Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Ober

Raleigh the Colonizer


Sir Walter had not failed in his obligations to the lost colony; for, during the period in which England's naval forces were engaged in driving away the Spaniards and sweeping them from the seas, he was constantly recurring to that object nearest his heart the rescue of those settlers whom he had induced to leave their native land for the wilds of America. But in vain, as we have seen, were all his efforts, until it was too late to save them. They became dispersed, mingled with the savages, and finally were extinguished as a distinctive people. Their memory alone remains; their wanderings, their ultimate fate, and their places of sepulture are unknown.

The site of the original settlement has been marked by an enduring memorial, a monument of Virginia and North Carolina granite, erected in 1896 by the "Roanoke Colony Memorial Association," which was organized for the purpose of rescuing it from oblivion. The outlines of historic Fort Raleigh have been traced and marked by granite posts. Upon the monument is the following inscription, which gives the history of the attempt at colonization in epitome:

"On this site, in July—August, 1585 (O. S.),
colonists sent out from England by Sir Walter Raleigh,
built a fort, called by them the

"These colonists were the first settlers
of the English race in America.
They returned to England in July, 1586,
with Sir Francis Drake.

"Near this place was born,
on the 18th of August, 1587,
the first child of English parents born in America,
daughter of Ananias and Eleanor White, his wife,
members of another band of colonists
sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587.

"On Sunday, August 20, 1587,
Virginia Dare was baptized.
Manteo, the friendly chief of the Hatteras Indians,
had been baptized on the Sunday preceding.
These baptisms are the first known celebrations
of the Christian sacrament
in the territory of the thirteen original States."

The date, "1896," is cut on one side of the sub-base, and "1587" on the reverse, and in this manner the memory of those colonists has been perpetuated. The old fort is in the heart of what is at present a tract of woodland, and situated directly on Roanoke Sound. Surrounding it, and including the historic site of the settlement, is a larger tract owned by the association, comprising two hundred and forty acres of rolling land.

"The use of tobacco, "writes the president of the association, "was first introduced into Great Britain by Sir Walter, after the return of the first of his colonists from Roanoke Island. To him and to his colonists the Anglo-American users of tobacco are indebted for the privilege of indulging in their favorite 'weed,' and a great part of the world at large for a vegetable product valuable as an article of commerce. In consideration, therefore, of what they owe to Sir Walter, it was asked that all who used and dealt in tobacco contribute a small sum—the value at least of two or three cigars—according to their means, to be devoted to the erection of memorials, at the place in the United States where tobacco was first discovered, to Sir Walter Raleigh, who made known its use, and to his colonists who perished here."

It was certainly fit and proper that those who had derived enjoyment from the use of tobacco should erect a monument to the individual who, though he did not discover it, greatly promoted the habit which has since become universally diffused throughout the world. This leads to the remark that, while tobacco may have been taken home to England by Lane and Heriot when they were rescued by Sir Francis Drake, the plant had then long been known to Europe, having been introduced there as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. Christopher Columbus found it in use among the natives of the West Indies in 1492, and it was described by a monk, in a letter written to Peter Martyr from the island of Santo Domingo, in the year 1496.

Map of Roanoke and Vicinity


It was at first only an object of curiosity to the Spaniards, who were slow in becoming acquainted with the beneficent qualities ascribed to it by the natives. The Indians of Haiti and Santo Domingo smoked the dried leaf in rolls, and also in a small pipe made of cane or reed, with a branched stem shaped like the letter Y, the ends of which they inserted in their nostrils. In their language the pipe was known as tabac, from which word has been evolved "tobacco," the name now applied to the plant itself. Some there are who have traced this word to "Tobago," the present as well as aboriginal name of an island off the northeast coast of South America, not far from Trinidad. Raleigh is said to have obtained tobacco from that island in 1593 or 1595, which is much more likely than that he received it from Virginia in 1586; and, again, the plants said to have been taken to England by Lane may have been obtained by Drake himself in the West Indies, from which islands he was returning when he put in at Roanoke.

Tobacco, most assuredly, was found in Mexico by the Spaniards when that country was conquered, for it was used at Montezuma's court, and, moreover, it may have been known to Cortes when he lived in Santo Domingo, from which island it was introduced to Spain about 1525, where it was at first grown as an ornamental plant. Found in Portugal, where it was well known for its medicinal properties, by Jean Nicot, French ambassador at Lisbon, some seeds were sent by him to Catherine de Medici, and in his honor the plant was given the generic name of Nicotiana. But neither Nicot nor Raleigh discovered it, nor did the latter first introduce it into England, for Sir John Hawkins won the doubtful honor of having done this in 1565.

Raleigh encouraged its use, as he encouraged the consumption of the potato, which, also, he has the credit of having introduced into England, though this honor belongs either to Hawkins or Drake, whose long cruises along the coasts of South America brought to notice many things previously unknown to Englishmen. But Raleigh was more inclined to experimentation than either Drake or Hawkins, and while one or both of them may have taken the "weed." or the tuber from South America to England, neither undertook its cultivation. This Raleigh did, establishing a plantation of exotics at Youghal, on his Irish estate, in a garden which is still pointed out as that in which he successfully raised both tobacco and potatoes.

This may seem a trivial subject, per se; but it is not so, taken in connection with the extension of human knowledge which the introduction of a new plant implies, and the benefits wrought thereby. Sir Walter Raleigh possessed the inquiring mind which provoked him to smoke tobacco out of curiosity, and the philanthropic instinct which moved him to plant potatoes and tobacco from a desire to benefit his fellow-men. The man who plants gardens and conducts experiments, with a view to extending the bounds of knowledge and increasing the products of the soil, cannot be classed with the frivolous or vain; yet it is this aspect of his nature, in connection with the introduction of tobacco, that is most often dwelt upon.

We read that Raleigh became so addicted to the tobacco habit that he considered, it impossible to do without it; that he spent large sums in pipes and accessories; that he smoked in the presence of the Queen, who, indeed, was said to enjoy a whiff of fragrant tobacco herself. One of the vapid stories prevalent at the time relates that Elizabeth laid a wager with her favorite that he could not tell her the weight of the smoke escaping from his silver pipe. Affirming that he could, the wily Raleigh weighed first the tobacco, and then the ashes remaining in the pipe, declaring that the difference, of course, was actually the weight of the smoke! The Queen acknowledged herself convinced; but she slyly said, as she ordered the wager to be paid: "I have heard, Walter, of those who turned their gold into smoke, but never before have seen the man who could turn smoke into gold!"

There is also another story to the effect that one day, as Sir Walter was smoking in his study, and engaged in reading at the same time, a servant who was unaware of his master's habit entered the room with a tankard of ale in his hand. Seeing smoke issuing from the great man's mouth, and thinking him on fire, he threw the ale in his face and then ran to alarm the family, crying out that his master was burning up.

So long as tobacco proved a remunerative source of revenue to the crown, Elizabeth countenanced its importation and use on an extensive scale; but her crusty and eccentric successor, King James, was violently opposed to it on any terms. In his celebrated work, the Counterblast to Tobacco, he declares it "loathesome to the eye, hateful to the sight, harmeful to the orgaine, dangerous to the lungs; and in the blacke, stinking fumes thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoake of the pit that is bottomless."

It is certain that Sir Walter Raleigh gained nothing in the estimation of the King by his use of tobacco, and because he was addicted to it the cantankerous James denounced it the more; but he only succeeded in curing him of the habit by cutting off his head! For he used it to the very last, and is said to have solaced himself with a smoke just previous to ascending the scaffold. Raleigh, then, was a user of tobacco for more than thirty years, during which time he saw its slaves increase in number from the few who were his first associates, in 1586, to many, many thousands in 1618.

It may be inferred, from what we have seen of Raleigh's "side enterprises," such as the experiments with potatoes and tobacco, the introduction of tropical trees and vegetables, and the assiduous care bestowed upon them, that he expended much more than was shown by his direct contributions to the cause of exploration and colonization. Directly, indeed, he expended more than forty thousand pounds upon the Virginia enterprises alone. Then, after having exhausted his own resources, without having received one penny in gains, he made an assignment of his patent to one Thomas Smith and other merchants, among whom was Governor White, in March, 1589. In addition to making them a free gift of his patent, he donated the sum of one hundred pounds "for the propagation of the Christian religion in Virginia "; but even then his interest in the colonization of that country did not cease.

One of his biographers says: "His Virginian enterprise had failed; but his perseverance in it had sown broadcast the seeds of eventual success. He had set an example, which lived, with a more than common vitality, in the minds of men. Persevering as he had been, his 'Plantation in America,' like many other of his great undertakings, had been, in some degree, injured and impeded by his self-seeking pursuits at court. The same 'calamity' that cut short the temptations which were preying upon the noblest part of his nature opened the way, as it proved, to the new plantations, which were destined to prosper. Nevertheless, Raleigh is the virtual founder of Virginia, and of what has grown thereout.

"He was a pioneer in a multitude of paths, which have converged at length in the greatness of Britain. He had, in conspicuous measure, the failings which commonly accompany his eminent qualities, and, as is the wont of pioneers, he fell on the field. In the history of Britain at large there are not many greater names than his, whatever be its real blots. In the history of British America there is none."

Contemporaneously with his colonizing schemes in America, Sir Walter Raleigh became a colonizer, on an extensive scale, in Ireland. That country at that time was, as an old writer has described it, a land of desolation and sorrow. "The curse of God was so great," he says, "and the land so barren, both of man and beast, that whosoever did travel from one end to the other of all Munster, even from Waterford to Smerwick, about six-score miles, he should not meet man, woman, or child, save in cities and towns, nor yet see any creature save foxes, wolves, or other ravening beasts."

In the year 1586, by royal gift, Raleigh became possessed of more than twelve thousand acres in this afflicted country. This vast estate was a portion of the yet vaster holdings of the Earl of Desmond and his adherents, and lay chiefly in the counties of Cork, Waterford, and Tipperary. It was rich in natural resources, but almost entirely desolate, so the enterprising Raleigh undertook to supply this deficiency by introducing English tenants from his native Devonshire and other counties. There were other grantees, or "gentleman undertakers," as they were termed; but it was soon noted that the estates belonging to Sir Walter were better tilled than theirs, and all on account of his activity and skill, not only in selecting the best tenants, but in exploiting the latent resources of his domains.

He was not then dependent upon unreliable officials, laboring under the disadvantages attendant upon colonizing in a new and savage country, but exercised a direct oversight himself. Within three years he had completed a rough survey of his properties, and in 1588, having been appointed Mayor of Youghal, he began the historic plantation to which reference has been made. In the manor-house at Youghal he planned the many improvements which he undertook to carry out, but what he called his "Irish seat "was the castle of Lismore, which he obtained at a nominal rental from the dean and chapter of Cashel. His stay here was brief, however, as he was recalled to England, soon after establishing himself in the castle, to assist in repelling the Spaniards.

Before he left Ireland he had established an industry which, though it proved a source of great trouble to him, was vastly beneficial to the country at large. This was the making of hogshead and pipe staves from the timber on his estates. The crude material was at hand in unlimited supply, for his properties were thickly wooded, so he set at work one hundred and fifty laborers, at full pay, and at his own charge, for the transforming of the tall trees of Ireland into staves for French and Spanish wine-casks. He then found, after a great quantity of staves had been accumulated, that their export was forbidden by statute, and was compelled to appeal to the Queen for a repeal of this "restraint."

Scant relief was afforded, evidently, for five years later is the following entry in the council-book:

"A petition hath been made unto us by Sir Walter Ralegh and his partners, undertakers in Munster, desiring that in respect of the quantity of timber by them already felled and prepared, and like to rot on the ground and be spoyled, and that by not venting of that commodity, many good and able workmen, to the number of between one and two hundred, ready to serve with weapons upon all occasions of service, must, of necessity, be discharged and drawn thence into England, to the general weakening of that province. It might be lawful for them to bring into England all such pipe-staves, hogsheads, barrel-boards, and timber as they may spare and shall think convenient to transport hither; offering to give security in the ports whereto the same shall be laden, to convey them into some certain place, here within this realm, and from thence to return certificate of their unlading, and not to convey the same into any other place foreign, but into England only. For these considerations, we have been moved to assent to their petition, with conditions, following."

This permission for export, so grudgingly granted, was hampered by so many and hard conditions that the business could not be prosecuted profitably, and, in addition to this, Raleigh suffered from the dishonesty of his partners and superintendents. His troubles in Ireland were many and various, resulting from conflict with the Irish themselves, or opposition to his plans by the Queen's deputies. How he was hampered in his projects for the exploitation of the country's resources appears in a letter written after he had lost the royal favor, in July, 1592. In this letter he complains to Sir Robert Cecil of the manner in which he was dealt with by the deputy of Ireland, Sir William Fitzgerald, "who," he says, "invented a debt of four hundred pounds to the Queen for rent, and sent an order to the sheriff to take away all the cattle my tenants had and sell them, unless the money were paid the same day. All Munster hath scarce so much money in it; and the debt was indeed fifty marks, which was paid; and it was the first and only rent that hath yet been paid by any undertaker."

It seems incredible that such proceedings should be allowed against one who had done his best to bring Ireland out of the rut into which she had sunk, and against immigrants brought out from England itself; "but," he adds, "the sheriff did as he was commanded, and took away five hundred milch kine from those poor people. Some had but two, and some three, to relieve their wives and children; and in a strange country newly set down to build and plant." That the royal policy was insensate and cruel is manifest on the face of it, but that it should bear as hard upon a loyal servant of the Queen as upon a rebellious vassal seems strange. Raleigh repeatedly warned the government that this policy would result in fresh insurrections, but as the warning came from one who was then a prisoner in the Tower, it was not heeded. Oppressed both by the home government and Irish guerillas, the English settlers in Ireland had a grievous experience. The government took their properties and the rebels took their lives. Raleigh would have stood between the two classes, oppressors and oppressed, but he suffered the fate of such an intermediary and went down with the weaker party.

It has been charged that Raleigh was consistently cruel to the Irish, showing them no favors and maltreating them without mercy; but the evidence goes to show that he held no malice against any man because of his nationality. A rebel, however, he could not tolerate, but his extreme views as to the punishment of rebels were shared by all the supporters of the government at the time. A price was set upon the head of every rebel in arms, and assassinations were encouraged rather than deprecated. Raleigh's views on the subject are set forth in a letter he wrote some time in 1598:

"SIR, It can be no disgrace if it were known that the killing of a rebel were practised; for you see that the lives of anointed princes are daily sought, and we have always, in Ireland, given head money for the killing of rebels, who are evermore proclaimed at a price! So was the Earl of Desmond, and so have all rebels, been practised against . . .


That the evil practice was countenanced, at least indirectly, by the Queen seems to receive confirmation in the exploit of one Captain Leigh, who, having killed a noted rebel named Feogh Mad Hugh, cut off his head and sent it as a present to Elizabeth. Whether this ghastly gift reached the Queen or not, its arrival at court must have been made known to her, for we find the council writing to the lord deputy in Ireland:" It would have pleased her Majesty much better that the same should have been kept there [in Ireland], and bestowed away with other like fragments of the heads and carcases of such rebels, than to have been sent over into this realm . . . . Nevertheless, because the meaning was good, the error was the less. The best and most easy amendment thereof is to send the head back again by the same messenger."

No reproof received Captain Leigh, either from the Queen or her council. He was cautioned to cut off no more heads of rebels, but if, perchance, he should cut them off, to refrain from sending the gory trophies to the court.

It was a most shocking, disgraceful business, that service of Raleigh in Ireland, in the first place, and his acquisition of the confiscated estates in the second place. No good ever came of it, and, despite the great schemes of improvement in which he indulged, the philanthropic visions that may have flitted through his brain (though as to this there is no evidence in proof), he was finally moved to sell all his Irish holdings except, as he wrote to a friend at the time, "an old castle and demesne, which are yet in the occupation of the old Duchess of Desmond, for her jointure."

We have traced Sir Walter's career as a colonizer, both in America and in Ireland, and have noted that he was not successful, either in the great country beyond the ocean or the green isle near to England's shores. He did not succeed as a colonizer, though his captains contributed something to the world's acquisitions as explorers; but it was not from lack of endeavor that he failed so much as from the worthlessness of his employs and the inertia of the English government.

A speaking commentary on conditions prevailing at that time may be found in a letter written by a shrewd observer of events a few years after Raleigh's failure to colonize in Virginia. "That action," he says, "it is to be feared, will fall to the ground of itself by the extreme beastly idleness of our nation, which, notwithstanding any cost or diligence used to support them, will rather starve or die than be brought to labor."