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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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