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ONLY five years after Columbus made his discoveries in the West India Islands, John Cabot sailed from England in search of a short northwest passage to Asia. Directing his course across the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean, he landed somewhere on the eastern coast of North America, perhaps on the shores of Labrador or Newfoundland.
His son sailed in the following year along the coast from Nova Scotia down as far as North Carolina. By reason of these discoveries and explorations, England laid claim to North America.
Nearly a hundred years passed before England took any further steps toward getting a foothold in America. In the meantime Spain, by means of her naval power, had conquered Mexico and Peru, and planted colonies at various points in the New World. The precious metals collected by Spanish explorers in Mexico and Peru had furnished the money with which Spain was enabled to carry on her expeditions as well as the almost continuous wars with other European powers. Some people think that Spain took out of these two countries gold and silver to an amount that would now equal five million dollars.
At this time the English navy was not the most powerful in Europe and the Spanish King hoped to conquer England and make her a dependency of Spain. Of course this roused the English people, and they determined to thwart the ambitious scheming of the Spanish King.
Although England did not have a fighting navy, English seamen were alert to capture Spanish vessels and rob them of their gold and silver. To seize these prizes, such bold sea-captains as Drake and Hawkins roamed the sea, burning and plundering Spanish fleets and Spanish settlements along the coast of Mexico and South America.
Conspicuous among these daring sea-rovers and explorers was Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the most distinguished Englishmen of his time. He was born in a town near the sea-coast in Devonshire, England, in 1552, his father and mother both being of high social rank.
In this town lived many old sailors, who could tell the wide-awake boy stirring tales of seafaring life and of bloody fights with Spaniards. Walter was a patriotic boy, and therefore soon learned to hate Spain, because of her insolence toward the English people.
As he became older and learned more of the power of Spain, especially that which came through possessions in the New World, he was envious for his country's sake and wished her to become Spain's rival in wealth.
When Walter was old enough, he was sent to Oxford University, where he became an earnest student. But at seventeen he put aside his studies and went to France to join the Huguenot army.' After remaining there for about six years, he returned to England and served for a short time in the English army, fighting against Spain and Austria in the Netherlands. Later he went as captain of a hundred men to Ireland, and there proved himself a brave soldier.
Returning again to England, by a simple act of courtesy he won the admiration of the powerful queen Elizabeth. It happened in this way. On one occasion, when with her attendants she was about to cross a muddy road, Raleigh stood looking on. Noticing that the queen hesitated for an instant, he took from his shoulder his beautiful velvet cloak and gallantly spread it in her pathway. The queen, greatly pleased with this delicate attention, took Raleigh into her Court and in time bestowed upon him much honor. She not only made him a knight, but presented him with costly gifts and estates, and showered upon him offices of rank and dignity.
The brave knight, Sir Walter Raleigh, became a man of great wealth and influence.
As a courtier his dress was rich and dazzling. He wore a hat with a pearl band and a black jeweled feather. His shoes, which were tied with white ribbons, were studded with gems worth six thousand six hundred gold pieces. He had also a suit of silver armor that glittered with diamonds and other precious stones.
This splendor did not seem so much out of place in those days as it would now, for much display and ceremony were customary in court life. Queen Elizabeth, with her ten hundred and seventy-five dresses and mantles, ornamented with lace, embroidery, and jewels, and with her eighty wigs of various colors, set a gorgeous example which her courtiers were delighted to follow.
But Raleigh was not satisfied with the glamour of court life. He was eager to achieve glory for England and if possible to elevate her upon the ruins of her enemy, Spain. It was his desire to build up a new England for the glory of the old, and to that end he secured from Queen Elizabeth a charter for planting a colony in
America. He therefore fitted out two vessels which were to sail to the land north of Florida, then occupied by Spain, and bring back reports of the country.
The captains of these vessels arrived in Pamlico Sound, and landed on an island which they found rich in grapes and woods and abounding in deer and other game. The explorers received kind treatment from the Indians, two of whom accompanied the voyagers to England on their return. Queen Elizabeth was so pleased with the good reports from the new country that she called it Virginia in honor of herself—the Virgin Queen.
The next year, 1585, Raleigh sent out to Virginia seven vessels and one hundred colonists, under his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, and Ralph Lane. They landed on Roanoke Island, and made a settlement there, but the colony was not prosperous. At the outset, by unwise and cruel treatment they made enemies of the natives. It is related that, an Indian having stolen a silver cup from one of the colonists, the Englishmen burned an entire village and ruined the corn belonging to its people. Such punishment was out of all proportion to the petty offence. It is not surprising, therefore, that from that time the settlers found the Indians unfriendly.
Very soon Grenville sailed back to England, leaving the colony in charge of Ralph Lane. The colonists instead of building houses and tilling the soil to supply food; were bent upon finding gold. Hence, they listened with eager interest to a story that the Indians told of the Roanoke River. According to this story, the river flowed out of a fountain in a rock so near the ocean that in time of storm the waves dashed over into the fountain. The river, the Indians said, flowed near rich mines of gold and silver, in a country where there was a town with walls made of pearls. Lane and his followers foolishly started up the river in a vain search for this wonderful land. They encountered many difficulties, including hostile attacks by Indians, and suffered so much from lack of food that they had to eat the flesh of their own dogs.
But despite these hardships, they made their way back to Roanoke Island, reaching it just in time to save the colony from destruction by the Indians. A little later Sir Francis Drake, with a fleet of twenty- three vessels, appeared off the coast. He had come on his way home from the West Indies, where he had been plundering the Spanish settlements, and cheerfully consented to take the destitute and homesick colonists back to England. A few days after their departure Grenville arrived with fresh supplies, and found the settlement deserted. Leaving a garrison of fifteen men, with provisions for two years, to hold possession, he then sailed back to England.
Although the settlement did not succeed, this effort was not wholly fruitless, for they did learn of new lands. But the wealth that lay hidden in the soil was yet unknown and no one felt any enthusiasm over the new colony of Virginia. Most men would by this time have lost hope.
Raleigh was not daunted. Two years later he made a second attempt to plant a colony in the New World, this time sending over three ships, with a hundred and fifty settlers, including seventeen women. John White was appointed governor of the colony. These settlers had the forethought to carry with them farming implements to use in tilling the soil. When they landed on Roanoke Island they found no trace of the fifteen men left there two years before by Sir Richard Grenville. The new settlers had not been on the island long before they were in need of help from England, and begged Governor White to return home for provisions and more settlers. White at first refused to leave them, but finally consented. A warm interest in the feeble settlement and love for his little granddaughter, born soon after the settlers arrived, persuaded him to yield. This little girl, the first white girl born in America, was named after the new country, Virginia, her full name being Virginia Dare.
When Governor White left the settlement he expected to return immediately, but upon reaching England he found his countrymen greatly excited over the coming invasion of the much-dreaded "Spanish Armada." Everybody was astir, and Raleigh was aroused to his fullest energy in preparation to meet the hated foe.
But, notwithstanding this, he found time to fit out two small vessels for Governor White. Although they sailed, trouble with the Spaniards compelled their return to England, and not until two years later, when the Spanish Armada had been defeated, did Governor White sail again for Virginia, this time as a passenger in a West Indiaman. He landed on Roanoke Island as before, but there remained of the settlement only some chests of books, some maps, and some firearms, all of which had been ruined by the Indians.
Upon bidding Governor White farewell, the colonists had agreed to carve on a tree the name of the place to which they would go if they should decide to leave Roanoke Island. They were also to carve above the name a cross if they were in serious trouble. Governor White found the word CROATOAN cut in capital letters on a large tree, but he found no cross. Before White could sail to Croatoan, which was an island not far away, he had to return to England because the captain of the vessel, having encountered stormy weather, refused to sail further.
What became of the lost colonists is still a mystery. It is possible that the Indians either killed them or captured and enslaved them.
Raleigh sent out other expeditions in search of the lost colony, but without success. He had already spent a sum equal to more than a million dollars in trying to plant this colony, and now felt that he must give up all hope of accomplishing his purpose.
But this was only one of his many disappointments. Because he was a favorite of the queen and had been a successful man he had many enemies who were jealous of his good fortune. Men of power envied him and tried to weaken his influence and do him injury. As his failures increased, his popularity diminished and he at length became bitter in spirit.
On the death of Queen Elizabeth, James I became king and, not favoring Raleigh, at length threw him into prison on a charge of treason. After an imprisonment in the Tower of London, Sir Walter was beheaded. Just as he was about to lay his head upon the block, he felt the keen edge of the axe, saying, "This is a sharp medicine, but a sound cure for all diseases."
Although he failed to carry out the great desire of his heart, Raleigh gave the English people some definite ideas in regard to the value of the New World as a place for colonizing—ideas which before many years found expression in the settlement of Jamestown.