The Failed Lost Colony of Roanoke Island

Life in the sixteenth century was horrendous. There were some good points, sure, like Michelangelo’s David sculpture, completed in 1504. Sadly, things went downhill shortly after David’s completion. One of the worst things to happen in the 1500’s, aside from the Dancing Plague of 1518, was the attempted—key word being ‘attempted’—establishment of the first English colony in the Americas, Roanoke.

What was wrong with Roanoke? I think that’s the wrong question. The right question, I feel, is, what was right with Roanoke?

Let’s start with some history. The 1500’s is pretty late to start getting into the whole colony craze, and England knew this. It’s like trying to get into cell-phones in the year 2015 by starting with a Motorola RAZR. At this point in time, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish all had colonies strewn about the Americas. They got the best seats in the house, and England had to choose between nosebleed seats and different-looking nosebleed seats.

Why was England so late?  They were too busy playing footsies with Ireland, trying to annex them together into the Kingdom of Ireland, with King Henry VIII as its figurehead. Now, if you don’t recall, Henry VIII was the guy who, quite possibly, executed every woman he’d ever come into contact with. I’m sure you can see why Ireland wasn’t too keen on having that fun-loving gent as their regal representative.

Fresh off the affair with Ireland—though the hostility between England and Ireland was far from over—Queen Elizabeth I, a less psychotic ruler decided to trust Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a successful colony on the east coast of the Americas. In 1584, Raleigh and some other dudes explored the east coast and found Roanoke Island. There, they made contact with the natives and, surprisingly, didn’t butcher or enslave any of them! I’m sure it took a lot of self-control on behalf of Raleigh, so we should commend him. He did, however, take two Croatoans with him; but it was only so he could better understand the politics and geography of the region. I’m sure he was very nice to those two.

With the help of the two Croatoans, Raleigh got to O.K. to organize a second expedition, this time appointing Sir Richard Grenville as the party leader. On April 9, 1585, The Tiger, the Roebuck, the Red Lion, the Elizabeth and the Dorothy were to establish a colony on Roanoke Island.

The Universe has humorous timing, I feel. While rounding Portugal, a storm blew the ships off course, driving them all off in different directions. The captains of the ships had a contingency plan to meet up in Puerto Rico if they were separated. Sadly, only the Tiger, Grenville’s vessel, reached Puerto Rico to start. Grenville waited patiently, even going so far as to make contact with the resident Spaniards and do privateering for them while he waited. Eventually, the Elizabeth arrived, looking like she just rode through a nasty storm. Grenville was delighted, but soon grew tired of waiting for the rest of the ships. Fun fact: Grenville waited an estimated 15 minutes after the Elizabeth’s arrival before ditching the rest of the ships.

While sailing through the Ocracoke Inlet, the Tiger struck a schoal, wherefore most of the food supplies fell into said schoal. There is good news, however, the sailors repaired the Tiger’s damage and, in July, met up with Roebuck and Dorothy. Roebuck struggled to escape the pull of the ocean’s equivalent of a black hole, the whirlpool and Dorothy had an existential journey through the magical Land of Oz. Red Lion also found its way back to the group when Dorothy and Roebuck found it some weeks previous. The Red Lion basically dropped its passengers off and said, “I can’t handle this anymore,” and fled to do privateering in Newfoundland.

Now, most of the people on these ships were uneducated and were without relevant skills. They had very poor skill sets. They also were not equipped to and had no inclination to start a colony. They wanted to get in, get rich and get out. This, as you can imagine, is a big problem. It’s a shame, too, since Roanoke is actually a pretty fantastic location for a colony. It had fertile soil, good ports, and enough geography to isolate them from the Spanish. Unfortunately, there were no farmers among any of the ships’ crews. These guys were doomed from the start.

Finally, the English arrived. Instead of doing something practical like building camp or a few outposts, what do you think the English do first? Really, take a guess. If you guessed that they go pillaging and destroying stuff, then you’re right! Good on you. I don’t know about you, but if I were in a land I knew nothing about, the last thing I’d be doing is attacking the local populace. I suppose that’s why I’m not ever invited on these kinds of expeditions.

To be fair, the English probably had a very good reason for doing the one thing you’re never supposed to do when first settling a colony, which is angering the natives. Their reason, I think, is pretty sound. The English killed the natives over a silver cup. Yes, a silver cup the natives were accused of stealing. Whether they did steal it or not, sacking and pillaging an entire village is a bit of an overreaction, even if it’s just on the principle.

Off to a great start, Grenville realized they were low on food. He left Ralph Lane and 107 men to establish a colony further north, promising to come back at a later time with more men and fresh supplies.

Grenville promised to return in April of 1586, but he did not. Not to mention the fact that, usually, natives don’t exactly like when you burn and destroy their villages, so bad blood starting pooling between the colonists and the natives. So much so that the natives attacked the colonists! I bet no one saw this coming, not even the natives themselves.

Later, Sir Francis Drake, the legend himself, on his way home from a raid in the Caribbean, stumbled upon Roanoke. Compassionately, he offered to take the men back to England, many of whom accepted. Whoever didn’t was either dead or suffering from dysentery followed by death, so pretty much everyone said yes to this deal.

Shortly after Sir. Freaking Francis Drake showed up like Superman, that Grenville also came back. Finding the colony a basic mess, he returned to England with his force, leaving a small detachment in order to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh’s claim of Roanoke Island.

In 1587, on a new expedition to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay, no trace of the Roanoke colonists was left. They simply vanished. While all that was going on, the natives were completely owning the new wave of colonists, using guerilla warfare to wreck their lives.

It is theorized that the colonists left behind eventually got into a conflict with the natives there. Upon losing, the survivors were indoctrinated into the tribe, thus becoming natives themselves.

Many years later, rumors began spreading through the colonies of seeing fair-skinned natives skipping through the forest. I’m sure to them that was a scary, possibly terrifying, image; but these were the same people who believed in a disease that kills you via dancing. I don’t think we can take much of what they think seriously anyway.

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