To come upon Roanoke Island on a sun-drenched day, surrounded by Roanoke Sound and Croatan Sound, is to gaze upon a place of mystery, a place, no, the catalyst that set off the English settlement of the New World. It’s a place where glittering blue waters roll like hundreds of diamonds spilling from a jeweler’s velvet sack, where fragrant flowers bloom even in December, as snow flurries coat the mountains further to the West.
This is the legendary place where Virginia Dare first saw the sun on August 18, 1587, the first English child born in the New World, the granddaughter of the artist John White, governor of the tragic “Lost Colony.” Soon, White left for England, to garner more supplies. As fate would have it, instead of three months before his return, it took him almost three years to find his way back, thanks to problems that England had with Spain. By then, nothing remained of the colony. Or his daughter and granddaughter. Every American school child, at least in the past, learned of Virginia Dare and the obscure fate of the “Lost Colony,” the only traces left being the carved word “Croatan” found in a tree. Various theories attempt to explain what happened, one being that drought probably forced the colonists to move on. Others, more dire, suggest death at the hands of Native Americans, yet some people living on the Outer Banks claim that they descend from English people who arrived there, people who may well have been the original colonists.
John White is better known, however, for his earlier foray in the New World, along with his colleague, Thomas Hariot, who was the first English person to write about the New World. For more about their adventures and contributions to New World ethnography, please take a look at two articles I recently published on The Recipes Project site:
Thomas Hariot, a Renaissance man and one that the poet Muriel Rukeyser admired so much that she, “… with the eye of a historian/researcher and the pen of a poet …,” attempted – in The Traces of Thomas Hariot (1970) – to resurrect the essence of the man who “burst from history into legend.” Hariot may well have possessed one of England’s greatest mathematical minds, along with that of Sir Isaac Newton. And astronomical minds, too, in terms of his accomplishments in astronomy. The poet Rukeyser brings to life this man who died almost four centuries ago. Here she describes the leave-taking from England, in 1585, the voyage that would bring us the words and the images of a world just before it shattered:
They sail out, through known waters, pass out of soundings where the continental shelf drops to floorless water, out into fighting seas; out into the waves that lead to the Spanish islands.
Then they would be out past those into the unknown streams in the ocean, where the whales are. Where, they say, are to be found gold, and the other ocean.
Hariot, in the sun, is a young man watching a sailor coil a rope. He leans on the starboard side, where the master’s men are. The sailor, seeing his interest, shows Hariot the coiling of ropes ; you run it round, so, with the sun, one turn after another; a single turn is called a fake.
The sea glitters. The mists of England are days behind. (p. 19, The Traces of Thomas Hariot)
More about Hariot:
A Brief and True Report … (1588, plus links to other material about Hariot)
“In Search of Thomas Hariot” [review of J. W. Shirley’s Thomas Harriot: Renaissance Scientist (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1974)]
© 2016 C. Bertelsen