two books about one infamous failure

A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by James Horn (Basic Books, 2010)

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

The story of what happened to the colony of Roanoke is one of those odd enduring myths in American history. Roanoke certainly wasn’t the first or the last colony in the Americas to fail miserably. (Both the French Huguenots and the Spanish Jesuits beat the English “planters” in the “Establish A Colony, Everybody Dies” game by more than a decade.) Roanoke stands out in American lore because its 115 people supposedly vanished without a trace (if by “without a trace” we mean “actually there were all kinds of traces, some of them literally carved into trees”). That mystery allows for all kinds of interpretations, ranging from the mundane to the (hilariously) supernatural, often with a focus on the colony itself rather than the context in which it failed. Understandable, from a narrative perspective, but not terribly robust from a historical perspective.

A Kingdom Strange by James Horn takes a straightforward approach to the Roanoke story, first establishing the historical setting and the motivation behind England’s efforts to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay (to get one over on Spain, basically, the motivation behind just about everything England did over the Atlantic in the sixteenth century) and the prior Roanoke voyages that did very little to endear the English to people who already lived there. It’s a measured, thorough look at the story, although he’s a bit kinder to some of the main players than they seem to deserve, particularly Ralph Lane, the arrogant, incompetent leader of the small military expedition that preceded John White’s colonial expedition by two years.

Very little is known about the colonists themselves, with the exception of John White himself, the artist-turned-colony governor who went back to England to summon help but was unable to return to the colony for three years. Horn makes some guesses about why they chose to join White at his colony, but they’re just that, guesses, and not terribly important in the end. Whatever the reason, whoever they were, whether they were in it for profit or because London had made them feel unwelcome, the Roanoke colonists were woefully unprepared for the task ahead of them. It’s not clear that any of them even knew how to farm or hunt; they were Londoners, for the most part, not homesteaders.

The story winds down with the various expeditions John Smith and his men made from the Virginia Colony at Jamestown to find the lost colonists. They never found them, of course, but they found some evidence that the colonists had dispersed from Roanoke and moved inland with various Indian groups. And that’s all the answer there is to the mystery. It’s not a terribly thrilling answer (alas, there is not a single alien abduction or zombie plague to be found), and I can’t help but wonder if the reason everybody still insists there is a mystery is because the sad, quiet whimper of people moving away and eventually dying or assimilating just isn’t exciting enough to sustain the beloved lore.

Lee Miller’s book Roanoke takes an entirely different approach, once which is entertaining and interesting but ultimately unconvincing. She begins from the hypothesis that the Roanoke colony must have been sabotaged from the start, as that is the only explanation for the multiple instances of trouble that beset the voyage from the beginning. It’s a shaky foundation; none of what she ascribes to sabotaged couldn’t also be explained by mere incompetence and/or petty greed. Mostly greed. I’m not sure there’s sufficient cause to look for deeper, darker motives when searching for reasons why the ships’ crews were more interested in seizing Spanish booty than they were in ferrying grubby colonists up the coast.

It only grows shakier when she winds it all up to the stunning conclusion that it was no less than Sir Francis Walsingham himself, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and principal secretary, who sabotaged the colony via the navigator Simon Fernandes as part of his massive, decades-spanning plot to undermine Sir Walter Raleigh’s favor at court and protect his overarching vision of England, a vision which did not, presumably, include the Queen making googly-eyes at youthful adventurous upstarts.

It would be such a fantastic tale if it were true—and the premise of a great movie or HBO series, come on, somebody should write that—and it certainly makes for an entertaining read, but nothing Miller presents bears any resemblance to a smoking gun. It’s so much more likely that people were stupid and greedy and had no idea what they were getting themselves into than that there was a villainous political mastermind manipulating the whole thing from far away. A fun story, but it’s a classic example of manipulating the data to fit the conclusion.

On the other hand, there is one thing that Miller’s book does exceptionally well. Her narrative demonstrates in great detail just how complex and changeable the local politics were in the Mid-Atlantic coastal region even before the bumbling Europeans showed up, and how the ultimate fate of the colonists likely had quite a lot to do with the ever-shifting alliances and conflicts between dozens of Native American groups. The Roanoke colonists (and their predecessors) didn’t encounter a single Native American group or village; they landed right into the middle of a complicated, layered political situation with rules and history they had little hope of understanding, even if they had been interested in trying. (Not to mention a situation that was made exponentially more volatile thanks to a severe drought and epidemics from those pesky European germs.)

Miller’s linguistic analysis is intense and I’m not sure I understood all of it, but it does accomplish the goal of revealing just how easy it would be for the colonists to be absorbed into the landscape in the three years between White’s departure and his return. All they had to do was travel fifty or a hundred miles inland.

Like every other American schoolkid, I remember learning about the Roanoke colony and its tragic disappearance, but I don’t remember ever learning why anybody wanted to put a colony there in the first place. So there was a lot in these two books that was new and interesting to me, but that might not be the case for somebody with a more complete knowledge of the time period. I don’t find the disappearance itself to be all that intriguing. The colonists were bad at being colonists; they didn’t have much hope of survival in the first place.

But the motivation behind the colony, the many failures and challenges of the people involved, the complete inability of the English colonists to understand the world they were trying to live in (such as attacking their loyal Indian friends because they mistook them for a completely different group, seriously, that’s how bad they were at basic survival in their strange new land), the sad-sack tragedy of how John White went from an adventuring artist in Sir Walter Raleigh’s company to the helpless governor of a vanished colony, the story of how those early ephemeral North American colonies fit into the larger context of the epic England vs. Spain showdown that spanned the entire Atlantic, all of that is what makes the story of the Roanoke colony an interesting episode in history.

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