Saturday, November 02, 2013

‘When Eden became Hell’ – the vision and plight of the first ‘Lost’ Colonists of Roanoke, a guest post by Jenny Barden

Jenny Barden, author of The Lost Duchess, is stopping by with an essay centering on what is perhaps the oldest unsolved mystery in American history: the unknown fate of the Roanoke colonists.  Using excerpts from primary sources of the time, she looks even further back to the colony's origins as a "land of plentie" and examines how this most promising of beginnings turned into disaster.  The photos included below were taken by Jenny during her research travels for the book, and the map of Raleigh's Virginia is also of her own design.

Thanks to the generosity of the author, I'm able to offer a giveaway of a signed first edition hardcover to a lucky blog reader - see the entry form at the end of the post. This contest is open worldwide. 

‘When Eden Became Hell’ – 
The Vision and Plight of the First ‘Lost’ Colonists of Roanoke 
Jenny Barden

The east coast of America was described in terms of wonder by Arthur Barlowe when he returned to England after his voyage of discovery in 1584. He wrote about taking possession in the name of Queen Elizabeth of the region now known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina and viewing it as: ‘So full of grapes, as the very beating, and surge of the Sea overflowed them, of which we founde such plenty… on the greene soile on the hils, and in the plaines, as well on every little shrubbe, as also climbing towards the toppes of the high Cedars, that I thinke in all the world the like aboundance is not to be founde.’

Ocracoke Shore - the scene at first arrival.

Barlowe described the native Algonquian Indians he encountered as: ‘most gentle, loving, and faithfull, void of all guile, and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the golden age.’ He was taken to the Island of Roanoke, behind the outer barrier islands, and entertained with every courtesy. Of this place he wrote: ‘The earth bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour.’

Abundance - beach evening primrose on Hatteras Island

Inspired by this report, and motivated by a desire to emulate and curb Spain’s New World expansion, seize commercial advantage for England, as well as spread Christian enlightenment of the Protestant kind, Richard Hakluyt the younger wrote his ‘Discourse of Western Planting’ (meaning ‘planting’ English colonies) in which he extolled the wisdom of royal investment in another expedition and promised that ‘this westerne voyadge will yelde unto us all the commodities of Europe, Affrica, and Asia.’ He encouraged Walter Raleigh to lead the drive to establish English settlements in America for the glory of God and the Queen, and though Raleigh failed to extract the hoped for financial support, the Virgin Queen honoured him with a knighthood for championing her cause in the newly named ‘Virginia’. Two more voyages followed, with the aim of establishing a stronghold in the region, one which Hakluyt described as: ‘This paradise of the worlde.’

So when Raleigh’s colonists were recruited to form a permanent English settlement in Virginia under the governorship of John White (former expedition observer and a talented artist) they were charmed with the promise of going to a Garden of Delights – a new Eden where the living would be easy. Women and children were enlisted too, and men with the practical skills to create an enduring community, many of them tempted by the prospect of owning 500 acres of prime farmland. For a novelist, the resonance of this is compelling – these were people expecting to find a Promised Land; they were to be cruelly disappointed. Virginia was the Paradise that was to become Paradise Lost.

Grim reality only dawned on the settlers gradually. At first, on arrival in the summer of 1587, they were confronted with no more than a mystery, one of many mysteries that swept over Roanoke with successive attempts to put down English roots there, as if the landscape was periodically swept clean of invaders as effectively as by one of the hurricanes that are an ever present threat, leaving only sand and a few tantalising traces. We ‘walked to the North ende of the Island,’ wrote John White, ‘where Master Ralfe Lane had his forte, with sundry necessarie and decent dwelling houses, made by his men about it the yeere before, where wee hoped to finde some signes, or certaine knowledge of our fifteene men’ (meaning the men subsequently left by Sir Richard Grenville). ‘When we came thither, wee found the forte rased downe, but all the houses standing unhurt, saving the neather roomes of them, and also of the forte, were overgrowen with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere within them, feeding on those Mellons.’

Reconstruction at Roanoke Island Festival Park

That stark description brings the scene to life: the image of tranquillity overlaying signs of disaster – deer feeding on melons which had overgrown a ruined fort and abandoned houses. What had happened? White only began to find out after the bones of ‘one of those fifteene’ were discovered, ‘which the Savages had slaine long before,’ and one of the colonists was brutally murdered a few days later. The man’s body was found shot through with arrows with his head beaten ‘in peeces’ by wooden swords. He had been wading alone in the shallows not long after arrival, ‘almost naked’ equipped only with a forked stick for crabbing: a picture of someone relaxed and oblivious to danger who encountered horrific violence without any warning. The friendly Croatan tribe eventually provided an explanation by accusing the Roanoke tribe and others led by Wanchese for both crimes.

Here the mystery within a mystery becomes even more intriguing because Wanchese was one of two Indians brought back to England by the Barlowe expedition; the other was Manteo, who returned to England twice and became a loyal ally. But as much as Manteo’s love for the English grew, Wanchese’s hatred deepened, and his knowledge of English ways only made him more effective as an enemy. If Virginia was once an Eden, in these two, perhaps, we can see a mirror of Cain and Abel: two brothers in race, one murderously turning on the other with catastrophic consequences.

The Elizabeth at Roanoke

The true story has endless fascination for its parallels and significance, and it provides rich material for a novelist not least because the real conclusion remains unknown. This is the larger mystery. White left Virginia less than six weeks after arriving and was unable to return for three years; when he did, he found Roanoke Island deserted and bad weather curtailed any attempt at widening the search. The fate of the ‘Lost Colony’ has remained an enigma ever since. White returned to England and died never knowing what had become of his daughter, Eleanor, or his grand-daughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents to be born in America. ‘My last voyage to Virginia… was no less unfortunately ended than forwardly begun,’ he wrote to Richard Hakluyt in February 1593, ‘I leave off from prosecuting that whereunto I would to God my wealth were answerable to my will.’

For the colonists left on Roanoke their predicament must have been truly terrifying. Short of food and surrounded by hostile native tribes, they would have faced a dire dilemma – to remain behind their defences, in their houses, and try to fend off likely Indian attack whilst eking out an existence through the winter with the supplies that remained to them – or relocate to another area where they would have had to start from scratch, improvising shelters, and face even greater uncertainty in finding sustenance and friendship with other native tribes. Perhaps they went to Croatoan, which was where the signs found by White suggested they had fled (though their allies were known to have no food to spare). Perhaps they crammed into the pinnace and the few boats left to them and made for Chesapeake Bay area (which was their intended destination before the expedition pilot insisted that they disembark at Roanoke). Possibly they made for some other site inland, such as the base marked with a cryptic fort symbol for centuries hidden under a patch on White’s Virginea Pars map.* They might even have tried to sail back to England. We’ll probably never know for certain which course of action they took.

Bald Cypress
What had happened to turn the ‘gentle, loving’ Indians into fearsome enemies? The Lost Colonists seem to have been unaware of what Ralph Lane’s men had done to alienate Wanchese and his followers, but there is little doubt that the Roanoke and Choanoke tribes had good cause to feel bitter. Problems began with the constant demands for food from Lane’s garrison, manageable at first, but not so easily dealt with after the poor harvest that followed Lane’s arrival – his men were soldiers, unused to providing for themselves. The Indians were also upset that the English (whom many believed to be dead men reincarnated) appeared to have the power to wipe out whole villages by magic (the Indians began to die after contracting mysterious diseases – probably measles and smallpox that the newcomers brought with them).

Eventually, the chief of the Roanoke tribe, Wingina, took his base from the island to the mainland, severed communications, and destroyed the Indian fishtraps that the English had come to depend upon. In the ‘land of plentie’, Lane’s men were reduced to scavenging for shellfish and berries. Fearing attack while in a weakened state, Lane decided to strike first. He claimed to have discovered a plot to annihilate the English from the son of the king of the Choanokes whom Lane held as a prisoner.

Lane took control of all the boats and canoes on Roanoke, killed as many of the island Indians as he could find, rowed across to the mainland and asked for a council with Wingina, then fired on the unsuspecting chief and his elders. Though wounded, Wingina escaped into the forest, but was tracked, captured and decapitated. Lane later wrote: ‘Others were busie that none of the rest should escape.’

A few days after the massacre, Sir Francis Drake arrived on his way back from the sacking of Santo Domingo and raiding Spanish forts in Florida. Drake offered relief, then, after a wrecking storm blew up, evacuated Lane’s entire garrison. Lane was spared having to face the wrath of the Indians intent on vengeance for his depredations – that burden was to fall on Grenville’s fifteen and the Lost Colonists. The ‘paradise of the worlde’ had effectively been poisoned – Eden had become Hell.

Roanoke mud flats

* This patch came to media attention on both sides of the Atlantic last year when it was found to mask a fort-like icon: see articles in the New York Times and Telegraph.

** Quotations are from the original accounts as reproduced in The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First Settlements in North America 1584-1590, edited by DB Quinn and AM Quinn

*** All pictures copyright Jenny Barden


Jenny Barden's second novel, The Lost Duchess (Ebury Press/Random House UK), 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 pre-ordered from Amazon UK.

Emme Fifield has fallen about as far as a gentlewoman can.

Once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, her only hope of surviving the scandal that threatens to engulf her is to escape England for a fresh start in the new America where nobody has ever heard of the Duchess of Somerset.

Emme joins Kit Doonan's rag-tag band of idealists, desperados and misfits bound for Virginia. But such a voyage will be far from easy and Emme finds her attraction to the mysterious Doonan inconvenient to say the least.

As for Kit, the handsome mariner has spent years imprisoned by the Spanish, and living as an outlaw with a band of escaped slaves; he has his own inner demons to confront, and his own dark secrets to keep...

Ever since Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement in Virginia was abandoned in 1587 its fate has remained a mystery; The Lost Duchess explores what might have happened to the ill-starred 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke.

More about Jenny and her books can be found on her website:


Please fill out the following form for a chance to win a signed first edition hardcover of The Lost Duchess.  Open worldwide.  Deadline Saturday, November 10th.  Good luck!

(This giveaway is now closed.)


  1. This post is fascinating and hits, quite literally, home with me. Well researched with wonderful photos. I live in Edenton, NC which is part of the "Inner Banks." In celebration of Edenton's 300th Anniversary, we recently had a visit by the representational 16th cenutry ship, Elizabeth II, whose home port is on the island of Manteo near the scene of the Lost Colony . As a matter of fact, I have just finished writing my blog posting for Nov 6 which is about my visit aboard the Elizabeth II! I love such uncanny coincidences, don't you?

    1. That's quite remarkable, Kathryn. I'll look out for your post not least because I too had a good look around the Elizabeth at Roanoke Island and was very impressed by the quality of the reconstruction. You live in a beautiful part of the world with a rich and alluring history