The lost colony on Roanoke Island



Sir Walter Ralegh was rather a poser, and a dandy. He was the man who according to legend got into the Queen Elizabeth’s good books when they first met by laying his plush new cloak over a puddle so that she would not wet her feet as she crossed the muddy road; in the town of Raleigh in North Carolina there is a motel called The Velvet Cloak. It was said at one point that he had spent 6,000 gold pieces on his shoes alone. But he was also a visionary who organized the world’s first scientific expedition, and he laid the foundations of the British Empire.

In April 1584 Ralegh sent off an expedition of two small ships to look for a site where he could settle an English colony in America. They found a fine place on Roanoke Island off the coast of what is now North Carolina, where the sailors got on well with the natives (although one of the captains, Arthur Barlowe, was smitten by the chief’s wife, and was most dissappointed that unlike most of the others women, she covered her chest with ‘a long cloke of leather’).

Roanoke Island village

Barlowe brought back to England two of the natives from Roanoke, one of whom, Manteo, became a great hit at court, which was good for Ralegh’s status. Meanwhile a clever polymath called Thomas Harriot began to compile a phrase-book in the Algonquin language. Harriot taught Manteo English, and in exchange learned about the language and customs of the Algonquin.

Settlers arriving on Roanoke island

In 1585 the Queen knighted her favourite, and in April Sir Walter Ralegh sent off five ships from Plymouth with several hundred people on board, hoping to evade the Spanish and make new lives in the new world, which was named Virginia, in honour of Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen”. They met with various adventures on the way, but by the end of August the last ship had sailed for home and 107 colonists were left to fend for themselves.

Sir Walter Ralegh

Along with the sailors, soldiers and farmers, Ralegh had sent the scientist Thomas Harriot and the artist John White. White had started life as a miniaturist, but moved on to use watercolours, which was revolutionary among serious artists. He had his first chance to go abroad with Martin Frobisher in 1577, and his earliest surviving paintings show skin-clad Eskimos paddling kayaks through the ice-floes. These paintings were what persuaded Ralegh to send him to Roanoke.

Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot was an extraordinary character. A close contemporary of Francis Bacon, he was less of a philosopher and much more of a hands-on scientist and mathematician. he studied at Oxford and was installed by Walter Ralegh as his mathematical tutor at Durham House on the Strand; Harriot’s job was to teach Ralegh’s sailors navigational science. Ralegh sent him as surveyor to Roanoke in 1585, and he surveyed the area around the new colony – presumably with a theodolite; he produced a remarkably accurate map, and in 1588 published A Brief and True Report of the new-found Land of Virginia. This little book described the native customs of farming, foods, animals and plants.

Drawing of the iguana by John White

Meanwhile, White sketched all these things in pencil – an early devotee of the new technology from the Lake District – and then painted them in a beautiful coloured detail. These were the first pictures seen outside America of flamingos, iguanas and other weird and wonderful things. Most important of all, though, he sketched and painted people.

Algonquin Indians

Harriot may well have been using a telescope; we know the Tudors were experimenting with lenses and mirrors, and Harriot says he took to Roanoke a ‘perspective glass whereby was showed many strange sights’. Some historians of science believe that Harriot had followed Leonard Digges and make a telescope, twenty-five years before it was invented by Hans Lippershey and developed by Galileo. He observed comets, the moons of Jupiter, and the lunar surface, which he drew in 1609. He seems to have been the first person ever to observe sunspots, and from their movement he worked out the rate of rotation of the Sun. He correspodened with Kepler between 1606 and 1609; built himself an observatory, and had the largest astronomical instrument in England – a 12-foot cross-staff.

Native Indian village

Harriot also made notes on huge range of practical things: the best site for a ship’s mast, the maximum supportable population of the earth, the gaseous yield of a burning candle, clever new methods of navigation, the densities of a range of materials, including gold, silver, antimony and lobster shells, and a study of the velocity of water flow, which led to a new plumbing system for Petworth House, home of the Earl of Northumberland, who became his patron.

Thomas Harriot was a smoking enthusiast, and tried to persuade his reluctant contemporaries that tobacco had useful medicinal properties. He got his comeuppance, though, for he died from a terrible black tumour on his nose; he was probably the first man in England to die from smoking.

In 1587 Manteo returned to Roanoke with a new batch of colonists, but now he was Lord Manteo, the chosen representative of the Queen of England, which was to say the least controversial appointment. In 1590 a further group of English visitors, led by the artist John White, who had been made Governor, found the colony abandoned. No one was able to find out whether the colonists were killed, had starved to death, or simply moved on somewhere. Mysteriously, the name of Manteo’s village, Croatoan, was carved on a tree.

Croatoan name carved on the tree

Ralegh’s colony survived for only about five years, but it provided the old world with its first look at the new; moreover, the colony’s existence may even have been the reason why Americans speak English to this day, rather then Spanish, or even Portuguese.

One of the lasting influences of the Elizabethans on world affairs was the founding of the British East India Company, which was given a royal charter by the Queen on 31st December 1600. “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies” were granted the exclusive right to trade in India, Africa and America, and in 1610 and 1611 they set up trading posts in Madras and Bombay. The growing influence of the company as trade steadily increased was one of the major causes of the British domination of India. Robert Clive, of the East India Company, won decisive battles at Arcot and Trichinopoly in India against the French in the middle of the eighteenth century, and in 1773 the British Government appointed a Governor General of India. In other words, India became a part of the British Empire as a direct result of Tudor trade.

Robert Clive Examining the Enemy’s Lines

So what the Tudors did in this sphere or artistry and exploration was to bring about new ways of seeing the world, and then to record those images with a new precision. They made the first accurate maps and developed scientific instruments to aid surveying and navigation on land and sea. Through hazardous ocean voyages, important trade routes were opened up and new lands discovered; the first attempts to settle in these lands laid the foundations of the British Empire.

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