Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review

"The Head in Edward Nugent's Hand,"
by Michael Leroy Oberg

Michael Leroy Oberg’s book accomplishes two objectives. It tells the story of Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed attempts to establish an English outpost/settlement on the North Carolina coast between the years 1584 and 1587. It examines the native population’s culture and way of life and emphasizes how that culture determined native responses to English interference.

Raleigh wanted to use the outpost as a base for privateers to attack Spanish treasure ships; utilize the natural resources of the land to benefit Queen Elizabeth, his financial backers, and himself; and discover a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. Accomplishing these objectives assumed that the Carolina coastal natives could be civilized and converted to Christianity. Treated patiently and kindly, exposed to the benefits of a far more advanced culture, the natives would surely adapt.

Oberg demonstrates that the Algonquian culture -- based on religious concepts, ritual and a harmonious, balanced way of living influenced by natural resources unique to the environment, a culture established centuries ago -- was too strong to be altered. Friction, not assimilation, resulted.

Unforeseen events contributed greatly, as well, to Raleigh’s failure. The newcomers in 1585 brought disease that killed 50 to 70 percent of the inhabitants of native communities with whom they made contact. A severe drought limited considerably the corn crop upon which the natives greatly depended. The 1585 expedition brought to Roanoke Island over a hundred aggressive men most of whom were soldiers trained solely to wage war. Most of the colony’s food supply for the remainder of the year was ruined by sea water when the ship containing the food, upon its arrival, ran aground. This caused the settlement’s leader to pressure the Roanoke natives continuously for assistance. Ultimately, the Roanoke weroance Wingina withdrew his community to the mainland, having come to the conclusion that the English brought to his people not advantages but hardship and death.

Believing mistakenly that the Roanoke weroance had conspired with other Indian settlements to attack him, the colony’s governor, Ralph Lane, had his soldiers slaughter most of the natives in Wingina’s mainland village. One of his soldiers, Edward Nugent, cut off Wingina’s head. Two weeks later, the entire colony sailed back to England.

The third attempt (1587) to establish a settlement was led by the artist and idealist John White, who had participated in the previous two expeditions. His settlers were mostly civilians, lower middleclass people of London seeking an independent, improved existence. White was forced by the fleet’s pilot to disembark on Roanoke Island instead of continuing on to locate a settlement on the south bank of Chesapeake Bay, as had been intended. Misunderstanding and miscommunication caused White and his settlers to attack the one remaining native people friendly to Englishmen. White was forced to return to England soon afterward to arrange for ships and supplies to transport his colony to the Chesapeake Bay. War with Spain prevented him from returning until 1590. He found Roanoke Island deserted. A message carved in wood suggested that the colony had moved south to the Indian village Croatoan on the Outer Bank. The next day a severe storm deprived White of the chance to investigate. His ship, driven well out into the Atlantic, returned to England. He never returned.

Other books about the Roanoke settlements provide this information. What is unique about Oberg’s book is his detailed explanation of why the native coastal populations were resistant to English encroachment. In his epilogue, he writes: “We know that many factors contributed to the failure of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke ventures. … All these explanations … overlook an important and fundamental truth: Raleigh’s Roanoke ventures failed because those native people in Ossomocomuck who initially had welcomed the newcomers decided to withdraw their support and assistance from strange people whom they now viewed as a mortal threat to their way of life.”

I especially appreciated Oberg’s laying out of most all of the explanations that historians have offered of why and where White’s “lost” settlers “disappeared.” He also explains how the coastal Carolina natives lost their land, culture, and identity over the succeeding two centuries. I recommend this book to anybody having a genuine interest in early English attempts to establish colonies in North America.