Monday, June 27, 2011

Lee Miller, Roanoke

Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony (2000).

If you like speculative history full of mysteries and possible conspiracies, this is a great book for you. Ethnohistorian Lee Miller has take a fresh look at the disappearance of the "lost colony," and she has many interesting things to say about the fate of the 115 missing colonists. Some of her ideas are convincing, some intriguing, some wildly speculative, but none are boring and there is evidence for all. I found the book engrossing and enlightening. My only major complaint is with the writing style. Miller seems to have been reading too much Annie Proulx, and she gives us lots of sentences with no verbs, piled atop one another to create a sort of breathless verbal urgency that is much more distracting than enthralling.

The Lost Colony was sent to Roanoke Island, North Carolina in 1587. Their sponsor was Walter Raleigh, then riding high in Queen Elizabeth's favor. They were led by John White, who had been on both of the previous expeditions to North Carolina in 1584 and 1585. Raleigh's main goal was strategic. He hoped that a secure base in America would allow British privateers to challenge the naval supremacy of Spain, cut off the flow of treasure from Mexico and Peru to Madrid, and shift the balance of power in Europe. John White's purpose remains more mysterious, since he seems neither to have been a soldier-adventurer in the mode of John Smith nor an ambitious politician, and in fact he is best remembered as an artist. (He did all of the paintings in this post.)

One of my favorite ideas of Miller's concerns the identity of the colonists. We don't know much about them or why they went to America. She suggests that they were a congregation of dissenting Protestants, the people who would soon be known as Puritans. The evidence is, first, that nobody other than John White seems to have cared much what happened to them, and, second, that at Roanoke they organized themselves as a democracy and voted on what to do. Since dissenters were just about the only people in England who did things democratically, it is certainly an intriguing possibility.

Most of the book is taken up with the question of how the colonists came to be abandoned at Roanoke under such bad circumstances, especially since their plan had been to settle somewhere on the Chesapeake Bay. This question has long vexed historians, and most have blamed John White for dithering incompetence. Miller instead points her finger at the expedition's pilot, a Portuguese sailor and former pirate named Simon Fernandez. Our only detailed account of the voyage comes from a letter John White wrote to Richard Hakluyt in 1593. If White's narrative is even approximately correct, Fernandez has a lot to answer for. He took the colonists on a long, wandering excursion through the Caribbean, saying he was looking for supplies but somehow not finding any, and pretty much tossed them overboard at Roanoke Island too late in the summer to plant crops, refusing to take them any further or leave them enough food to sustain themselves through the winter. One reason the colonists did not want to stay at Roanoke was that the previous expedition to the island had started a war with the local Indians, and since the 15 soldiers they had left behind to man the fort had all disappeared, things seemed grim for the colonists. People sometimes ask why White didn't have Fernandez shot for mutiny, as was his right as expedition commander. In White's account all the sailors were with Fernandez and they made it plain that they would support him instead of White, so that was an option he did not have. So White, at the urging (he says) of the other colonists, accepted Fernandez's offer to take one person back to London to request help for the colony.

Why did Fernandez do it? Miller assumes that since he had no clear personal motive he must have done it at the behest of some powerful figure. After all, Raleigh's rapid rise to the top of Elizabethan England had made him many enemies who might have wanted to see his colonial venture fail. If that meant 115 English colonists had to die, well, that was the way politics was played in the Renaissance. As the guilty party Miller settles on the obvious suspect, Francis Walsingham. Walsingham was one of the two chief ministers in Elizabeth's government (Lord Burghley was the other), and he remained in power for decades even though the Queen distrusted him and more than once accused him of treason. Walsingham was the man mainly responsible for England's "foreign policy" at the time, and he sought to make England the leader of a Protestant alliance that would topple Spain from its position as Europe's chief power. In this capacity he organized a worldwide ring of spies to feed him information, and he employed Europe's best cryptographers to cipher his own messages and break the codes of his enemies. He worked for at least a decade to bring about the execution of Mary Queen of Scotts, and eventually he either uncovered or actually created the Babington Plot in which she was entrapped, which led to her death. Besides that unsavory episode, Walsingham has also been blamed for the murder of Christopher Marlowe, who was almost certainly one of his agents. Walsingham also hated Raleigh and resented his intrusions into the war with Spain. So Walsingham certainly had the motive and the means to sabotage Raleigh's colony, and I for one can believe that he did it. Miller has even dug up one source that says Walsingham had rescued Simon Fernandez from the gallows (for piracy) on the condition that he become Walsingham's man, and if that is so, I think the case against Walsingham is sound.

But what happened to the abandoned colonists? White was not able to return to Roanoke until 1590. He says that he found the settlement abandoned as if purposefully, everything taken except the heaviest items, which had been carefully buried. Carved on a post was the word CROATOAN. White says that he had agreed with the colonists that if they abandoned the post they would leave such a message saying where they had gone. Croatoan was the name of both a place, to the south of Roanoke, and the Indians who lived there. White assumed his people had gone to stay with the Croatoan, but he was only a passenger on this voyage and could not get the expedition's leaders to take him across the treacherous Albermarle Sound to Croatoan, so he never found out where the colonists had gone.

When Jamestown was founded in 1607, there was naturally some curiosity about the previous settlers, and John Smith asked the Powhatans about other Englishmen. He heard several rumors about white people in the interior of what is now North Carolina, but he was never able to investigate the rumors. Later, when war had broken out between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatans, the leaders of the colony found it convenient to claim that Powhatan himself had boasted of slaughtering the Roanoke colonists -- or perhaps he did boast of this, in a vain attempt to intimidate the English. Over the years there were other rumors about white settlers, and when John Lawson explored North Carolina in 1701 he met Indians living near Croatoan who had gray eyes and claimed to have English people among their ancestors. As Miller says, it was the common Indian habit to kill only men in war and to take women and children hostage, to be kept as slaves or adopted into the tribe. So it would be more surprising if no colonists survived and left descendants than if a few dozen did.

Where Miller lost me was in claiming to have discovered exactly who captured the colonists and where they were taken. My experience with trying to reconstruct events among Indians away from the coast, using European records, is all bad. Everything we know about most of the tribes Miller mentions can be written on a 3x5 index card, and most of that is unreliable. None of the accounts she cites by English colonists who said they ventured into the interior is particularly believable (until John Lawson, 113 years later), since none of their accounts of distances covered and places visited can be made to fit on a modern map. So this part of Miller's book left me agnostic. It is, though, a good example of the possibilities and frustrations of the sources about Indians in this period, so it can serve as an introduction to this kind ethnohistory. All in all, this is an enjoyable, thought-provoking book.

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