Friday, 15 December 2017

Raleigh’s New World: Hunting Sir Walter among the alligators

Florida in August… Disneyland and beaches, hurricanes and alligators.

Maybe it wasn’t the best time to visit the Sunshine State. It was humid and very, very hot. But the family wedding I attended, in between the devastations of Harvey and Irma, was everything that the happy couple could wish for. And the rain held off, just about.

There’s a close season for hurricanes but alligators are a year-round hazard in Florida. An unexpected meeting with of one of the creatures in a pond at Kanapaha State Park outside Gainesville reminded me of how they were tackled by the inhabitants four centuries ago. This celebrated engraving comes from a book published in 1590. It was entitled 'A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia’, written by Thomas Harriot, and published in four languages with illustrations by the Flemish engraver and publisher Theodore de Bry. 

Harriot – more of him later – was a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the book was part of Raleigh's effort to persuade his fellow-countrymen to invest in his colonising efforts in the New World.
Getting away from the alligators and always keen to see what other museums are up to, I broke off my virtual pub crawl in search of Sir Walter’s legacy to visit Florida’s Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. I hadn’t expected to find much of relevance. After all, it’s hundreds of miles away in North Carolina that you find the most obvious connections with the Great Devonian, notably the city of Raleigh itself.

And of course Roanoke Island, in that part of America originally named Virginia in homage to Queen Elizabeth I, has been made famous because of the mysterious disappearance of 115 English settlers. They had come ashore in August 1587, in an expedition sponsored by Raleigh.

The principal characters of The Lost Colony outdoor drama from the 2008 production  Image credit: Walter Gresham & The Roanoke Island Historical Association, producers of The Lost Colony

Each year Sir Walter and his fellow-Elizabethans are remembered in the spectacular Lost Colony show which you can read about at  I wonder whether anyone in our own county of Devon has ever tried to stage something so ambitious.

Florida’s Museum of Natural History in Gainesville

A section of the Florida museum describing the life of Native Americans before the arrival of English and Spanish colonists looked interesting.

After all, one of the thought-provoking sections in the Sir Walter Ralegh Room at Fairlynch Museum, seen above, is a collection of Native Americans’ stone tools. On loan from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, these very special artefacts date from the time of English explorers’ encounters with the New World and its peoples.

And many East Budleigh residents are convinced that this bench end in All Saints’ Church depicts exactly one of the original inhabitants of the New World, with what they believe is his feathered head-dress. Others believe differently, as you can read at

Panel from Gainesville Florida Natural History Museum showing hostile Calusa tribesmen greeting the arrival of Spanish galleons

The history of how America’s original inhabitants were treated by successive generations of European settlers is not a happy one. At the Gainesville museum it’s well told with graphic displays illustrating the impact of Spanish invaders on the Calusa tribe. The tribe, the most powerful in South Florida at the time of Columbus’ voyage, had been alarmed as early as 1510 by stories of Cuban Indians massacred by the Europeans.   

Panel from Gainesville Florida Natural History Museum showing a Jesuit priest attempting to convert a Calusa tribesman to Christianity

Spaniards made two failed attempts to establish Catholic missions among the Calusa, but the tribe remained true to its beliefs even after its leader had been killed. The Jesuits finally abandoned their missions in 1569.

I wondered whether the relationship between English settlers and New World tribes further north in Virginia had been any happier. In 1584 Queen Elizabeth had granted Letters Patent to ‘our trusty and well beloved servant Walter Ralegh Esquire (...) to discover, search, find out and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian prince, nor inhabited by Christian people.’


In spite of the failure of the 1587 Roanoke Lost Colony, it’s clear that the royal approval and Raleigh’s efforts prove, as North Carolina historian David Stick put it, that ‘the history of English-speaking America began four hundred years ago, not at Jamestown or Plymouth Rock, as  so many are led to believe, but at Roanoke Island.’


Raleigh himself was apparently keen that his English settlers should differ from the brutal modes of colonisation favoured by earlier generations. Contrary to what many believe, he never set foot in North America, apart from a brief stopover in Newfoundland on the way back to England. But he did lead two expeditions to Guiana in South America, in 1595 and 1618.


In his Discoverie of the large, rich and beautiful Empire of Guiana, published a year after the first of the two visits, he condemned the Spanish for their treatment of the native population, claiming that they ‘took the wives and daughters and used them for the satisfying of their own lusts, especially such as they took in this manner by strength.’


The English were blameless in this respect, he asserted. ‘I protest before the majesty of the living God, that I neither know nor believe, that any of our company, by violence or otherwise, ever knew any of their women, and yet we saw many hundreds, and had many in our power, and of those very young, and excellently favoured, which came among us without deceit stark naked.’

Not all the men under his command were as well behaved as they should have been towards their hosts, admits Raleigh.  ‘I confess it was a very impatient work to keep the meaner sort from spoil and stealing when we came to their houses; which because in all I could not prevent, I caused my Indian interpreter at every place when we departed, to know of the loss or wrong done, and if aught were stolen or taken by violence, either the same was restored, and the party punished in their sight, or else was paid for to their uttermost demand.

The monument commemorating the Smerwick Harbour massacre at the Field of the Heads (Gort na gCrann) near Dun an Oir. It reminds us of the massacre of around 600 Irish, Spanish and Italian men and women by English troops commanded by Lord Grey of Wilton in 1580, in which Raleigh played a prominent role. It is said that the victims were decapitated and their heads buried here. The monument dates from 1980; the seaward side bears a cross and a Gaelic inscription 'igcuimhne dhun an oir samhain 1580'

Hmm… too good to be true? For those who know of Raleigh’s treatment of the Irish some 15 years earlier this account of himself as the perfect guest in a foreign land sounds like hypocrisy or convenient forgetfulness. The excuse that he gave for his role in the Smerwick massacre was that he was carrying out orders.

Strangely Raleigh is seen as a hero in some parts of Ireland: there is even a Raleigh Quarter in the town of Youghal, where he was Mayor.

The glorious period of the Renaissance was in any case a violent age of atrocity and counter-atrocity.  And I’m sure Raleigh hoped that Native Americans would prove to be useful allies against the Spanish.

Or he may simply have matured with age, with a genuine interest in the culture of the New World. There were, after all, contemporary writers who condemned the violence of their times. 

Two Indian warriors, an engraving from Theodor de Bry's Grand Voyages, printed in 1590 

Initially, at any rate, the first explorers sent by Raleigh to Virginia gave a glowing impression of the locals. Arthur Barlow, one of the captains of the two ships which sailed from Plymouth on 27 April 1584 reported that they were ‘most gentle, loving and faithful, void of all guile and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the golden age.’

Two Native Americans, Manteo and Wanchese described by Barlow as ‘lustie men’, were persuaded to accompany their English visitors on the return journey and were presented to Queen Elizabeth herself.

Thomas Harriot’s achievements as a scientist have only recently been acknowledged. A plaque, unveiled by Lord Egremont, shown above, was erected in July 2009 in the grounds of Syon House, West London. This was the home of Raleigh’s friend Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland – known during his time as ‘The Wizard Earl’ – who later became Harriot’s patron. The plaque commemorates the 400th anniversary of Harriot's drawings of the moon using a telescope. This is generally considered to be the first astronomical use of the telescope. Photo credit: Brendan  Blake An annual Thomas Harriot Lecture has been give at Oriel College, Oxford, since 1990. See  

If Raleigh did indeed share with some of his fellow-explorers such admiration for the New World’s inhabitants, possible evidence may be found in the writings of the mathematician and scientist Thomas Harriot who became one of his most loyal friends. After studies at Oxford University, Harriot had written a treatise on navigation. He was hired by Raleigh as a mathematics tutor and provided the necessary knowledge of astronomy and engineering to provide navigational expertise, help design Raleigh’s ships, and serve as his accountant. Harriot’s role as interpreter during the 1585 Virginia expedition was vital. It was he who made efforts to communicate with Manteo and Wanchese, devising a phonetic alphabet to transcribe their Carolina Algonquian language.

Harriot’s book A Briefe and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia, published in 1588, was undoubtedly part of Raleigh's effort to persuade his fellow-countrymen to invest in his colonising efforts in the New World. But it seems that there’s a genuine note of sincerity in the author’s admiration for the different way of life enjoyed by its inhabitants. In their diet, for example, he describes how Native Americans are ‘moderate in their eating whereby they avoid sickness.’

They are ‘consequently very long lived because they do not oppress nature,’ he explains, expressing disgust at what he sees as the debauchery of Elizabethans. ‘I would to god we would follow their example. For we should be free from many kinds of diseases which we fall into by sumptous and unseasonable banquets, continually devising new sauces, and provocation of gluttony to satisfy our insatiable appetite.’  Yes, we know exactly what he means.

On the other hand it’s a commonplace that the New World came to represent for Renaissance colonialists a nostalgic idealized view of how the Old World may once have been.  

The Age of Elizabeth was drawing to a close, to be succeeded by the 17th century with its Pilgrim Fathers seeking a Promised Land, and a Civil War aiming to build a fairer and more idealistic society in England.  In the much-quoted words of the poet Andrew Marvell’s biographer Nigel Smith, ‘The image of Eden, and the possibility of its recuperation, was the most powerful, idealistic and utopian image in the century.’

It was typical of Raleigh’s nemesis, King James I, that he should see New World’s inhabitants in a totally different light.  Resentful of the prestige that Raleigh had enjoyed as a favourite of his predecessor, the new monarch was disgusted by what he saw as ‘the barbarous and beastly maners of the wilde, godlesse, and slavish Indians’ and especially by their filthie custome’ of smoking tobacco.   

At the Gainesville museum this image of Native Americans with the burnt-out interior of a tree trunk to illustrate how Florida’s Calusa tribe made boats seemed familiar. The caption described it as a scene from Virginia: it is in fact one of the illustrations from Harriot’s book.

‘The Manner of Makinge their Boates’ is based on one of the celebrated drawings by a second person who could be seen as expressing Raleigh’s own admiration for the simpler ‘golden age’ enjoyed by inhabitants of the New World.  This was the artist John White, employed by Raleigh as a mapmaker for the Virginia expedition.

White’s watercolours are among the treasures of the British Museum collection. The only surviving visual record of the land and peoples encountered by England’s first settlers in America, they are rarely on display, needing to be kept away from the damaging effects of light. A major touring exhibition of the images took them to the USA in 2008. The British Museum has no plans to exhibit them for Raleigh’s 400th anniversary.

Here is a selection to give you an idea of the impact that they would have had on people for whom the New World would have been like a distant galaxy, had we been in their place today.         


Virginea Pars map, drawn by John White during his initial visit in 1585. Roanoke is the small pink island in the middle right of the map.

A Roanoke village.

Dancing Secotan Indians.

Ceremony of Secotan warriors

‘The town of Pomeoc and some of their houses’

‘A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 years’

‘Come to this place where everything is neat and tidy and there is food everywhere!’ is the message of John White’s watercolours according to the American author and science historian Deborah Harkness.


The title page of the Latin version of Harriot’s account of Virginia published by Theodor de Bry in 1590. It acknowledges both the author and Raleigh himself as responsible for organizing the expedition.

White’s images were used by the publisher Theodor de Bry in a new, illustrated 1590 edition of A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. They added to an already intense interest in the New World. 

The book sold well, and the next year de Bry published a new one about the first French attempts to colonize Florida: Fort Caroline, founded by Jean Ribault and René de Laudonnière. It featured 43 illustrations based on paintings of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, one of the few survivors of Fort Caroline. The engraving of alligator hunting  by native Americans which I used at the beginning of this post was based on a painting of Le Moyne, now lost.

The later history of the relationship between Native Americans and the English is an unhappy one, full of sad episodes of mistrust, betrayal, violence and murders in which two of Raleigh’s commanders, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Ralph Lane, played critical roles.

Governor John White and his men discover in 1590 the word CROATOAN carved on a tree - the only trace of the 1597 colony of 115 settlers which included White's granddaughter (19th century illustration)

John White was different. He was, in David Stick’s view, ‘without question, a compassionate man, and, unlike Lane, an individual with a reverence for all God’s earthly creations, including even the natives of America, whom he had depicted in his drawings as people both gentle and proud.’ 

The New World drawings of John White and Thomas Harriot’s descriptions of Virginia remain as testimony to the ideal envisaged by Raleigh and his fellow-explorers. In Sir Walter’s History of the World, composed when the author was a prisoner in the Tower of London and published in 1614, later writers such as the novelist John Buchan have seen Raleigh as foreseeing the rise of the British Empire – or at least its benevolent aspects.

An admirer of Raleigh: Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of King James I  c. 1610 by Robert Peake the Elder 

It seems that Raleigh wrote his History as a lesson in government for King James I’s son Prince Henry, to teach the young prince the qualities of a good king. ‘Under such a king,’ he wrote, ‘it is likely, by God’s blessing, that a land shall flourish with increase of trade in countries before unknown; that civility and religion shall be propagated into barbarous and heathen countries; and that the happiness of his subjects shall cause the nations far off removed, to wish him their sovereign.’

But sadly, Prince Henry died unexpectedly in 1612, and James I, considering the History  as ‘too saucy in the censuring of princes’ later revoked the publishing rights.

And the history of the settlement of distant lands by Europeans has not been as glorious as Raleigh would have liked.

Governments seem to have tried to make amends from time to time, as in the case of New Zealand’s Taranaki Wars. Conflict had come about in the 1860s after disputes between Maoris and English settlers over the purchase of land in the Taranaki region of the North Island. In 1904 the town of Raleigh reverted to its original Maori name of Waitara. It had been named in honour of Sir Walter in 1867.

A plaque to commemorate the first Indigenous person, Manteo, who was converted to Christianity at the Roanoke Colony.  Image credit: Sarah Stierch

Much closer geographically to the Raleigh story is Dare County in North Carolina. It includes Roanoke Island where The Lost Colony show takes place. The county seat is Manteo, named after the Native American who was befriended by Thomas Harriot and John White. Manteo was presented at the English Court to Queen Elizabeth and eventually christened and given the name Baron of Roanoke and Dasamongueponke, making him the first American Indian to receive a title of nobility. Dare County itself was named after Virginia Dare, John White’s granddaughter and the first child born in the Americas to English parents.

A booklet was published by the Dare County Rotary Club in the late 1940s. Dedicated to ‘the Service Men and Women of Dare County  World War II 1941-45’, it had the worthy aim of listing all those combatants who had fought to preserve our freedom. 

I’d found the booklet online, purely by chance after googling Raleigh for the millionth time. This sentence in the Preface caught my eye: ‘But for the heroic explorations made possible here by Sir Walter Raleigh and his associates, the story of the founding and freeing of our land from the Indians and wilderness, would have been quite different.’

‘Freeing of our land from the Indians?’

Thousands of Americans had just made the ultimate sacrifice to free Europe from domination by the barbaric Nazis. 

Freedom clearly means different things to different people, at different times.

You can find the booklet at

So it was good, and reassuring, to see the interesting, vivid and respectful displays of Indian culture at  Florida’s Museum of Natural History    

A model in Gainesville Florida Natural History Museum showing Calusa fishing

Panel from Gainesville Florida Natural History Museum showing Seminole and Miccosukee ceremonies

Panel from Gainesville Florida Natural History Museum showing Seminole and Miccosukee language and legends

Panel from Gainesville Florida Natural History Museum showing Seminole and Miccosukee medicine

Panel from Gainesville Florida Natural History Museum showing Seminole and Miccosukee traditional costumes

Did you know that the Seminole tribe of Florida bought the Hard Rock Café chain in 2007.

Image credit: Clément Bardot

And I was glad to learn that alligators are now a protected species in the USA, even this ugly-looking creature.


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