WHETHER or no Sir Walter Raleigh spread his velvet cloak in the mud for Queen Elizabeth to walk on, there is less doubt that if he had been a greater man he might have helped the royal lady over a greater puddle, namely, the Atlantic Ocean. Raleigh had the vision of another England rising in the new western world. But he was seduced by a greed for personal riches to betray that vision . . . and his treason to his ideal cost him his head.
The story of this man who might have laid the corner stone of both the American nation and of the British empire is among the best examples in history of how narrowly one may miss greatness. Raleigh's ambition was forever a battleground between the general good and private gain, and always the larger issue lost the fight.
This brilliant dabbler in poetry, science and history began, at twenty-six, to dabble in the New World. He sailed to the West Indies with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert; but he tarried at home while Gilbert was on his second and last voyage, which alone counted for something, because it gave Newfoundland to England. The half-brother not returning from that exploit, his grant was transferred to Raleigh by the Queen, from whom he received virtually as much of the western hemisphere as he could care to occupy. But he himself never came near these shores. Nor did he ever add a food to British possessions anywhere.
All that Raleigh gave to England out of his vast domain in America were two strange vegetables. One he planted on his estate in Ireland, where it took the name of Irish potato. The other he set all the men of England to "drawing into their mouth the smoke thereof, which is of a strong scent, through a pipe made of earth and venting it again through their nose; some for wantoness, or rather fashion sake, or other for health sake, insomuch that tobacco shops are set up in greater number than either alehouses or taverns."
Having too successfully made love to Elizabeth, this royal courtier at thirty-one was not permitted by the royal coquette of fifty-one to leave her long enough to go to the New World. Raleigh was only coquetting with both the Queen and America, and he forsook each for another mistress. Upon the return of his first expedition from the now coast of North Carolina, whose capital city bears his name, he complimented the royal old maid by christening the land Virginia. But straightway he turned from the hard won and doubtful rewards of colonization to seek easier money in waylaying Spanish ships. All his subsequent expeditions went out primarily for plunder on the high seas and only secondarily to settle and explore Virginia.
Thrice colonies were planted on Roanoke Island, in North Carolina waters. But the first colonists were left with such scant provisions that they took the earliest chance to sail home. A lot of fifteen had disappeared by the time a third arrived, and this last colony was abandoned to its after for four years.
Raleigh is credited with having made one effort to succor those castaways on Roanoke. Apparently his rescue ships were after loot, first of all, as they were caught far off their course, at Madeira, and driven back by the Spaniards. Soon England was distracted by the menace of the Grand Armada of Spain. Raleigh himself seems to have played no leading part in that drama. Nor is it recorded that he took any further action to save the stranded colony.
After having landed the colony on the North Carolina coast, John White, the leader, returned to England for the purpose of forwarding necessary supplies. Before he left, his daughter presented to him a granddaughter. That first English birth in America thus was recorded: "And the 18th, Elinor, the Governour's daughter, and wife to Ananias Dare, was delivered of a daughter in Roanoke, which being the first Christian there borne was called Virginia."
Four years passed before White contrived to get a boat that would take him back to Roanoke. He found that the island had relapsed into a silent desolation. The seventeen women and girls and the eighty-seven men and boys were all gone. But they left an indication of where they had gone. As he had told them to do, if they should move in his absence, they had cut in the bark of a tree the one word, "Croatan."
Although the Croatan Indians lived not far away, the ship captain was too eager to be about his business of holding up Spanish galleons to wait for White while he followed the plain clue that the colonists had left behind them. The grandfather of Virginia dare seems not to have been of the stuff of heroes, and he sailed away leaving his kindred and all his followers to be swallowed up in a mystery that time never has fathomed.
There still are several thousand Croatan Indians in North Carolina, mostly in Robinson County. They make a boast of English blood in their veins and cherish tribal legends of their descent from the lost colony of Roanoke. A recent visitor reports that he found them dancing about a Maypole and singing the folk songs of Old England.
The record of Sir Walter Raleigh in America closes with that neglected message, which his forsaken colonists carved in the bark of a tree on Roanoke Island. He went off and forgot his Virginia in a search for El Dorado, a fabled city of gold in Venezuela, and wound up on the headsman's block in the Tower of London. He had prophesied many years before, "I shall live to see Virginia an English nation." He had lived to see it. But the building of that nation was no job for a queen's favorite, for a royal courtier. Ruder, stronger hands dug the foundation of the British empire at Jamestown.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 14, 1927