Elizabethan Explorers and Colonizers

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Elizabethan Explorers and Colonizers

European exploration of other continents began well before the Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history. Since Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254–1324) first ventured to Asia in 1266, Europe had enjoyed the exotic merchandise and foods of the faraway lands of China (then called Cathay), India, and the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). For centuries Europeans traveled to these distant markets by land, but in the early 1400s, Middle Eastern natives denied Europeans access to the overland route. Unable to acquire valued goods, Europeans had but one option: to turn to the uncharted oceans. They embarked upon the most significant period of ocean exploration in history.

England was a latecomer to overseas exploration. When Elizabeth (1533–1603) became queen in 1558, the island nation had no available routes for trading in Africa, Asia, or the New World, and it ruled no overseas colonies. Soon, however, independent traders and adventurers of Elizabethan England challenged the great European sea powers and claimed for England a growing, international trade route extending across the known limits of the world.

Portugal and Spain and the Treaty of Tordesillas

Portugal was the first nation to seriously begin sea exploration. Starting around 1420 Portuguese sailors ventured farther and farther down the west coast of Africa; by the end of the century, they had located an eastern route to Asia. In less than fifty years, the sea trade with the ancient lands of Asia lay exclusively in the hands of Portugal. The route was so long it took a year to journey from Portugal to the farthest outpost of its trading empire.

In the late fifteenth century Spain was interested in establishing its own overseas trade, but Portugal's control of the only known route to Asia was a major obstacle. A possible solution to the problem was offered in 1492 by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who convinced the Spanish queen Isabella (1451–1504) that it was possible to sail west, across the Atlantic, to reach Asia. Isabella agreed to sponsor his expedition, and Columbus sailed off, arriving at the Caribbean islands on October 12,1492. Columbus believed he had found Asia. He returned to Europe with word of his discovery of the western route to the "Indies," the European name for China, India, and Southeast Asia.


A high-ranking official who represents his or her own country to the government of another country.
A group of people who settle far from home but remain at least partially under the rule of their homeland.
A man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.
Imaginary lines that run from east to west on the globe measuring the angular distance north or south from the Earth's equator, measured in degrees.
Imaginary lines drawn on globes or maps that run from north to south, measuring angular distance east or west of the prime meridian, measured in degrees.
The exclusive right to trade with a particular market or group of markets.
The science of setting the course or direction of a ship to get it from one location to another.
Seafarers who own and operate their own ships independently but are authorized by their government to raid the ships of enemy nations, often capturing the entire ship with all its cargo.
Based on reason rather than on spiritual belief or church authority.
The era beginning around 1350 in Europe, in which scholars turned their attention to classical Greek and Latin learning and shifted to a more rational (based on reason rather than spiritual belief or church authority) approach to philosophy, religion, and science.

Not long after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, the Catholic pope ordered the newly discovered lands of the world to be divided between Spain and Portugal, hoping to avoid arguments between Europe's two great Catholic powers. In the Treaty of Tordesillas the pope created a line of demarcation, an imaginary line running north to south on the globe, dividing the world in half. Portugal was given authority to rule all non-Christian lands to the east of the line and Spain was given authority over the lands to the west. No one knew about the geography of the New World yet, and the pope could not have guessed that he had given Spain colonial powers over most of the American continents.

Spanish explorers soon began to journey to various parts of the New World, claiming the land for Spain. The Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) followed, brutally conquering the Aztecs and the Incas, the two most powerful civilizations of the New World, and later destroying the smaller native societies. Over the next three centuries Spain built up its domination of the New World, profiting greatly from its acquisition. Between 1500 and 1650, historians estimate that Spain carried more than 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver from the New World to Europe. Gold found in the Americas during this period was about ten times more than that discovered in all other countries combined. Spain became one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world.

England's late start

By the time of Elizabeth's reign, Spain had a monopoly, or exclusive right, over all trade with the New World except for Brazil. Portugal monopolized trade with Brazil, as well as over the known sea routes to Asia. France had also become involved in the region, claiming New France, a large area in what is now Canada, in 1534. England, however, had barely begun to explore beyond its own borders.

Elizabeth had no income to support overseas exploration, but she encouraged it for a variety of reasons. First, she felt pressure to develop a trade empire to keep up with her European neighbors. Secondly, by the 1570s Spain's growing power and wealth had begun to threaten England. As part of its mission to unify Europe under the Catholic Church, Spain sought to undermine the rule of the Protestant queen. Though England was too weak to engage in war with Spain in the 1570s, Elizabeth took pleasure in the ability of her seafarers to thwart Spain's mighty powers by raiding its ships and American ports. But what most drew Elizabeth to support English sea adventures was the money she could obtain when her privateers, whom she called "sea dogs," brought home the riches from their raids and gave her the queen's required share.

Privateers were seafarers who owned and operated their own ships but were authorized by the queen to raid the ships of enemy nations. They often seized control of the entire ship and all its cargo, and their violent raids resulted in many deaths. In Elizabethan times there was little

Maps and Navigation

Contrary to common belief, even before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492, most educated Europeans accepted that the world was round. Knowledge of the world's geography was far from accurate, however. The maps in use during the Middle Ages (the historical period spanning from c. 500 to c. 1500) were known as mappa mundi, or maps of the world. These works of art featured biblical figures or mythical creatures surrounded by distorted outlines of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The edges of the known continents faded into regions believed to be inhabited by monsters and dragons. Although these maps expressed a great deal about medieval culture, they were not very useful for navigation. (Navigation is the science of setting the course or direction of a ship to get it from one location to another.)

During the Renaissance, the era that began around 1350 in Europe, in which scholars turned their attention to classical Greek and Latin learning and shifted to a more rational approach to philosophy, religion, and science, mapmakers in Europe rediscovered the work of the ancient Greek mathematician and geographer Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100–170). Ptolemy had developed the first maps that depicted a round world, and he had also introduced mathematical methods to project the three-dimensional curved lines of the world onto a flat map. Even Ptolemy's maps were too distorted, however, to provide guidance to seafarers. As the sixteenth century began, therefore, most ships sailed only on known courses or within sight of land.

During the sixteenth century residents of the city of Louvain in Flanders (now Belgium) made important advances in the science of cartography, or mapmaking. One of these early pioneers was physician and mathematician Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), who made the first globes of the Earth showing the Americas. Globes were the only true models of the world, but they were inadequate navigational tools. Flat maps did not account for the curvature of the Earth. The great challenge looming before mapmakers was mathematical: how to make a two-dimensional model of a three-dimensional sphere.

In 1569 Flemish mathematician and mapmaker Gerard Mercator (1512–1594) found a way to map the Earth accurately enough to be useful to ocean navigators by changing the way the longitudinal meridians were drawn. Longitudinal meridians are the imaginary lines drawn on globes or maps that run from north to south, measuring distances east or west of a selected place called the prime meridian. Mercator made a map of the Earth that depicted the longitudinal meridians running parallel to each other, rather than converging on the two poles, as they do on a globe. Although Mercator's projection distorted the actual sizes of the different regions, its treatment of direction was highly accurate.

England lagged behind other European countries in mapmaking as well as exploration. In fact, as Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, England had no globes or maps that depicted the New World, and other countries with charts of the seas tended to keep them hidden to avoid competition. The ships in England's navy were frequently forced to sail near shore to navigate. One Englishman, the queen's advisor, mathematician and scientist John Dee (1527–1609), had studied mapmaking with Frisius and Mercator. When the early English expeditions began to depart for the New World, investors called on Dee to instruct the commanders on the principals of geography, showing them ways to measure their position and set their course.

A variety of navigational tools became available to explorers in the sixteenth century, including the magnetic compass, a navigational instrument for finding directions with an indicator—usually a magnetic needle—that points to the north, and the astrolabe, an instrument that helped pilots calculate latitudinal position (their location in respect to the imaginary east/west lines that cross the surface of the Earth parallel to the equator). Even with the aid of such devices, however, navigation remained a highly inexact science until the seventeenth century.

difference between piracy—high-seas robbery of ships and cargo—and privateering. Elizabeth's involvement in such lawless activities seemed unethical even to some of her own statesmen, including her secretary of state and advisor, William Cecil (1520–1598). To the nations whose ships were raided by the English sea dogs, Elizabeth's failure to stop the lawlessness—and even her apparent encouragement of the raiding—was infuriating. Nonetheless, it was the sea dogs—men like John Hawkins (1532–1595), Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596), and Martin Frobisher (c. 1535–1594)—who established England's powers at sea.

John Hawkins, slave trader

John Hawkins was one of the earliest English seafarers to openly defy the Portuguese and Spanish trade monopolies in Africa and the New World, making overseas trade a legitimate enterprise in England. As a youth Hawkins made a number of voyages to the Spanish-held Canary Islands, where he first learned of the profits to be made from selling African slaves. Soon after Elizabeth became queen, he began to promote the idea of obtaining slaves from Africa and trading them in the New World, where Spanish settlers were desperate for laborers for their sugar mills and mines. Despite the Spanish laws against trading in the Americas, Hawkins was confident that he could trade with the settlers since it was to their benefit.

A group of wealthy merchants formed a company to sponsor Hawkins's slave-trading expedition. Investors bought shares of the company, financing the voyage with their purchases. When Hawkins returned, the shareholders would divide up the expedition's profits in shares equal to those they had purchased. If the expedition failed, however, the sponsors would lose their money. It was to be England's first slave-trading venture, and the first trip by an Englishman into the Caribbean for the purpose of trading.

Hawkins set off for the west coast of Africa with three ships in 1562. When he arrived he kidnapped or traded for an estimated three hundred to eight hundred African men and women. Motivated by the prospects of great financial gain, he treated the African people he captured as if they were non-human cargo. With the Africans on board, Hawkins's fleet left Africa for the Caribbean islands. There he traded the slaves for goods. During his trip he frequently raided Portuguese and Spanish ships, seizing their slaves and goods as well. Even though the Spanish captured two of his ships, Hawkins's first slave trading expedition brought high profits to its investors.

Although many Europeans in Elizabethan times believed that Africans were inferior beings unworthy of normal human consideration, not everyone approved of slavery. In 1563 Queen Elizabeth expressed her own distaste for slave trading, saying, as quoted in The Queen's Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls by Nick Hazelwood, "if any African were carried away without their free consent it would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers." Elizabeth, however, changed her mind when she saw the great profits Hawkins made. She gladly collected a portion of the profits in the name of England.

Hawkins organized a new slave-trading expedition in 1564; this time, high-ranking courtiers and nobles joined with merchants in backing the expedition. Elizabeth loaned Hawkins a ship for the venture, giving him the approval of the English government. When he arrived on the Venezuelan coast, Hawkins found that the Spanish government had forbidden the colonists to trade with him. Having foreseen this possibility, he landed armed parties that, without actually fighting anyone, captured towns long enough to trade with them. Nervous local authorities could later tell Spanish officials that they had been forced to trade with the English, while in truth they desired it. The profits of Hawkins's second voyage far exceeded those of the first.

Back in Spain, King Philip II (1527–1598) was angry. His monopoly over the New World had been granted by the pope; consequently, he considered his authority there to have been granted by God. The Spanish ambassador to England, a high-ranking official who represents his own country to the government of another country, repeatedly complained about Hawkins's violation of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Cecil responded, as quoted by Hazelwood, "that the Pope had no right to partition the world and to give and take kingdoms to whoever (sic) he pleased." With so much money to be made, Elizabeth could not resist encouraging a third expedition.

In 1567 Hawkins sailed for the west coast of Africa once again, this time with a larger fleet, including two ships provided by the queen. His young cousin, Francis Drake, was in command of one of the ships. In September 1568, while sailing in the Americas, storms damaged the fleet and it sailed into the port of San Juan de Ulúa, near Veracruz, Mexico. While anchored there, a well-armed Spanish fleet attacked. As Hawkins fought, he saw his men being killed and his ships sunk—all, that is, except Drake's ship, which escaped early in the battle. After heavy losses, Hawkins gathered the scattered survivors on his last remaining ship and escaped. After an agonizing voyage in which many starved or died of thirst, the ship reached England in January 1569. Hawkins resentfully noted, as quoted in Helen Hill Miller's Captains from Devon: The Great Elizabethan Seafarers Who Won the Oceans for England, that Drake's ship "forsooke us in our great miserie."

John Hawkins quit slave trading immediately after the disaster at San Juan de Ulúa. His next adventure was to convince King Philip that he would spy on England for him as a double agent. In this way, Hawkins was able to discover plots against Elizabeth. He became a successful merchant and ship builder, and in 1577 Elizabeth made him the lord treasurer of the navy. In this capacity, the former pirate and slave trader became one of the most accomplished statesmen of his time and designed an effective navy for England. (For more information, see Chapter 7).

Francis Drake vows revenge

Francis Drake had disliked Spain and Catholics since his childhood. Humiliated by the attack at San Juan de Ulúa, he bitterly vowed revenge. He would spend the rest of his life ruthlessly and fearlessly fighting Spain.

Drake organized expeditions to the New World in 1569, 1571, and 1572. During the first two voyages, he learned as much as he could about the routes taken by the Spanish fleets hauling gold and silver from the South American mines back to Europe. On his 1572 voyage Drake attacked the port city of Nombre de Dios in Panama, where the Spanish treasure fleet was known to anchor regularly. His crew approached the city banging drums, blaring trumpets, and brandishing torches in order to frighten the residents. The Spanish fled, but not before they had launched a volley of musket fire at Drake and his men. Drake was seriously wounded and soon collapsed. Though the crew had found a hoard of silver, they carried their unconscious captain off to safety, leaving the silver behind.

The small fleet retreated to safer parts of the coast in Panama, where Drake recovered. There the crew became friendly with Cimaroons, former African slaves who had escaped to live with the natives in the forests of the Caribbean islands and South America. The Cimaroons hated the Spanish and were glad to help Drake's fleet harass them. With their advice Drake planned the successful ambush of a mule train near Nombre de Dios. (A mule train is a group of travelers carrying goods on mules.) The mule train was carrying so much gold and silver, however, Drake and his crew had difficulty transporting it all to the fleet. They carried as much gold as they could to the shore, where they built a raft to float it to their awaiting ships. The enormous bounty Drake brought back to England made him an instant national hero and a very wealthy man. He also became the hated enemy of King Philip.

Drake circumnavigates the globe

During his stay in Panama, the Cimaroons had taken Drake to a point on the isthmus (the narrow strip of land in Panama connecting Central and South America) from which he was able to view the Pacific Ocean. He dreamed of one day sailing up the west coast of South America. He had his chance in 1577. With all his successes Drake had become a favorite of Elizabeth. Cecil worried about Drake's rash behavior, but the queen and some of her other councilors viewed the seemingly unstoppable sea dog as a one-man weapon against the arrogant Spanish. It did not hurt that Elizabeth prospered in her share of the wealth from his extremely successful raids on Spain's ships. With the backing of several high-ranking noblemen in Elizabeth's closest circle, Drake began to secretly prepare to explore the Pacific Coast of the New World. The plans for the expedition were so secret that not even the crew that was to accompany him knew its mission. Elizabeth herself invested in Drake's expedition, but she kept its destination secret from Cecil, knowing he did not approve of Drake's piracy on the seas.

On December 13, 1577, Drake set out in his ship, the Golden Hind, with a fleet of five large and well-armed ships. The expedition sailed from Plymouth, England, to the Cape Verde Islands, a group of Portuguese-controlled islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Drake then headed west, toward Brazil, and south down the east coast of South America. The ships anchored on June 18, 1578, at San Julian, in present-day southern Argentina, at the entrance to the Strait of Magellan. (The Strait of Magellan is a body of water at the southern end of South America that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.)

Storms had taken their toll on the fleet, and after wintering at San Julian, only three ships were able to continue on the seventeen-day passage through the Strait of Magellan. More heavy storms in the Strait battered the ships, sinking one and causing the Golden Hind to lose sight of the other. The Golden Hind was blown far south of its course. There was a widely held belief at the time that a huge continent called Terra Australis lay south of South America. The accidental side trip confirmed what Drake had suspected—the southern border of the Strait was in fact formed by a large group of islands, not a continent. This was an important contribution to geographical knowledge of the day.

Traveling up the Pacific Coast of South America alone, the Golden Hind began its raids on the unprepared Spanish ships and ports. Because the Pacific Coast had been solely in their control for many decades, the Spanish had never built up proper systems of defense. Drake began by capturing a large trading ship in the port of Valparaíso, in Chile, and then raided the town itself. He then proceeded up the coast, capturing trading vessels and port towns. On March 1,1579, the Golden Hind overpowered a huge Spanish ship brimming with gold, silver, and jewels and stole its treasure.

Drake was ready to return to England but, having left many angry Spaniards in his wake, he did not want to sail back the way he had come. At that time it was generally believed that a strait called the Northwest Passage ran through North America. Drake headed as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia, in present-day Canada, searching unsuccessfully for the strait. When it did not appear, he sailed south again to San Francisco Bay, where he spent a month restocking food and supplies and repairing the ship. The local Coast Miwok Indians—who had seen the Golden Hind arrive from the west, the land of dead ancestors—assumed Drake and his men must be gods. Drake misunderstood the Miwoks' respect as a surrender of their land to the English queen. He took possession of the region, calling it New Albion. (Albion is a poetic name for England.)

Now convinced that there was no strait through North America, Drake realized he would have to cross the Pacific to get home. In July 1579 the Golden Hind began a two-month westward voyage through the Philippines, the Moluccas (also known as the Spice Islands), Timor and Java, around the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost point of the African continent, and up the Atlantic coast of Africa. Drake's ship arrived back in England in 1580, nearly three years after the voyage began.

Drake's expedition was only the second voyage ever to have circumnavigated, or gone all the way around, the globe. England's attention, though, was focused on the magnificent treasures Drake had brought back with him. His bounty was valued at £326,580. For each pound invested in the expedition, investors received £47. Elizabeth, though greatly enriched by her investment, initially kept silent about the voyage so as not to disrupt the peace negotiations she was conducting with Spain. Six months after the return of the Golden Hind, though, the queen boarded Drake's ship to celebrate his feat with him. She wore a jeweled crown and a diamond cross Drake had given her. After dinner aboard the ship, the queen knighted Drake. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.) From his beginnings as a poor lad in Devon, Drake had risen to become a wealthy and famous man.

Martin Frobisher and the Northwest Passage

Since the Spanish controlled the western route to Asia around the southern tip of the Americas and the Portuguese controlled the eastern routes around Africa, the English, Dutch, and French had long sought alternative routes to Asia. Many believed that a Northwest Passage through North America existed that would allow them to sail on to China. A few English explorers had ventured to the cold shores of Greenland and present-day Canada seeking the passage before Elizabeth's time, but during her reign the search began in earnest.

In 1566 Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539–1583), a nobleman, member of Parliament, and explorer who studied the geography of ancient philosophers, wrote A Discourse of a Discovery for a New Passage to Cataia (China), in which he attempted to persuade Elizabeth to support an expedition seeking a Northwest Passage to China. She turned him down. Gilbert's lobbying eventually convinced Elizabeth, but she chose to grant a license instead to Martin Frobisher to explore the northern seas around North America in 1575.

Frobisher had a colorful past. As a child, he had been on trading voyages to West Africa, and he had been held hostage by an African chief. After serving in the English army, he became a privateer. During the 1560s Frobisher was repeatedly arrested for piracy, and most of his countrymen looked down on him as a common criminal.

During his years of privateering, Frobisher became fascinated with the idea of the Northwest Passage, and in 1575 he persuaded a group of investors to finance a search for it. Frobisher left England in 1576 in command of two small ships. Sailing northwest from England, they arrived on the coast of Greenland. There, the two ships were separated in a storm, and one returned to England. Frobisher continued to sail westward. Eventually the great inlet on Baffin Island, later named Frobisher Bay, came into his view. Though supplies were running low and the temperatures were so cold that a thick shield of ice coated the entire ship, he sailed on, convinced he had found the passageway to Asia. After exploring and encountering the native population, the Inuits, the ship returned to England.

Frobisher's crew had found a black rock with shiny elements in it on an island in Frobisher Bay, and they brought a sample home with them. Some goldsmiths believed the rock contained deposits of real gold. This discovery stimulated interest in Frobisher's quest, and he was able to finance another trip. Even Elizabeth invested in the expedition and supplied him with a ship. In May 1577 Frobisher set off with three ships. When he reached Frobisher Bay his crew loaded about two hundred tons of black rock onto his ships and brought it back to England. Although some of Frobisher's partners realized that the rock he had brought back was worthless, enough interest remained to send out another, even larger expedition in 1578.

The new expedition carried settlers and supplies to build an English colony in the newly discovered land. (A colony is a group of people who settle far from home but remain at least partially under the rule of their homeland.) The settlers would mine the rock, if it proved to be valuable. The fleet arrived again in Frobisher Bay, where Frobisher built a stone house that was found there almost three hundred years later. Frobisher's expedition returned to England without much to show for its efforts. Metal workers tried to refine the black rocks into gold but failed. The investors in the expedition had lost their money, and Frobisher gave up his dream of finding the Northwest Passage.

Humphrey Gilbert's colony

In the 1570s Humphrey Gilbert began to promote the establishment of an English colony on the Atlantic Coast of North America. He was not alone in this idea. John Dee also urged colonization in 1577 in his four-volume work General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Art of Navigation. It was Dee who coined the term "English Empire" that would become so important in the years ahead.

In 1578 Elizabeth granted Gilbert a charter to settle any lands in the New World that were not already ruled by a Christian prince. With the assistance of his half brother, Walter Raleigh (1522–1618), Gilbert set out on his first expedition. He was attacked by Spaniards and forced to return to England. Gilbert lost his money and spent the next few years raising funds for a new expedition. Gilbert's second expedition of five ships left England in 1583, reaching the northern coast of Newfoundland at the end of July and then sailing into the harbor at St. John's, now the capital and largest city in Newfoundland. Gilbert claimed the site for the queen, and he and the other colonists stayed there for two weeks. Gilbert intended to return the following year. Unfortunately, on the voyage back to England, Gilbert's ship sank in a storm. Everyone on board, including Gilbert, drowned.


After Gilbert's death Walter Raleigh felt it was his duty to carry out his brother's mission of establishing a colony in the New World. Before choosing a site, Raleigh sent a small survey party to explore an area in present-day North Carolina. They returned with a favorable report, finding the site inviting and fertile, with a climate far milder than that of Newfoundland. Raleigh claimed the entire region stretching along the Atlantic Coast between present-day North Carolina and Maine for England. He named the new land Virginia after Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

Raleigh needed funding to establish a colony. He was one of Elizabeth's favorites and she had made him a knight, but she did not offer him any money for the expedition. Raleigh turned for help to one of the most influential writers of his time, Richard Hakluyt (pronounced HAK-loot; c. 1552–1616). Hakluyt was fascinated with geography and exploration. In 1580 he had written his Discourse on the Strait of Magellan, calling for exploration of the Northwest Passage, and in 1582 he compiled Diverse Voyages to America, a collection of explorers' documents. His writing raised the public interest in exploring the New World. Raleigh persuaded Hakluyt to write a memorial to the queen, hoping it would persuade her to lend financial support to his new venture. Hakluyt drafted the memorial, known as A Discourse on Western Planting ("planting" refers to establishing colonies), which put forth nearly every argument to support English colonization that would be advanced over the next two centuries. Elizabeth offered her encouragement, but no money.

The first Roanoke Island colony

In 1585, finally having raised enough money, Raleigh dispatched an expedition of about one hundred settlers to establish a colony in Virginia. Raleigh had hoped to command the expedition himself, but Elizabeth, fearful of losing her favorite, would not allow him to go. The colonists made a slow crossing and arrived at Roanoke Island, in present-day North Carolina, too late to plant crops. The ship's captain immediately returned to England for more supplies. The colonists built a fort and a few dwellings, but most of them spent their time in an unsuccessful search for gold rather than working the land or finding food sources. Among the colonists were a young Oxford scholar, Thomas Harriot (1560–1621), and an artist, John White (died c. 1593). They had been sent to record the plants and people of the region and map out the territory. They later used their experience to provide England with its first accurate descriptions and illustrations of the New World.

As the colonists' supply shortages grew worse, resources had to be obtained from the native inhabitants of the land, the Roanokes, Croatoans, and Secotans. The natives initially helped the newcomers, but as the English demanded more food and goods, the native people became increasingly hostile. By the summer of 1586 the colonists were out of supplies and ready to leave. Francis Drake happened to be on a raiding expedition in the Caribbean that summer. After ransacking the Spanish colony at St. Augustine, Florida, he sailed up the coast to Roanoke Island. He offered to take the colonists home and they gladly accepted. They had lasted about ten months in the colony.

The "lost colony" at Roanoke

In 1587 Raleigh made a second attempt to establish a permanent colony in Virginia. He gathered eighty-four men, seventeen women, and nine children to settle there under the authority of John White, whom he named deputy governor. The settlers once again chose Roanoke Island for their colony. Another supply shortage forced a reluctant White to leave his own family behind and return to England. Only nine days before he left, his daughter had given birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born on American soil. Back in England, White loaded two boats with supplies, but as he prepared to return to Virginia, England and Spain went to war in the famous 1588 battle of the Spanish Armada. (For more information on the Spanish Armada, see Chapter 7). White could not sail for America until 1590. When he arrived at Roanoke, the colony had disappeared. The only sign he found was the word "CROATOAN" carved on a tree. No one knows what happened to the lost colony, but most scholars agree that the colonists probably headed inland to live with the Croatoans.

Raleigh gave up on colonizing, but many lessons had been learned from his failed efforts. It was clear that no single individual could finance a settlement. It was also clear that the Spanish experience of discovering vast wealth in gold and silver mines in South America would not be repeated. In North America different kinds of economic opportunities existed, such as farming, logging, and fishing, which would require planning and labor. Colonists needed to prepare themselves for hard work and harsh conditions. Raleigh's endeavors captured English interest in building an overseas empire. Within decades, others would follow in his footsteps and, armed with better information, they would succeed in building England's first permanent colonies.

In 1589 Richard Hakluyt published his first edition of Principle (sic) Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation. It championed the idea of turning to farming to establish strong, profitable, and permanent colonies. Hakluyt argued that permanent colonies would keep Spain out of North America, secure a new source of badly needed raw materials for England's industries, and create a new market for English exports. He also saw the New World as the ideal place to send England's poor, unemployed, and criminal elements. This widely read book was very persuasive in promoting colonization of North America.

For More Information


Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen's Men: The World of Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Hazelwood, Nick. The Queen's Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls. New York: William Morrow, 2004.

Miller, Helen Hill. Captains from Devon: The Great Elizabethan Seafarers Who Won the Oceans for England. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1985.

Woolley, Benjamin. The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.


Crane, Nicholas. "Changing Our World View." Geographer, April 2003, p. 33.

Marsh, Katherine. "Truth in Mapping: Gerard Mercator." U.S. News and World Report, February 23, 2004, p. 65.


"Elizabeth's Pirates." http://www.channel4.eom/history/microsites/H/history/pirates/pirates1.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Kraus, Hans P. "The Famous Voyage: The Circumnavigation of the World 1577–1580," Sir Francis Drake: A Pictorial Biography. Published in Amsterdam by N. Israel, 1970. Copyright ¬ 1970 by H. P. Kraus. Library of Congress: Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room, http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/catalog/drake/drake-home.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).

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Elizabethan Explorers and Colonizers

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Elizabethan Explorers and Colonizers