The lost colony of Roanoke: Whatever happened to British America’s first city?

And it all started so well. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

It’s the late 16th century and you, Queen Elizabeth I, are stuck with a major dilemma. Despite other European countries like Spain and Portugal colonising parts of the New World – a.k.a. the entire Western Hemisphere – you’re struggling to crack the nut that is settling in North America.

These other countries are decades ahead of you. The only attempt England has made is sending an expedition led by Sir Humphrey Gilbert to colonise a bit of St John’s in Newfoundland. He managed to get himself drowned.

But, wait, there’s great news! Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, is keen to swallow up his late sibling’s glory and wants to take his charter and colonise a nice bit of coastal America instead. Rather than going north (Canada) he’ll take a stab at the warmer middle bit (the American east coast).

“Sick,” you think to yourself. “All’s well, he’s on his way – what could possibly go wrong?”

As it turns out, the answer to that question was literally everything.

A map of the colony. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

On 4 July, 1584, exactly 192 years before America would mark its independence from Great Britain, Raleigh’s crew landed on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina. Three years later, after deeming it viable for settlement, Raleigh dispatched a group of 115 people to the New World who settled in and founded the colony of Roanoke. He sent with them a personal friend who had been on a previous expedition to Roanoke, John White, who became the governor of the colony.

Governor White was fairly well-liked, the colony settled relatively quickly, and everything seemed to be going fine and dandy. That was until the colonists began to have some frequent, not-so-friendly run-ins with the local Native American tribe, the Croatoans. The final straw was when one of the colonists went out alone searching for crabs and was killed by a native. The colonists begged Governor White to head back to England to get some extra help for the colony. He left in 1588.

His return was delayed by another unlucky twist: a rather inconvenient war with Spain. When he finally managed to get back to Roanoke in 1590, he was flabbergasted by what he found: a deserted colony without a single trace of where the colonists had gone, or even, really, that they had been there at all. The only clue was the words ‘CROATOAN’ carved into a fence post, and ‘CRO’ carved into a tree.

Everyone, and everything, had completely disappeared.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

In the centuries since, no one has been able to conclusively discover what actually happened to these disappearing settlers. Today, we don’t have a single fucking clue as to what went on in those two years that John White left the colony.

However, thanks to a combination of human nature and the internet, a number of theories have emerged. Some of the more popular include:

They integrated with the Croatoan tribe

Many historians have hypothesised that the settlers just said, “Fuck it”, and adopted the Native American lifestyle after their governor failed to return.

This is plausible, to a degree: despite the bouts of fighting, many of the colonists got on well with the Croatoan tribe. This would explain the markings on the tree and fence post and the lack of evidence of violence in the empty settlement.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

They were murdered by the Spanish

Due to the aforementioned raging war going on between England and Spain at the time, it’s feasible to think the Spanish went and wreaked havoc on the England’s first and only settlement in North America. Spanish troops were in Florida at the time of Roanoke and could have made a special pilgrimage to destroy the precious colony.


They were murdered by the Native Americans

The tree engraving, the mass disappearance, the previous altercations… The idea that the Croatoan tribe killed the Roanoke colonists is not a crazy one. The challenges with this theory lie in the lack of any trace – no bones, no blood – that might indicate a murderous attack broke out.

In the 1930s, evidence that seemed to support this theory was discovered, when a farmer found a set of marked stones that looked to be messages from the colonists. The Dare stones – named for John White’s daughter Eleanor Dare, who was presumed to have left them – were addressed to John White to tell him what had become of the colony. They said, essentially, that all but seven settlers were killed by ‘savages’; the rest had fled.

By 1941, a journalist had discovered that they were forgeries. All the same, the theory they present is still widely believed to be the true story of what happened to the Roanoke colonists.

They just left

After, you know, their governor left saying he’d bring back help and then just didn’t return, one of the more feasible theories argues that the settlers of Roanoke abandoned the colony – and disappeared, one presumes, into the wilderness.

What actually happened to England’s first American colony? Who’s to say. All we can say for sure is that this is a piece of 4 July history you won’t be hearing Americans bringing up too much today.

 
 
 
 

Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.