Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony

by Lee Miller (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001)

Reviewed by David Martin

Author Lee Miller lays out the case so clearly, so systematically, and, ultimately, so persuasively that one is inclined to wonder how the story behind the failure of England's first attempt at a permanent colony in the new world could have remained hidden for over 400 years.

Years after the tragedy, when the English were permanently settled in North America, tantalizing signs of the colony surfaced. Strange sightings were reported in Virginia and again in North Carolina, in areas widely separated. Search parties dispatched from Jamestown combed swamps and unexplored rivers, offering only hints and incomplete fragments. There were rumors and clues. Some genuine, others hoaxes. (sic. Miller has a disconcerting and inexplicable affinity for the sentence fragment, especially in the first part of her book.)

For four hundred years the disappearance of the Lost Colony has remained a mystery. There is a reason why: it has never been examined as a crime. If it had, it would have been apparent from the beginning that much more was involved than a simple case of missing persons. It is still possible to solve the crime--if only we unravel the clues.

If this disappearance of 117 settlers from Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina sometime between 1587 and 1590 was, indeed, a crime, it would have been a high level crime. If that was the case the English authorities would not have been all that keen on helping the truth get out, which gives us a good start on understanding why it has taken so long for the crime thesis to crystallize.

The core crime according to Miller, an anthropologist whose previous book was on Native Americans, was the purposeful sabotage of the mission. A number of careful, premeditated steps were taken to assure that the settlers were put in a situation where they could not possibly survive on their own, and the local inhabitants were very likely to be hostile. The crime was then multiplied by failure to send relief as soon as their dire circumstances were known. The attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 would admittedly have made that difficult, but far from impossible.

The crime was then covered up through a half-hearted attempt to find survivors in the years that followed, combined with the cover story that the missing settlers had likely been massacred by the local coastal Indians. This cover story dovetailed nicely with the need to neutralize the protests at home over the brutal tactics the Jamestown settlers began to employ toward the locals. If they were to be brutalized it helped that they first be vilified, not the first time this trick had been used, and it would not be the last.

Happily, this early cover story, lacking any solid evidence from the start, seems not to have stood the test of time very well. The consensus of historians is that the Roanoke settlers relocated in a desperate attempt to survive, but the trail grows cold quickly after that.

The temptation is great to dismiss out of hand the idea that England would sabotage its own mission to establish a foothold in the New World in competition with the Spanish. Miller properly holds off on the question of motive and of specific guilt until she has built what looks to be a virtually airtight case for attempted mass murder.

Identifying the Culprit

We may start with the fact that the pilot for the expedition, Simon Fernandes, a very capable and experienced seaman, was also Portugese and a reprieved pirate (Miller spells his name Spanish style, ending in "z"). He was a mercenary, for sale to the highest bidder. Ostensibly he was working for the chief patron of the expedition, Sir Walter Raleigh, the dashing military man from Devon in the southwest corner of England, who was Queen Elizabeth's favorite at court.

In spite of his skill and experience, Fernandes managed to do a number of things wrong. He sailed first for the West Indies, as planned, where he failed to warn his passengers against eating a local fruit that made them violently ill. He dawdled, wasting precious time. He failed to pick up the vital provisions that the settlers would need before they could begin providing for themselves, offering one excuse after another. But the most telling evidence of all of bad intentions is that an Irish seaman who had been pressed into service was allowed to escape on Puerto Rico, and, according to Spanish historical records, he told the authorities there that the intention of the Fernandes party was to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island.

This is the smoking gun. The settlers themselves, including the governor for the group, John White, did not know yet that their final destination was to be Roanoke Island. Their plans were to establish themselves somewhere on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Roanoke Island had been the site of a military expedition a couple of years before, and high-handed, brutal behavior by the English soldiers in that venture had made it a virtual certainty that the natives would be hostile. The good will of the natives had been made even more crucial by the settlers’ shortage in supplies and their arrival too late in the summer to plant anything for food.

Fernandes used their lateness as an excuse for dumping them all off at Roanoke Island, when the fact of the matter is that a few more days in transit by that time would have made no difference at all. What they might be in for was evident from the start when they discovered the bones of one of the 15 soldiers who had been left by one of Raleigh's supply ships that had arrived after the last of the original military expedition had departed. The fate of the others, like that of the lost colonists themselves, has never been determined.

Upon the vote of the group, after one of their number had already been slain by Indians as he gathered shellfish in shallow water alone, John White got back on the boat that had brought him in order to mount a relief effort as soon as possible. The understanding was that the colonists would have to relocate in order to survive. They were to indicate their relocation site by carvings on trees.

From the time of White's arrival, the descent of Raleigh's star in Queen Elizabeth's court accelerated. Miller theorizes that he could hardly have helped pointing the finger—though of course in the strictest privacy, leaving no record—at the man who certainly had to have been behind the sabotage, Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham. The mere suggestion of such an enormity would doubtless have been met with a great "How dare you?' from whoever he might have approached, including the Queen. The consequences of believing the charges, regardless of the strength of the evidence, were entirely too dreadful for anyone to entertain, especially with attack by the Spanish Armada imminent and Walsingham's intelligence network so vital.

Walsingham, you see, was Elizabeth's spy master. No, let's put that another way. Walsingham was Walsingham's spy master, and his network of snitches, provocateurs, spreaders of malicious rumors, and general dirty tricksters were, for the most part, placed in Elizabeth's service. He had learned to compensate for his lack of almost all the fine qualities of charm, wit, creativity, bravery, and good looks that Raleigh had in overabundance with Machiavellian maneuver and manipulation. He was not liked, but he was feared. A man like Raleigh would not have feared him enough, and a man like Walsingham could not have abided Raleigh as a competitor in the Queen's inner circle.

But we need not deal in generalities. Among Walsingham's stringers were various criminals whose freedom or whose very lives they owed to him. One such person happened to be the pilot, Fernandes, whom Walsingham had salvaged from the gallows. Walsingham's bid for Fernandes' permanent services amounted to an offer that he could not refuse.

Deeply in debt maintaining his private secret army, Walsingham greatly coveted the North American "patent," the right to exploit the region economically, that the Queen had granted to Raleigh. Moreover, Walsingham had been counting on receiving the lucrative properties of Anthony Babington for the work his spies had done in leading the young Catholic nobleman to his execution, along with several others and Mary Queen of Scots, herself, for plotting to free Mary and kill Elizabeth. Walsingham's agents either discovered Babington's plot at an early stage and monitored the eventual attempt to involve Mary, a Catholic with perhaps a stronger claim to the English throne than Elizabeth herself, or they followed Walsingham's guidance in sucking Babington into the whole thing. Whether one is to believe the former or the latter from Miller depends upon whether one goes, respectively, by her text or her supplementary notes on the matter. At any rate, instead of giving Babington's properties to Walsingham, she gave them to her captain of the guard, Raleigh.

In summary, the case for sabotage of the Lost Colony is overwhelming and Walsingham was the man with the motive and the means to pull it off. And it appears that he did succeed in bringing Raleigh down. In spite of illustrious service against the Armada, Raleigh fell out of favor and experienced the first of his two imprisonments in the Tower of London, sent there the first time by Elizabeth. Walsingham, though, was unable to cash in on his success, dying in 1600 while still in the red economically.

Victors' History

This brings us back to our first question. Why has it taken so long for anyone to put two and two together and figure out that the Lost Colony was sabotaged? In the first place, it's almost too cold-blooded and massive a crime to contemplate. More importantly, though, it is because the history we get to read of the period is, for the most part, victors' history. What we have here is a high crime of state, when it is still difficult to obtain an admission that Mary Queen of Scots was railroaded to the gallows. Take as an example this note on Walsingham at the tourism web site:

In 1573, he became Secretary of State in succession to Cecil, now Lord Burghley, and it is no exaggeration to say that, on his skill in unraveling plots and on that alone, the life of the Queen, and with that life the future of an independent Protestant England, really depended. In particular, it was his pertinacity in tracking out the Babington Conspiracy of 1585 that brought Mary, Queen of Scots, to the block. His methods were neither more nor less subtle or cruel than those of his contemporaries abroad. He had spies in every Court and in half the mercantile communities of Europe; and on occasions he did not spare the rack in order to extract evidence.

Walsingham's devious career, unfortunately, is one of the cornerstones upon which the government and the society of modern Britain rests, complete with its celebrated intelligence service (the outfit that spawned America's CIA, we might add). To bend the metaphor slightly, these are the sorts of stones under which only a few rare historians dare look. The works of unabashedly Roman Catholic historians like William Thomas Walsh get short shrift in the average English-speaking university.

Lee Miller perhaps had an advantage in not being a historian and being of partly Native American heritage. But even she is trapped, to an extent, by an excessive dependence upon victors' history sources. In her book the advisers and string-pullers around Queen Elizabeth don't come across as the desperadoes that they truly were, fattening themselves first on the properties of the Catholic Church and then on the properties of their Catholic countrymen, then those of the people of Ireland and the monarchy of Spain. This last theft was accomplished through state-sponsored ocean piracy. Only 53 years had elapsed between the time that, for his own very selfish reasons, Henry VIII had made himself head of the Church in what had been a strongly Catholic England, and the trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Less than a year would pass before the abortive attempt to place a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island. Elizabeth's predecessor, Mary Tudor, had been an ardent Catholic, reflecting the sentiments of a still high percentage of her subjects, and Elizabeth, herself, had ascended to the throne as an apparent practicing Catholic.

During his first stint in the Tower of London, Raleigh penned a 13-verse poem entitled "The Lie" that sized up England's narrow ruling establishment under Elizabeth quite well. Here's a sample:

Say to the court it glows

And shines like rotten wood;

Say to the church, it shows

What's good, and doth no good:

If church and court reply,

Then give them both the lie.


Tell potentates, they live

Acting by others' action;

Not loved unless they give,

Not strong, but by a faction:

If potentates reply,

Give potentates the lie.


Tell men of high condition

That manage the estate,

Their purpose is ambition,

Their practice only hate:

And if they once reply,

Then give them all the lie.


You can be sure that if Elizabeth's coterie had not succeeded in keeping England out of the Catholic Church Francis Walsingham would be remembered as one of history's greatest blackguards. His treachery in the sabotage of the Roanoke venture would probably have long since been revealed, as well.

So will Miller's account of the sabotage of the lost colony now become the standard one? Don't count on it. Our controlling opinion molders would prefer that we not be reminded too much of the sort of treachery of which high government officials are capable, or of the ability of succeeding officials to hide such treachery for such a long time. People might be a good bit less inclined to accept what they are told about the actions of the contemporary ruling establishment.

The Settlers' Fate

So what did happen, ultimately, to the lost colonists? A book review shouldn't give everything away. Miller has some interesting speculation on that question, as well. This reviewer was surprised to learn that some of the settlers might have found their way to a region near where he grew up, described by Miller as between the current city of Rocky Mount and Fishing Creek in North Carolina. Up to now, the only historically interesting thing that was ever known to have occurred there was that the British General Cornwallis came through on his way to eventual surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in the American Revolution. Now we might add a connection to another low point in British history.

David Martin

January 29, 2002




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