Make Mine Roanoke

Tags: IM IN UR COLONY GOIN 2 CR0T04N, the Midge of colonial U.S. history, Great Dismal Glister Societies, Lord Fernando Strange.

Cliopatria is hosting a symposium tomorrow on the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown, and the question “Why has the American national narrative characteristically taken New England / Puritans rather than Jamestown / Virginia / Anglicans as its foundation touchstone?” I’ll link to the symposium after it’s up, and this post should be there, bringing down the general level of discussion. But as I may not be around the internets tomorrow I’m jumping the gun and giving you my entry now. [Edit: The symposium is now up. I’m afraid my entry is at the top, but it’s well worth scrolling on down to see the contributions of my colleagues–who actually address the question asked.]

Can you hear the drums, Lord Fernando?

Plymouth or Jamestown! They’re the Betty and Veronica of colonial U.S. history: where does America’s “national narrative” begin? Frankly, I’m not sure we have to choose. If the Pilgrims and Puritans were a pious clutch of religious zealots, Jamestown was a kind of get-rich-slow scheme, a dot-com start-up where half the techies starved before hitting on the colony’s (cough cough) killer app. Surely American history displays a family resemblance to both forebears?

But if I had to make a choice, I’d plant my flag a hundred and fifty miles south of Jamestown, on the real first English settlement in the New World: the lost colony of Roanoke. (Let’s not talk about Frobisher’s ill-advised attempt on Baffin Island.) In 1584, more than twenty years before Jamestown, Sir Walter Raleigh planted a hundred or so men on Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast. Raleigh’s men toughed it out for a year before all but fifteen of them caught a ride back to England with Sir Francis Drake. A return expedition in 1587 brought more colonists, this time with women and children, led by the artist John White. (Soon after arrival, White’s daughter delivered the first English child born in the Americas.) White himself returned to England for still more settlers and supplies, but a certain Spanish Armada interfered with his return trip, and when English ships finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, the colony’s ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children had vanished without a trace. Or almost without a trace: the word “CROATOAN” was famously carved into the bark of a tree near the lost colony’s gate.

Like many I expect, I first learned of Roanoke as a kind of ghost story. I don’t know which lurid kiddie book I read it in, but I do remember having the distinct impression that “Croatoan” was the name of some slavering forest monstrosity, and not, as it turned out, a nearby Cherokee tribe. The fate of the lost colony remains unknown, but the best guesses say they either got killed by the Powhatans, set out on foot for the Chesapeake and died en route, or went native, interbreeding with the Indians. Whatever became of them, there’s a nice lesson there for American history about hubris, failure, and the great unlikeliness of the American experiment.

In Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, Roanoke is not a creepy campfire tale but a tragic road not taken. While Raleigh’s ships were settling Roanoke, his friend Drake was buckling swash up and down the Spanish Main—simple piracy, Morgan admits, “but on the scale that transforms crime into politics.” Morgan makes much of Drake’s alliance with the Cimarrons, black and Indian slaves escaped from the Spanish. Drake was not above slaving himself, but he made common cause with the “Maroons” and threatened New Spain with a general uprising of its Indian and African labor. As Drake sacked Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and San Augustin, he liberated, or collected, some three hundred Indians and two hundred “Negroes, Turks, and Moors,” whom he planned to deposit at Roanoke to enjoy English-style liberty and serve as a rallying point for New Spain’s oppressed natives and slaves. “Perhaps it could never have come to pass,” Morgan writes, “and perhaps no one really intended that it should.” Nevertheless, for him, Roanoke represented “a dream in which slavery and freedom were not yet married, a dream in which Protestant Britons liberated the oppressed people of the New World.”

Less reputable historians have pushed the Roanoke story further. For my man Kenneth Hite (writing in jest) and Peter Lamborn Wilson (writing in earnest), Roanoke was a magickal working by the occult imperialists of the School of Night, an alleged circle of Elizabethan atheists and adepts said to include Raleigh, poet Christopher Marlowe, magus John Dee, and—how great is this—one Lord Fernando Strange. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Wilson says, was propaganda for their imperial aims. The lost colony, Hite proposes, represented an “alchemical marriage” between the “Red King” Powhatan and the “White Queen” Elizabeth to establish a Golden Empire. “The Old World can keep its maternally-inclined wolves and its giant-killing Trojan refugees,” Hite writes. “Occult conspirators built the United States on a foundation of High Weirdness indeed.”

Of course, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t. What matters most for Wilson (aka the neopagan Sufi anarchist Hakim Bey) is that Raleigh’s plans didn’t succeed. “The very first colony in the New World chose to renounce its contract with Prospero (Dee/Raleigh/Empire) and go over to the Wild Men with Caliban,” he writes. This makes Roanoke the first of Wilson / Bey’s anarchist ideal of “temporary autonomous zones”:

They dropped out. They became “Indians,” “went native,” opted for chaos over the appalling miseries of serfing for the plutocrats and intellectuals of London. As America came into being … Croatan remained embedded in its collective psyche. Out beyond the frontier, the state of Nature (i.e. no State) still prevailed—and within the consciousness of the settlers the option of wildness always lurked, the temptation to give up on Church, farmwork, literacy, taxes—all the burdens of civilization—and “go to Croatan” in some way or another.

Ron Sakolsky’s Gone to Croatan: Origins of American Dropout Culture similarly celebrates Roanoke as the taproot of an American dropout counterculture including pirate utopias, glister societies, Great Dismal Maroons, rogue Quakers, Antinomians, Levellers, Diggers, “tri-racial isolates,” black Islamic movements, and hippie communes.

It’s all pretty dodgy, historically speaking, and certainly nothing I’d stake my tenure decision on. But then I wouldn’t stake my hopes of tenure on the legend of the first Thanksgiving either, or the tender tale of John Smith and Pocahantas. We’re talking about founding myths here, usable pasts. And the lost colony is a myth to conjure with, pun intended. It’s a scare story to help cure historical hubris. It’s Morgan’s dream of American freedom without American slavery. It’s the original old, weird America: a tall tale of sufficient strangeness to suggest that America once was and still ought to be more than just a corporation or a pious city on a hill.


  1. I’d not heard the phrase “Going Croatan,” but I have to say I love the way it sounds. How do you pronounce Croatan, anyway?

  2. Ivan: I actually don’t know. I was hoping somebody else would chime in. In my head, it’s “CROW-a-tahn” and the misspelling on the tree is “CROW-a-TOE-on.”

    TC: Another awesome link. I’m saving the deadly robots (croabots?) of Roanoke for a later post.

  3. In 15th century 3 ships left Dubrovnik (Croatian city).They did not return. At least 1 was shipwrecked at Hatteras.(Nicole Martinez) Hence the word Croatan,

  4. The emperor of the Inca empire, Atahuallpa, wanted to meet the Spanish and he did but he made a bad decision as he brought no armed Inca with him and the Spanish only wanted gold and riches. The emperor would not let convert to Christianity or accept the Spanish King as his King so the Spanish killed 2,000 Inca. They then took over the empire. Atahuallpa, in order to not be killed, ordered a room to be filled with gold and silver as high as the hand could reach for the Spanish. Pizarro agreed to take this as a payment, but later killed the emperor anyway. The Spanish then went to Cuzco and then discovered Lima. Almagro and Pizarro fought over how much land each could control and this led to Pizarro’s followers killing Almagro which led to Pizarro being killed by Almagro’s followers.

    Until he was 50 years old Francisco Pizarro had achieved little but went on to conquer one of Spain’s richest colonies.

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