In March 1584, privateer (or pirate depending on your view) Walter Rayleigh obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth 1 for setting up an English colony in North America. For over half a century, the English had watched as the Spanish Empire had grown rich on the spoils of the Aztec and Incas. Treasure laden galleons would sail from Spanish colonies in South America and bring wealth to the parent country.
Sir Walter Raleigh
England being a newcomer to the nautical world relied on piracy. Officially sanctioned English privateers intercepted and looted Spanish ships on the high seas paying a part of the profit to the English crown. A colony in North America would serve as a useful and profitable base of operations for such privateers.
The next month Rayleigh launched an expedition to explore the East coast of America. Based on it’s report, the first colonizing fleet of four ships was sent the following year to Roanoke island.
Almost as soon as the colony of 107 men was set up, it ran into trouble. One of the natives of the neighbouring Aquascogoc tribe was accused of stealing a silver cup and the colonists burnt and sacked his village. The bad blood resulting from this led to increasing tensions with the natives. Some of the men opted to leave with Sir Francis Drake whose ships passed through the area.
Shortly afterwards, a relief fleet arrived. But they found the colony abandoned. The fleet returned to England leaving 15 men to maintain English presence and Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.
In 1587, Raleigh dispatched another team of 115 colonists including families under the leadership of the artist John White to colonize Chesapeake Bay. On the way, they reached Roanoke Island. Of the 15 men who had been garrisoned there, they found nothing but skeletons.
At this point, their pilot, a Portuguese named Simon Fernandez rebelled and refused to go further or to allow the colonists to re-board claiming that the summer was almost over and stranding the planters on the island. Faced with this mutiny, White seems to have backed down and the colonists established themselves on Roanoke Island.
In the August of that year, White was blessed with a grand-daughter who was christened Virginia Dare. This was the first child born in America.
Baptism of Virginia Dare
During his stay, White produced a number of vivid watercolours of the local inhabitants. These remain an informative source for the study of Native Americans on the Eastern Shore.
Watercolours of Secotan Indians by John White
But tensions also sprang up. From the natives they learnt that the previous 15 man garrison had been wiped out by hostile Secotan, Aquascogoc and Dasamongueponke warriors. In retaliation, White led a dawn raid on a Dasamongueponke village. But in the darkness, they attacked a group of hitherto friendly Indians. Relations with the natives degraded steadily.
Later that year, as the colonists’ food started dwindling, White was persuaded to return to England by flyboat and seek assistance. Disaster soon struck White on this trip as men died of injury, starvation and scurvy till they landed in Ireland in October 1587.
As White made preparations, he saw his plans come undone. The war between England and Spain had heated up. The Spanish Armada was expected to set sail for England and every available ship was needed for defence. None could be spared to resupply Roanoke.
In the meantime, Roanoke was in the midst of its worst drought in 800 years. But it was only in August 1590 that White was able to return with a relief fleet.
But when he landed, he found a ghost town. There was no sign of the 90 men, 17 women and 11 children White had left there. There was also no sign of any struggle. On a fence around the village, they found a single carved word, “Croatoan”. The letters CRO were also carved on a nearby tree.
White had agreed with the colonists that if they were taken forcibly, they should leave a Maltese Cross carved on one of the trees but no such cross was in evidence. White felt this meant the colonists had moved to Croatoan island, but he was prevented from searching for them due to deteriorating weather and storms.
White had to return empty handed. He spent his later years in Plymouth and in Ireland where he reflected on the evils and misfortunes that had befallen him.
Map of Roanoke Island drawn by John White
Many attempts were made discover the eventual fate of the colonists. At present, the most likely theory seems to be that as their supplies ran out they were forced to join with the natives and intermarried with them. Many local tribes claim descent from these white colonists. Also, later there were stories of blond haired and grey eyed Indians in those parts.
Some maintain that the Spanish destroyed the colony as they had done French colonies. This seems unlikely as there are no records of the Spanish having discovered the colony during the time.
The mystery of what happened to the people of the Roanoke Island colony persists.