Beauty in the midst of Crisis – The art, vision and failure of the first English colony in America
John White’s paintings of his findings on the Island of Roanoke provide some of the most beautiful and iconic images from a time when America was newly discovered by Europeans. Through his observations we can see the native Algonquian Indians as they were before the effects of colonisation changed them forever. White’s images are sensitive and carefully detailed. They show the indigenous people of the region of North Carolina, then known as Virginia, in which Roanoke Island lies. We can see Algonquian villages and scenes from their daily lives – their temples, idols, dances and feasts – as if White took snapshots with his pencil, pen and brush. White also showed the native fauna and flora, from the box turtle to the tiger swallowtail butterfly, from a delicate rose gentian to milkweed which he noted as ‘the hearbe wch the Sauages call Wysauke wherewith theie cure their wounds wch they receaue by the poysoned arroes of theire enemyes’.
Few English folk could have known the region better than White. He went to Roanoke and back to England at least three times. He mapped the area and recorded everything he found of interest there, and he became the Governor of the first English colony in America, established on Roanoke, that had the potential to endure because it included women (and children) as well as men. He provided many of the observations that fired Sir Walter Raleigh’s enthusiasm for ‘planting’ colonies in Virginia and English enterprise in the New World. White’s vision inspired and guided the first colonists. But he may also, unwittingly, have contributed to their downfall.
When the ‘Citie of Ralegh’ at Roanoke was plunged into crisis, not long after it was established in the summer of 1587, White showed less than decisive leadership. He had previously failed to assert authority over the expedition Pilot, Simon Ferdinando (sometimes known as ‘Simon Fernandez’), with the result that the colonists arrived short of provisions and further south than Raleigh had intended. They were set down on Roanoke Island, where relations with many of the native Indians had deteriorated, and not in the Chesapeake Bay area which was their original destination. Most disastrously, White led the raid on the native settlement of Dasemonkepeuc, which was meant to teach the troublesome Secotan and Roanoke tribes a lesson, a raid that backfired with tragic consequences when the attack was launched in confusion against men, women and children of the friendly Croatan tribe. The English mistook their allies for enemies despite an earlier request from the Croatans for some means by which they could be identified. If they had been given such tokens they were not recognised. In the resultant skirmish in the half-light of dawn, a friend of White’s principal native ally, Manteo, was killed and others wounded. Efforts at recompense led to an uneasy resumption of relations. The Secotans and Roanokes were left unscathed and must have heard of the debacle with growing confidence. They were able to plan further attacks such as that, led by Wanchese, which had left the earlier fort on Roanoke deserted. (The fifteen men of the garrison were never heard from again.) Whether hostile tribes did launch other attacks on Roanoke is unknown, subsumed in the puzzle of the ultimate fate of the colony. After White left to bring back help from England he was unable to return for three years. When he did it was to find the ‘citie of Ralegh’ abandoned; what happened to the ‘Lost Colony’ has remained a mystery ever since.
White had left his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and his baby granddaughter, Virginia, on Roanoke. He would never discover what became of them. On his return in 1590, a rising storm forced the expedition to leave before they had a chance to look much beyond the ruined houses within the defensive wall of tree trunks that had been erected around the settlement. White had no chance to search on the island of Croatoan which was where carved messages on the approach to the settlement suggested the colonists might have gone. Seven men had already drowned in rough seas on landing, and the remaining mariners insisted on quitting the dangerous coast to save the ships. ‘My last voyage to Virginia… was no less unfortunately ended than forwardly begun,’ White wrote to Richard Hakluyt in 1593. ‘I leave off from prosecuting that whereunto I would to God my wealth were answerable to my will.’
As a writer who set out to be an artist, this story has a particular fascination for me. How did John White, gentleman painter and explorer, fare when confronted with the dilemmas that faced the first colonists? Did his vision change from the wonder of first encounter, which comes across in his early paintings, to despair in the face of insurmountable difficulties and the threat to his immediate family? I look at his limnings from the 1585 expedition (the one which established the first garrison on Roanoke under the command of Ralph Lane) and I see a respect for subject both human and natural beyond the norms of the Elizabethan age. This was a man who lavished as much attention on the painted skin of a savage as on the jewels and finery of a lord.
The craft of limning described by Nicholas Hilliard as ‘a kind of gentle painting’ was one which required special skills of patience, draughtsmanship and finesse. The techniques White used are similar to those employed by Hilliard in his famous miniature of Walter Raleigh.
White would have applied pigments bound with gum Arabic to paper using water as a medium over a light, graphite sketch. Thus his works are ‘watercolours’ as that term is used today, but they were meticulously worked, often with tiny brushes made from squirrel hair mounted in quills, using pigments tempered in mussel shells or ground on fine crystal then smeared with a finger inside a shell to be later reactivated with drops of water. Some of these pigments were extremely valuable, such as powdered gold or silver. (One reason why many of the fish painted by White appear dark where they should be light is because the silver he used has tarnished with age). He would carefully burnish the shell gold or silver with an animal tooth mounted on a wooden handle, and add fine details using other rare pigments, such as cinnabar (vermilion or mercuric sulphide) for the lips of the wife of a weroance.
Contrast Governor White’s tiny brushes with Governor Lane’s petronel: his cavalry pistol, and his sword. The two men could not have been more different as leaders. Lane was a tough veteran of campaigning in Ireland who had no qualms about attacking the Roanoke Indians when he felt his garrison was becoming vulnerable, and leading a raid in which Wingina, chief of the Roanokes, was wounded, chased into the forest and decapitated. Yet Lane’s garrison survived, at least until it was evacuated by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, and White’s colony was lost.
Did White’s sensibilities as an artist equip him well for implementing the vision of establishing an English city in Virginia? It was a vision that he shared with the linguist, navigator and mathematician, Thomas Harriot, who was with White throughout most of the 1585-6 expedition. They both saw the region at first as a land of plenty inhabited by gentle savages who may, said Harriot, ‘if meanes of good governement be used… be brought to civilitie, and the imbracing of true religion’. Hakluyt called Virginia ‘this paradise of the worlde’, but Roanoke was to become a place of fear and mortal danger, beginning with the murder of one of White’s colonists within days of arrival in 1597, and ending, for White, with his shambolic departure in the midst of catastrophe after: ‘not onely the Assistants, but divers others, as well women, as men, beganne to renewe their requests to the Governour againe, to take uppon him to returne into England…’ Did they beg him to go because he was best placed to fetch relief, or because they preferred their chances with another leader?
One of the delights of writing my second novel, The Lost Duchess, has been to suggest an answer to this and many other questions in the context of what I hope is a compelling and fascinating story.
* Images copyright of Jenny Barden, or in the public domain
** Quotes are from the first hand accounts as set out in The First Colonists – Documents on the Planting of The First English Settlements in North America 1584-1590 edited by David B Quinn and Alison M Quinn
*** Other sources: Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton and Roanoke the Abandoned Colony by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Jenny Barden’s second novel, The Lost Duchess, an epic Elizabethan adventure-love story set against the backdrop of Raleigh’s ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke will be released on 7 November and can be ordered from Amazon UK
More about Jenny and her books can be found on her website:
Other pieces about aspects of the story of the Lost Colony may be found here:
‘Roanoke Island – 1587 and Now’
‘When Eden became Hell – the vision and plight of the first ‘Lost’ Colonists of Roanoke’
‘The Mystery behind the Founding of Modern America’