Chronicles of America 

Sir Walter Raleigh and Prospectors for England

Conquerors first, prospectors second, then the pioneers: that is the order of those by whom America was opened up for English-speaking people. No Elizabethan colonies took root. Therefore the age of Elizabethan sea-dogs was one of conquerors and prospectors, not one of pioneering colonists at all.

Spain and Portugal alone founded sixteenth-century colonies that have had a continuous life from those days to our own. Virginia and New England, like New France, only began as permanent settlements after Drake and Queen Elizabeth were dead: Virginia in 1607, New France in 1608, New England in 1620.

It is true that Drake and his sea-dogs were prospectors in their way. So were the soldiers, gentlemen-adventurers, and fighting traders in theirs. On the other hand, some of the prospectors themselves belong to the class of conquerors, while many would have gladly been the pioneers of permanent colonies. Nevertheless the prospectors form a separate class; and Sir Walter Raleigh, though an adventurer in every other way as well, is undoubtedly their chief. His colonies failed. He never found his El Dorado. He died a ruined and neglected man. But still he was the chief of those whom we can only call prospectors, first, because they tried their fortune ashore, one step beyond the conquering sea-dogs, and, secondly, because their fortune failed them just one step short of where the pioneering colonists began.

'A man so various that he seemed to be Not one but all mankind's epitome' is a description written about a very different character. But it is really much more appropriate to Sir Walter Raleigh. Courtier and would-be colonizer, soldier and sailor, statesman and scholar, poet and master of prose, Raleigh had one ruling passion greater than all the rest combined. In a letter about America to Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Queen Elizabeth's principal minister of state, Lord Burleigh, he expressed this great determined purpose of his life: "I shall yet live to see it an Inglishe nation". He had other interests in abundance, perhaps in superabundance; and he had much more than the usual temptations to live the life of fashion with just enough of public duty to satisfy both the queen and the very least that is implied by the motto "Noblesse oblige". He was splendidly handsome and tall, a perfect blend of strength and grace, full of deep, romantic interest in great things far and near: the very man whom women dote on. And yet, through all the seductions of the Court and all the storm and stress of Europe, he steadily pursued the vision of that West which he would make 'an Inglishe nation.'

He left Oxford as an undergraduate to serve the Huguenots in France under Admiral Coligny and the Protestants in Holland under William of Orange. Like Hawkins and Drake, he hated Spain with all his heart and paid off many a score against her by killing Spanish troops at Smerwick during an Irish campaign marked by ruthless slaughter on both sides. On his return to England he soon attracted the charmed attention of the queen. His spreading his cloak for her to tread on, lest she might wet her feet, is one of those stories which ought to be true if it's not. In any case he won the royal favor, was granted monopolies, promotion, and estates, and launched upon the full flood-stream of fortune.

He was not yet thirty when he obtained for his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, then a man of thirty-eight, a royal commission 'to inhabit and possess all remote and Heathen lands not in the possession of any Christian prince.' The draft of Gilbert's original prospectus, dated at London, the 6th of November, 1577, and still kept there in the Record Office, is an appeal to Elizabeth in which he proposed 'to discover and inhabit some strange place.' Gilbert was a soldier and knew what fighting meant; so he likewise proposed 'to set forth certain ships of war to the New Land, which, with your good license, I will undertake without your Majesty's charge.... The New Land fish is a principal and rich and everywhere vendible merchandise; and by the gain thereof shipping, victual, munition, and the transporting of five or six thousand soldiers may be defrayed.'

But Gilbert's associates cared nothing for fish and everything for gold. He went to the West Indies, lost a ship, and returned without a fortune. Next year he was forbidden to repeat the experiment.

The project then languished until the fatal voyage of 1583, when Gilbert set sail with six vessels, intending to occupy Newfoundland as the base from which to colonize southwards until an armed New England should meet and beat New Spain. How vast his scheme! How pitiful its execution! And yet how immeasurably beyond his wildest dreams the actual development today! Gilbert was not a sea-dog but a soldier with an uncanny reputation for being a regular Jonah who 'had no good hap at sea.' He was also passionately self-willed, and Elizabeth had doubts about the propriety of backing him. But she sent him a gilt anchor by way of good luck and off he went in June, financed chiefly by Raleigh, whose name was given to the flagship.

Gilbert's adventure never got beyond its base in Newfoundland. His ship the "Delight" was wrecked. The crew of the "Raleigh" mutinied and ran her home to England. The other four vessels held on. But the men, for the most part, were neither good soldiers, good sailors, nor yet good colonists, but ne'er-do-wells and desperadoes. By September the expedition was returning broken down. Gilbert, furious at the sailors' hints that he was just a little sea-shy, would persist in sticking to the Lilliputian ten-ton "Squirrel", which was woefully top-hampered with guns and stores. Before leaving Newfoundland he was implored to abandon her and bring her crew aboard a bigger craft. But no. 'Do not fear,' he answered; 'we are as near to Heaven by sea as land.' One wild night off the Azores the "Squirrel" foundered with all hands.

Amadas and Barlow sailed in 1584. Prospecting for Sir Walter Raleigh, they discovered several harbors in North Carolina, then part of the vast 'plantation' of Virginia. Roanoke Island, Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, as well as the intervening waters, were all explored with enthusiastic thoroughness and zeal. Barlow, a skipper who was handy with his pen, described the scent of that fragrant summer land in terms which attracted the attention of Bacon at the time and of Dryden a century later. The royal charter authorizing Raleigh to take what he could find in this strange land had a clause granting his prospective colonists 'all the privileges of free denizens and persons native of England in such ample manner as if they were born and personally resident in our said realm of England.'

Next year Sir Richard Grenville, who was Raleigh's cousin, convoyed out to Roanoke the little colony which Ralph Lane governed and which, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, Drake took home discomfited in 1586. There might have been a story to tell of successful colonization, instead of failure, if Drake had kept away from Roanoke that year or if he had tarried a few days longer. For no sooner had the colony departed in Drake's vessels than a ship sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh, 'freighted with all maner of things in most plentiful maner,' arrived at Roanoke; and 'after some time spent in seeking our Colony up in the countrey, and not finding them, returned with all the aforesayd provision into England.' About a fortnight later Sir Richard Grenville himself arrived with three ships. Not wishing to lose possession of the country where he had planted a colony the year before, he 'landed fifteene men in the Isle of Roanoak, furnished plentifully with all maner of provision for two yeeres, and so departed for England.' Grenville unfortunately had burnt an Indian town and all its standing corn because the Indians had stolen a silver cup. Lane, too, had been severe in dealing with the natives and they had turned from friends to foes. These and other facts were carefully recorded on the spot by the official chronicler, Thomas Harriot, better known as a mathematician.

Among the captains who had come out under Grenville in 1585 was Thomas Cavendish, a young and daring gentleman-adventurer, greatly distinguished as such even in that adventurous age, and the second English leader to circumnavigate the globe. When Drake was taking Lane's men home in June, 1586, Cavendish was making the final preparations for a two-year voyage. He sailed mostly along the route marked out by Drake, and many of his adventures were of much the same kind. His prime object was to make the voyage pay a handsome dividend. But he did notable service in clipping the wings of Spain. He raided the shipping off Chile and Peru, took the Spanish flagship, the famous "Santa Anna", off the coast of California, and on his return home in 1588 had the satisfaction of reporting: 'I burned and sank nineteen sail of ships, both small and great; and all the villages and towns that ever I landed at I burned and spoiled.'

While Cavendish was preying on Spanish treasure in America, and Drake was 'singeing the King of Spain's beard' in Europe, Raleigh still pursued his colonizing plans. In 1587 John White and twelve associates received incorporation as the 'Governor and Assistants of the City of Ralegh in Virginia.' The fortunes of this ambitious city were not unlike those of many another 'boomed' and 'busted' city of much more recent date. No time was lost in beginning. Three ships arrived at Roanoke on the 22nd of July, 1587. Every effort was made to find the fifteen men left behind the year before by Grenville to hold possession for the Queen. Mounds of earth, which may even now be traced, so piously have their last remains been cared for, marked the site of the fort. From natives of Croatoan Island the newcomers learned that Grenville's men had been murdered by hostile Indians.

One native friend was found in Manteo, a chief whom Barlow had taken to England and Grenville had brought back. Manteo was now living with his own tribe of sea-coast Indians on Croatoan Island. But the mischief between red and white had been begun; and though Manteo had been baptized and was recognized as 'The Lord of Roanoke' the races were becoming fatally estranged.

After a month Governor White went home for more men and supplies, leaving most of the colonists at Roanoke. He found Elizabeth, Raleigh, and the rest all working to meet the Great Armada. Yet, even during the following year, the momentous year of 1588, Raleigh managed to spare two pinnaces, with fifteen colonists aboard, well provided with all that was most needed. A Spanish squadron, however, forced both pinnaces to run back for their lives. After this frustrated attempt two more years passed before White could again sail for Virginia. In August, 1590, his trumpeter sounded all the old familiar English calls as he approached the little fort. No answer came. The colony was lost for ever. White had arranged that if the colonists should be obliged to move away they should carve the name of the new settlement on the fort or surrounding trees, and that if there was either danger or distress they should cut a cross above. The one word CROATOAN was all White ever found. There was no cross. White's beloved colony, White's favorite daughter and her little girl, were perhaps in hiding. But supplies were running short. White was a mere passenger on board the ship that brought him; and the crew were getting impatient, so impatient for refreshment' and a Spanish prize that they sailed past Croatoan, refusing to stop a single hour.

Perhaps White learnt more than is recorded and was satisfied that all the colonists were dead. Perhaps not. Nobody knows. Only a wandering tradition comes out of that impenetrable mystery and circles round the not impossible romance of young Virginia Dare. Her father was one of White's twelve 'Assistants.' Her mother, Eleanor, was White's daughter. Virginia herself, the first of all true 'native-born' Americans, was born on the 18th of August, 1587. Perhaps Manteo, 'Lord of Roanoke,' saved the whole family whose name has been commemorated by that of the North Carolina county of Dare. Perhaps Virginia Dare alone survived to be an 'Indian Queen' about the time the first permanent Anglo-American colony was founded in 1607, twenty years after her birth. Who knows?

Back to: English Exploration of America