he was never able to resume any search. "I would to God my wealth was answerable to my will," he wrote.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]