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Paradise Lost

What happened to the first English settlers in America.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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A Kingdom Strange

Paradise Lost

The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
by James Horn
Basic Books, 304 pp., $26

The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island has long enjoyed a favored niche in histories of early America. A sturdy band of men, women, and children brave the fierce Atlantic in tiny ships to scratch out an Anglo-Saxon toehold in the New World. Their patron names the effort for England’s virgin queen, Elizabeth, for this is the first Virginia, despite being located in the lee of the barrier islands we know now as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But when the settlement’s leader returns there from a voyage home to seek reinforcements, he discovers the colonists have vanished into thin air. 

James Horn places this familiar tale in the larger European diplomatic and military context, and speculates about the mysterious disappearance. An accomplished author, Horn is vice president of research and historical interpretation as well as director of the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg. The strength of his approach to his subject lies in his mastery of sources. He shuns the layers of secondary works that, after four centuries, have piled up rumors and half-truths on top of one another. Instead, he prizes only documents written close to the events he relates. Even without the embellishments of popular writers, this is still a story of overweening ambition, heartbreak, greed, and repeated failure that only much later, and in ways unimagined by the original advocates, stamped Britain’s culture and power on North America.

Walter Ralegh (that is how he spelled his name) attracted Elizabeth’s favor, and royal generosity raised him from ordinary courtier to “insufferably proud” grandee. By 1583 he became the chief promoter of English settlement in America as a means to exploit the New World’s natural riches and a base from which to plunder the Spanish Caribbean. His initial foray probed the Atlantic coast the following summer and imprudently identified Roanoke Island as the best prospect for a permanent colony. 

Back in England, sentiment at court for all-out war with Spain allowed Ralegh “to marry his personal ambitions with Elizabeth’s foreign policy.” The English assembled a fleet under Sir Francis Drake to ravage the West Indies while Ralegh planned an outpost for privateers on Roanoke Island. Early in 1585, the queen knighted Ralegh and allowed him to name the new land for her, while he took the title “Lord and Governor of Virginia.” However, she forbade him from leading the enterprise in person, and he had to content himself with managing it from afar.  

 Under Sir Richard Grenville’s command, the expedition landed a force of soldiers at Roanoke that summer. Friendly at the beginning, local Indians gave the English permission to build a settlement on the island. John White, an artist in Ralegh’s London circle, was on hand to paint enchanting images of the natives and wildlife. For him, Virginia offered a new Eden, and he spread that gospel on his return to London. Even more enchanting to his pragmatic countrymen—filling their heads with visions of gold—was the news that Grenville had captured an immensely rich Spanish treasure ship. 

Gradually, relations between the settlers and the Indians frayed. The Englishmen remained dependent on the locals for food, while European diseases ravaged native villages. Ralph Lane, the leader of the colony, came to believe that Roanoke Island and the sandy ribbon of barrier dunes that sheltered it were ill-suited as a permanent site. He began to think he should relocate to the north by the Chesapeake Bay.

In the meantime, Drake and his fleet reached the West Indies bent on gold and glory. He pillaged Spanish outposts; but fevers sapped his crews’ strength and denied him the force to seize greater prizes in Panama or Havana. Instead, he charted a course for Roanoke, looting St. Augustine along the way. Drake’s arrival gave the colonists the means to carry out the move to the Chesapeake, but a hurricane so battered the fleet that Lane abandoned both Roanoke and his plans for the move northward.

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