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In This Chapter
Search for a Northwest Passage.
The “Lost Colony” of Roanoke.
Jamestown: first permanent English settlement in America.
Captain John Smith and Pocahontas.
Some time in the 21st century, people of Hispanic heritage will become the single largest ethnic group in the United States. History is always getting rewritten, and, doubtless, it will get rewritten then as well. However, up to the present, most American history has been told from a distinctly Anglo point of view. There is no doubt that Spain often acted cruelly in the New World, but it is also true that the history of Spain in the New World has been written, mostly, by Anglo historians who, over the years, have narrated that record of cruelty with great relish and even an attitude of superiority. In particular, they have tended to contrast the Spanish colonial experience—driven by greed for gold and absolute power—with the English experience, motivated by a quest for religious freedom.
Well, things weren’t quite so simple.
O, Brave New World. Henry VII (1457-1509) ascended the throne of England after he killed Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, thereby ending the Wars of the Roses, a series of clashes between the houses of Lancaster and York, rivals for the English throne. Not that it was much of a throne. The costly, bloody wars had drained off resources and manpower at a time when the rest of Europe was building great empires. Separated from the Continent by the English Channel, England had always been European, yet also apart from Europe—a comparatively tiny backwater, in fact, habitually torn by internal conflict among tribes, clans, and families.
King Henry decided to put his hard-won reign on the path to greatness. Having defeated Richard, the Lancastrian monarch sought to end the conflict between the branches of the royal family once and for all by marrying Elizabeth of York, daughter of King Edward VI. (The union produced one of England’s greatest—and most terrifying—kings, Henry VIII.) Henry VII built a strong central government, replenished the treasury, and, in 1497, sponsored the first English voyage of exploration in the New World.
For the sleepy island nation, this was a momentous step. Years later, about 1610 or 1611, during the reign of the first Stuart king, James I, William Shakespeare wrote what was probably his last play. Called The Tempest, it is about the beautiful young Miranda and her father-magician, who are exiled to an enchanted island across the ocean. Shakespeare drew much of his inspiration for this magical realm from reading contemporary accounts of the English voyages. There is one particular line in the play that seems to summarize the excitement of the “Age of Discovery” Henry VII had launched a little more than a century earlier. “0, brave new world…” it begins.
Henry VII Backs an Italian Sailor. Giovanni Caboto, born in Genoa about 1451 but a citizen of the seafaring city-state of Venice, finally settled in England with his family. A cartel of merchants in the seaport town of Bristol hired Caboto—whom they called John Cabot—to pioneer a direct route to the spice-rich Indies. The plan was logical and potentially highly lucrative. England, on the westernmost end of the traditional overland caravan routes from the East, paid premium prices for spice. If the East could be reached more directly by sailing west, English merchants would get a jump on the worldwide spice market and enjoy unheard of levels of prosperity. King Henry VII made it official by granting Cabot letters of patent, empowering him to claim hitherto unspoken for territories. He sailed from Dursey Head, Ireland, in May 1497 with no more than 20 men on the ship Matthew and landed in Newfoundland on June 24. It is likely that he probed as far south as Maine. After looking around for no more than three weeks—long enough for him to come to the confident conclusion that he had reached the northeast comer of Asia—Cabot returned to England with the exciting news. Eager to believe that Cabot had indeed opened a door to the wide world, a grateful Henry VII granted him an annual pension of Ј20.
Cabot rushed to outfit a second voyage, bound for what he thought was Japan. Setting out in May 1498, this time with 200 men in five ships, he and his crews were lost at sea. (Some authorities claim that one ship did return to Ireland, but there is no official record of the expedition’s fate.)
Passage to India? No Way. The loss of John Cabot was hardly the end of English exploration. His son Sebastian (ca. 1482-1557) was commissioned by Henry VII to make a voyage in 1508 and probably reached what would later be called Hudson Bay. Appointed Henry’s official cartographer, Sebastian Cabot nevertheless later transferred his allegiance to England’s great rival, Spain, for which he became pilot-major and official examiner of pilots in 1518. After failing, in 1526, to complete a mission intended to follow the route of Ferdinand Magellan, he was prosecuted by his Spanish paymasters in 1530 and found his way back to England in 1548. There King Edward VI granted him a pension, and he became governor for life of the English Muscovy Company. In that capacity, he worked with Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor in search of a “Northeast Passage” connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern shores of Eurasia. Under Cabot’s direction, Willoughby and Chancellor looked for the passage. Willoughby and his crew were lost, but Chancellor, though he failed to find the passage, did reach Moscow and trade was opened up between English merchants and those of Russia. Later voyages in search of the Northeast Passage undertaken by Henry Hudson during 1607-1609 were blocked by polar ice.
In the meantime, an even greater interest developed in the prospect of a Northwest Passage. Despite the claims of Columbus and John Cabot that they had reached Asia, it began to dawn on explorers and cartographers alike that the New World really was a new world—a continental land mass separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and, therefore, separating Europe from Asia, at least as far as any western shortcut was concerned. However, the early explorations had also revealed the presence of many bays and rivers along the northern coast of the new continent, and this suggested the possibility of a water passage clear through the land mass, maybe all the way to the Pacific Ocean and spice-rich Asia. As it became increasingly clear that the Americas would yield no great treasures of gold—no Seven Cities of Cibola—the New World was perceived by some as less of an objective than an obstacle.
The search for the Northwest Passage may be traced to the 1534 voyage of the French navigator Jacques Cartier, who explored the St. Lawrence River with the express purpose of finding a passage to China. The English weighed in when 29-year-old Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1539-83) published A Discourse to Prove a Passage by the Northwest to Cathia (“Cathia” = Cathay = China) in 1566 which, 11 years later, indirectly led Sir Francis Drake to sail his famed vessel, the Golden Hind, down the Atlantic coast of South America, round Tierra del Fuego, and northward, just beyond San Francisco, California. But Martin Frobisher (ca. 1539-94)—a typically colorful Elizabethan sea dog, who had sailed twice to Africa, had been captured by the Portuguese, and had even gotten his living through high seas piracy—was the first Englishman who deliberately searched for a Northwest Passage. He took three swings. The first, in 1576, yielded the discovery of an inlet in Baffin Island, now known as Frobisher Bay, which Frobisher believed was the opening of the Northwest Passage. He also became excited by the presence of an ore that looked a lot like gold. (Hey, maybe America was not such a bad place after all!) And Frobisher was not the only one who thought he had struck gold. The ore attracted a substantial cartel of investors who created the Company of Cathay, which backed a second voyage in 1577, and a third in 1578.
Neither subsequent expedition found gold, but in July 15 78, Frobisher sailed up what was later named Hudson Strait, which was an interesting discovery in itself, but hardly the Northwest Passage. Frobisher named it “Mistaken Strait,” gave up the search for the passage, and became vice-admiral in Sir Francis Drake’s 1585-1586 expedition to the West Indies and later (1588) served ably in the defense against the Spanish Armada. In the meantime, another Englishman, John Davis (ca. 1550-1605), made three voyages between 1585 and 1587, exploring the western shores of Greenland, Davis Strait, and Cumberland Sound. Failing to find the Northwest Passage, he became one of the first explorers of the Arctic, then, in the opposite hemisphere, discovered the Falkland Islands, 480 miles northeast of Cape Horn, which would become the object of a brief and violent 1982 war of possession between Argentina and Great Britain.
Davis met his end in 1605 at the hands of Japanese in Sumatra. Henry Hudson, the next seeker after the “passage to India,” became the victim of his own crew. In 16 10-11, after fruitlessly exploring Hudson Bay—an inland body of water so vast that it seemed certain to be the fabled passage—his crew mutinied, casting adrift and to their deaths Hudson and a few loyal men.
Still, the search continued. Between 1612 and 1615, Thomas Button, Robert Bylot, and William Baffin, Englishmen all, made additional voyages to Hudson Bay—looking not only for the Northwest Passage, but for any sign of the missing Henry Hudson. While these expeditions failed to achieve either of their objectives, they did create interest in the region and led, in 1670, to the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which became one of the most powerful forces for trade and settlement in North America.
A Colony Vanishes, a Colony Appears. A passage to the East was not the only reason for English interest in the New World. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, author of the provocative tract on the Northwest Passage, earned renown as a soldier in the service of Queen Elizabeth I. She knighted him in 1570 and, eight years later, granted him a charter to settle any lands not already claimed by Christians. The ambitious Elizabeth wanted her island nation to become the center of a new world, the locus of a great trading empire—and she wanted to do this before Spain and Portugal succeeded in grabbing all of that new world for themselves. With her blessing, then, Gilbert sailed in 1579, but was compelled to return when his fleet broke up. He set sail again in June 1583 and reached St. John’s Bay, Newfoundland, in August, claiming that territory for the queen. On his way back to England, however, Gilbert’s ship, badly overloaded, foundered and sank with the loss of all hands. The charter was inherited by Gilbert’s half brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, the 31-year-old favorite of Queen Elizabeth.
Roanoke Lost. In 1584, Raleigh sent a small reconnaissance fleet to what would become Croatan Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They returned with glowing reports of a land inhabited by “most gentle, loving and faithful” Indians who lived “after the manner of the Golden Age.” Knighted by his “Virgin Queen,” Raleigh named the new land after her: Virginia. In 1585-86, he dispatched Sir Richard Grenville with a small group of would-be settlers. Sir Francis Drake encountered them a year later, starving and wanting nothing so much as passage back to England. Nothing daunted, Raleigh launched three ships and 117 people (men, women, and children) to what is now called Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, in 1587. After establishing them on the swampy island, their leader, John White, decided to sail back to England to fetch the supplies that Raleigh had promised to send. (Unknown to White, the supply ships were stalled because of the attack of the Spanish Armada against England.) When White returned to the colony in 1590, he found no settlers and only the barest trace of a settlement—a few rusted items and what was apparently the name of a neighboring island carved into a tree: CROATOAN.
Had the colonists fallen prey to disease? Starvation? Hostile Indians (who took them captive to “Croatoan”)?
Jamestown Hangs by a Thread. Raleigh’s disaster did not shatter English dreams of colonial expansion. At the start of the 17th century, England was still militarily and commercially weak in comparison with Spain and Portugal. Domestically, as the ancient feudal system decayed, the nation was burdened on the one hand by a displaced peasant class it could no longer feed, and, on the other, it was seeing the rise of a merchant and artisan class whose markets were exceedingly limited. Like Spain, then, England needed a new world. In 1605, two groups of merchants, one calling itself the Virginia Company of London (often abbreviated to the London Company) and the other the Plymouth Company, recruited a cartel of investors and joined in a petition to James I for a charter to establish a colony in the territory of Raleigh’s patent (which, as far as anyone knew, encompassed whatever portion of North America had not been claimed by Spain). The Virginia Company was granted a charter to colonize southern Virginia, while the Plymouth Company was given rights to northern Virginia.
The Virginia Company moved swiftly to recruit a contingent of 144 settlers, including the families of moneyed gentlemen as well as poor people. The latter purchased their passage to America and the right of residence in the colony by binding themselves to serve the Virginia Company for a period of seven years, working the land and creating a settlement. In December 1606, the hopeful band of men, women, and children boarded the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Goodspeed. Thirty-nine perished in the course of the voyage. The remaining 105 arrived at the mouth of a river—they called it the James-on May 24, 1607, and they scratched out Jamestown.
Historians blithely refer to Jamestown as “the first permanent English colony” in the New World. “Permanent,” in this case, is a highly relative term. Jamestown was established in a malarial swamp well past the time of season appropriate for planting crops. In any case, the “gentlemen” of the venture—those who were not indentured servants—were unaccustomed to manual labor, and hacking a colony out of the wilderness required the hard work of all hands. Within months, half the colony was dead or had fled to the mercies of the local Indians.
Then matters grew worse.
John Smith and Pocahontas. In 1609 came what the colonists called “the starving time.” Desperate, the survivors resorted to acts of cannibalism and even looted the fresh graves of their own number as well as those of local Indians.
Jamestown would certainly have joined the Roanoke colony in a common oblivion had it not been for the presence of the soldier of fortune the Virginia Company had hired to look after the military defense of the colony. The intrepid Captain John Smith (ca. 1579-1631) managed to get himself adopted by the local Indians, who were led by the powerful old chief Powhatan, and, from them, obtained enough corn and yams to keep the surviving colonists from starving. He also instituted martial law in the colony, sternly declaring that only those who worked would eat. Enforcing this iron discipline, Smith saved the fledgling colony.
Relations between the colonists and the “Powhatans” (the English named the numerous Algonquin Indian villages after the single chief who controlled them) were always strained. Simply by refusing to share their food, the Powhatans could have wiped out the struggling colony at will. Yet they did not do so, albeit they repeatedly threatened war. Doubtless in an effort to intimidate Chief Powhatan and his people into maintaining peaceful relations, in 1613, Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped his daughter Pocahontas and took her to Jamestown (and, later, to Henrico) as a hostage. Fascinated by the English, the “Indian princess” quickly learned their language and customs—and rapidly evolved from hostage to ambassador. In 1614, with the blessing of her father, she married John Rolfe, a tobacco planter. The union brought eight years of peace between the Indians and the settlers, a period crucial to the survival and development of the colony. (Rolfe took his bride on a voyage back to England, where she was a favorite with London society as well as the royal court. Sadly, this remarkable young woman succumbed to an illness and died, in England, on March 21, 1617, at the age of 22.)
To what must have been the great surprise of anyone who had witnessed the first terrible year at Jamestown, the colony survived and even prospered. The indentured colonists, having fulfilled their obligations, took control of their own land, on which they planted tobacco, as the Indians had taught them. A great fondness for the weed developed in Europe, and America found its first cash crop and significant export product. The prospect of growing rich from the cultivation of tobacco attracted more settlers. The Virginia enterprise was, at long last, successfully launched, and the world-New and Old-would never be the same.
The Least You Need to Know
The earliest English interest in the New World was motivated by a desire to strengthen the tiny nation through dominance in trade.
In 1607, Jamestown became the first permanent—albeit precarious—English settlement in America.
Stats. Just how small is England? Exclusive of Wales and Scotland, which were not part of the nation in the 1500s, England is only 50,363 square miles in area.
Main Event. It was Russian sailors who finally found the Northeast Passage in 1648. Semen Ivanov Dezhnev sailed from the Kolyma River through the Bering Strait to the mouth of the Anadyr River on the Pacific Ocean. Vitus Bering, the Danish seafarer for whom the strait is named, sailed from the Pacific to the Arctic Ocean between 1725 and 1730, and Baron Nils A. E. Nordenskjold, a Swede, made the first through passage from west to east in 1878-79, wintering off the Chukchi peninsula.
Real Life. Sir Walter Raleigh was a favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth 1, who knighted him in 1584, the year he obtained Gilbert’s patent. By the 1590s, Raleigh fell out of favor with a jealous Elizabeth after he married one of her maids of honor, and the queen imprisoned him briefly in 1592. He was later “rehabilitated,” however, and went on to serve with distinction in naval expeditions to the Guiana coast of South America (1595), Spain (1596), and the Azores (1597). In 1600, he was appointed governor of the Isle of Jersey, serving until 1603, when advisers to Elizabeth’s successor, James 1, persuaded the new king that Raleigh had conspired against his ascension to the throne. Raleigh was sentenced to death, but execution was stayed for 13 years, during which he languished in the Tower of London. In 1616, he appealed to James to send him on an expedition in search of South American gold. When he returned empty-handed, he was sent back to the Tower—at least in part because the Spanish crown demanded that he be punished for having sacked a Spanish settlement in Guiana. James then ordered his execution, for the original conspiracy conviction, on October 29, 1618.
Word for the Day. Most of the colonists obtained passage to the New World by signing a contract called an indenture, thereby becoming indentured servants–in effect, slaves for the seven-year term of the agreement. This would prove a very popular method of bringing settlers to the fledgling English colonies.
Voice from the Past. Here is the original Pocahontas—John Smith story, as related in A History of the Settlement of Virginia, by the early Virginia merchant Thomas Studley and Smith himself—
At last they brought Captain Smith to Powhatan, their emperor. At Captain Smith’s entrance before the king, all the people gave a great shout. The queen was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, instead of a towel, on which to dry them. Having feasted him after the best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held. At last two great stones were brought before Powhatan. Then as “any as could lay hands on Captain Smith dragged him to the stones, and laid his head on them, and were ready with their clubs to beat out his brains. At this instant, Pocahontas, the king’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own head upon his to save him from death. Thereupon the emperor was contented to have him live.