Saturday, October 16, 2021

NEW NARRATIVE #7: New Albion, Roanoke and the Queen's Pirates

It's time to bring England back into our story, or as it was called after 1707, Great Britain. As noted, John Cabot landed on Turtle Island back in 1497, but nothing much came of it.

When it came to empires as the 1600s began, England was a minor league team compared to the Spanish and the Portuguese. Their only big conquest back then was the Kingdom of Ireland, which became a client state in 1542. But England was an island nation, skilled at building boats and sailing the seas. And Queen Elizabeth was determined to expand her domains, especially at the expense of Spain.

Francis Drake became her chief instrument. Drake was the first of twelve sons born to a commoner, a religious-minded farmer, who became a clergyman attached to the Navy. Drake grew up working on ships, plying the trade between England and the European mainland. He soon got a small ship of his own, and set out on a more profitable career, robbing slaves and other booty from Spanish and Portuguese ships, and selling the goods at a tidy profit. He thus became a slave-trader and a pirate or, to use the polite term given to pirates who stole from the Queen’s rivals, a ‘privateer.’ The deal was the Queen got a 50% cut.

Drake and his various crews had quite a time in the Caribbean. They engaged what some have come to call ‘war capitalism,’ raiding ships and towns for the gold and silver the Spanish had stolen from the Native Empires or mined with slave and indigenous labor.

Sometimes they had so much loot it was too much for their ships, and then buried it on various hidden beaches, giving rise to many tales. (Elizabeth’s cut on one load was half as much as her entire income for the year from all other sources.) Drake raided towns on the Isthmus of Panama, since the stolen treasure from the Incas was brought overland there for reshipment to Spain. One story has Drake climbing a tall tree on a high hill so he could see the Pacific, spurring his desire to go beyond the Caribbean.

In 1577 the Queen sent Drake to make trouble with the Spaniards along the Pacific coast. So he followed Magellan's path and made his way down the coast of South America, around the Cape, then up the other side, raiding Spanish settlements in Chile, Peru, and Mexico. In need of supplies and a good harbor to repair his ship, the Golden Hind, he decided to skip Southern California and go further north. In 1579, he stopped in Coos Bay, Oregon, but finally settled on Point Reyes, just north of what is now the Bay Area. There he could turn his ship on its side and make repairs. He liked the place and met with a few of the Miwok people living there. He decided to claim it for the Queen, read his ‘discovery’ speech, nailed an inscribed brass plate to a tree, and called the area ‘New Albion.’ It didn't count for much since he left no settlers. The Brits still used it later for their arguments for possession of Oregon.

Drake made it to the Spice Islands in the East Indies, around Africa and back to his home port of Plymouth, England in 1580, loaded with spices and Spanish treasure. The Queen was quite pleased, and in April 1581, made him a knight, hence Sir Francis Drake. Now rather wealthy as well as a lesser noble, he settled into an estate, Buckland Abbey. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

The Queen wanted more than treasure. She wanted her own settled colonies in the New World. She pushed another of her courtiers, Sir Walter Raleigh, who got his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville and a partner, Sir Ralph Lane, to set one up on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in 1585. She also sent Drake back to the Caribbean to make more raids, and on his way back, he attacked and burned the Spanish settlement of St Augustine in Florida, before making a final stop at Roanoke. Drake replenished the 100 or so colonists, but took most of them back to England. Signals were crossed with Grenville, who soon arrived with more colonists and supplies. John White was in charge of Roanoke, but he too returned to England for more supplies. White managed to return in 1590, but found the settlement deserted, save for the carving of ‘Croatoan’ on a tree, the name of a nearby island and Indian tribe. Hence the Queen’s first effort became the renowned ‘Lost Colony.’ But it was soon to be followed by Jamestown and Plymouth. More to come.

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