Roanoke’s Lost Colony Had Tragic History

Posted April 12, 2010 at 4:42pm

Today’s American metropolises make it difficult to imagine a countryside full of fauna and flora. The growth caused by the Industrial Revolution devoured much of our pristine land.

This high-stakes modus operandi — come to America, the land of opportunity — has been the driving force for millions of immigrants, including the first British settlers in the New World, according to James Horn in “A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke.”

In the 1500s, Spain’s conquering spree was unmatched. The country’s dominance of the Atlantic Ocean, its rule over native nations throughout present-day Mexico, Peru and the West Indies, and its stranglehold on the Iberian Peninsula overshadowed the exploits of other countries.

Despite its rich heritage and academic advancements, England could not compete with its rival to the south. This inferiority bothered British leaders and infected them with insecurity and envy.

Even the British intelligentsia feared Spain, Horn wrote. They worried that the Spanish would not only rule the new continents, but that Spain also could employ a takeover of Europe and Africa. The result, a paranoid Queen Elizabeth I and her subordinates speculated, could be Spain becoming a modern-day Roman Empire funded by what appeared at the time to be limitless amounts of gold and silver from its colonies overseas.

There would be only one method of challenging Spain, according to the British crown: establishing their own colonies in the New World.

Before the British defeated the Spanish Armada, 104 Britons left their homeland and in 1587 settled in present-day Virginia. The expedition was funded by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by John White, an ambitious trader who would become the colony’s first lord governor.

“No Indians were present to witness the event by which the newcomers had asserted their ownership of the land, but as far as the English were concerned, the entire region extending for 300 miles in every direction was now part of the realm of England,” Horn described.

Raleigh’s objective was simple: cultivate a cornucopia of crops, attain precious metals and conquer lots of land. Yet, none of that happened on the first try.

Not surprisingly, the group quickly ran out of supplies, and White was forced to return to England to gain additional support. Back home, though, Raleigh, who had a sincere commitment in the colony, lost interest.

Two years later, White finally returned to the colony to find an abandoned settlement.

Horn theorized that the settlers “probably dispersed into four main groups.”

Horn also develops one theory that the colonists could have joined local tribes. “The lost colonists could not have guessed the adversities faced by White that prevented him from returning. When he failed to come back with supplies and reinforcements, they turned to local peoples for help and lived peacefully with them for nearly twenty years,” Horn concluded.

A parallel theory Horn wrestled with is that Chief Wahunsonacock, the savvy and ruthless ruler of the Powhatans, killed nearly every one of them, fearing the English would turn against him and conquer the region.

The first colony was always seen as a commercial enterprise, but after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Raleigh was pushed away from his leading role by the queen’s successor, King James I.

Under the king’s directive, Sir Thomas West, the 12th Baron De La Warr, was appointed lord governor. It would be a century after the first expedition that the English moved on from their setback and began to flourish commercially.

As Horn put it, “In the scramble for profits that characterized Virginia society for a decade, and a half century after the beginning of large-scale tobacco cultivation in 1616, Roanoke and England’s first colonists were forgotten.”

Although the first settlement was a failure, the legacy of that initial expedition resulted in the conception of a four-point strategy for handling operations in the New World. The first was to find “a passage to the South Sea and gold or silver mines; the second was trade with Indians, within the region and beyond; the third was extracting tribute (tithes) from local peoples in return for liberating them from the tyranny of Wahunsonacock and his priests, and the fourth was producing all sorts of commodities in demand in England, as well as harvesting the natural wealth of the land and rivers.”

That became the formula for every excursion to follow. The Dutch and the French emulated it brilliantly, and American expansionism began to resemble Europe’s empires.