Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Review
"Set Fair for Roanoke"
by David Beers Quinn
"Set Fair for Roanoke" by David Beers Quinn is not a book that would appeal to the general reading public. There are other secondary source books about the attempted English settlements at Roanoke (inside the Outer Banks of North Carolina) that are faster-moving and more entertaining reads. What the reader gets from Quinn’s book that elevates it is detailed, insightful speculation.

Primary sources do not explain sufficiently what happened at Roanoke. Historians have available to them five reports sent to Walter Raleigh that narrate the 1584 expedition and the settlements of 1585-1586 and 1587. The reports inadvertently and intentionally omit needed information. They are also biased. Our knowledge of the local Algonquians is limited to what those who wrote the reports chose to declare. Given these limitations, what can a credible historian do? Narrate what was reported, question its objectivity, seize upon bits and pieces of information made available, and speculate. Of the four Roanoke historians that I have read, David Quinn does this best.

Here is much of what Quinn addresses.

Just how much influence did the Roanoke chief Wingina have over native villages along the banks of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds? Not very much? A lot? Historians don’t know. Identifying the native warriors that wounded him in early 1584 is important, given Governor Lane’s assertion that Wingina was plotting to have warriors from distant villages assist him in destroying the 1585-1586 colony.

The two Englishmen who provided the best information about the native population were the scientist Thomas Harriot and the artist John White. They may have been members of the first voyage to Roanoke in 1584, but historians are not certain. Both were indispensable members of the 1585-1586 settlement. One of their important achievements was their survey of the waterways and villages of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. Yet we don’t know all of the villages they visited. Near the end of 1585 Governor Lane sent a party of about 20 men to the Chesapeake Bay to scout suitable land for a possible future settlement. We have no report of their experiences. All we know is what Lane scarcely mentions. It is assumed that Harriot, who had some knowledge of the Algonquian language, participated. Nobody knows whether White accompanied him. He may very well have returned to England several months earlier. Reasonable arguments can be made to support or refute each conclusion. How much White knew about the Chesapeake land and the local natives residing there is germane to what in 1587 he must have advised his settlers to do if, feeling threatened, they decided to relocate.

Most historians agree that Governor Lane’s account of the events of 1586 that culminated with Wingina’s murder is suspect. Lane was convinced that Wingina had plotted to annihilate his settlers using friendly warriors from villages fifty miles or farther away. It had been Wingina, Lane reported, that in the early spring had caused distant villages to deny his men food during their exploration of the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers. We have Lane’s point of view only. Was he paranoid?

Why did Simon Fernandes, the pilot of John White’s 1587 voyage to Roanoke, force White’s settlers to disembark on the Island? Why didn’t he take them to the Chesapeake Bay as White and Sir Walter Raleigh had planned? Was it to provide himself enough time to privateer? Was he following the orders of Walter Raleigh’s enemies in England that White’s venture must fail, a theory proposed by one imaginative historian? White believed that Fernandes did intend to privateer. The pilot’s actions during the Atlantic crossing and passage through the Caribbean suggest another motive.

Finally, what happened to White’s settlers after they forced White to return to England to try to persuade investors to send ships to Roanoke to take them to the Chesapeake? When White returned to Roanoke in 1590, he found not one Algonquian or settler to question. Historians give us theories of where they believe the settlers might have settled and what afterward might have happened to them – speculation based on sketchy information provided by descendants of Croatoan natives, John Smith of Jamestown, and an exploratory party sent south from Jamestown.

I appreciated the extent to which David Beers Quinn analyzed source information and the alternative theories he imparted to expand our understanding of England’s failed attempt in the 1580s to establish a North American colony.