Walter Ralegh (his preferred spelling, and pronounced “Raw-lee”) met his grisly end on the scaffold four hundred years ago today. Condemned to a traitor’s death in 1603, having plotted against King James I, he lived on a kind of death row in the Tower of London for the next 14 years. Briefly freed to follow his dream of finding El Dorado in the South American jungle, he was, as his latest biographer Anna Beer notes, little more than a “dead man walking”, and when he returned to England having failed to find the fabled golden city, King James lost patience, and had him executed.
By then, however, Ralegh had secured his place in history. Poet, soldier, politician and adventurer (listen to Professor Jerry Brotton’s documentary on Ralegh’s search for El Dorado), he is erroneously credited with introducing the potato to England and he is perhaps best remembered in school textbooks as the gallant courtier who spread his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t get her feet wet. But Ralegh’s greatest legacy was America. As I and my co-author John Butman show in our book, New World, Inc: How England’s Merchants Founded America And Launched The British Empire (Little, Brown and Atlantic Books, 2018), he was the first successful colonial entrepreneur, catalysing the quest for America and influencing the first generation of pioneer-settlers.
Sir Walter Ralegh—who died on 29 October 1618
Ralegh’s older half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, was the true visionary of the New World. Sir Winston Churchill called him “the first English pioneer of the West”. From the 1560s, Gilbert prepared detailed dossiers on settlement, and in 1578, Queen Elizabeth granted him rights to settle people in Newfoundland and elsewhere. Five years later, he claimed Newfoundland for England, but died on his return home, and it was left to Ralegh to carry on where he had left off.
Practical in a way that Gilbert never was, Ralegh put together a dream team of experts who managed a well-organised mission to the New World. Richard Hakluyt, the first great champion of English prose, was Ralegh’s marketer-in-chief; Thomas Harriot, sometimes regarded as England’s answer to Galileo, was Ralegh’s day-to-day fixer, and arguably the first European to learn Algonquin; and John White, a watercolorist of genius, presented English people with their first glimpse of the New World. Ralegh, himself, took charge of the fundraising, securing lucrative perquisites from Elizabeth, who diverted state resources towards Ralegh’s imperial endeavour in an early instance of what diplomatists call “plausible deniability”: if Ralegh ever got caught by Spain, England’s great rivals and the superpower of the day, Elizabeth could claim her errant courtier was acting on his own.
Ralegh had planned to lead the voyage to America. He, after all, had been given the right to call himself Lord of Virginia, with a special coat of arms. But as the day of departure neared, Elizabeth refused him permission to travel: she wanted him by her side. Changing plans, Ralegh gave the command to his kinsman, Sir Richard Grenville, who served as admiral of the fleet. In 1585, the ships reached modern-day North Carolina, establishing a colony on Roanoke Island in a land Ralegh called Virginia, in honour of Elizabeth, the “Virgin” Queen. The colony might have survived, but for a chapter of accidents and the onset of the hurricane season. The colonists returned home in 1586, after more than a year in the New World.
When a second colony was sent out in 1587, there was great hope that the settlers would remain in America for good. As it turned out, they did stay in America—although not necessarily because they wanted to. In 1588, England was engulfed by crisis—the Spanish sent an Armada with the express intention of escorting an invading army to London—and Ralegh was unable to send a resupply vessel to Roanoke. By the time a supply vessel did reach Roaonoke—in 1590—the settlers were nowhere to be seen.
In time, these settlers would enter American legend as “the lost colonists”. But for years, Ralegh continued to believe that they were still alive, sponsoring a series of searches in 1598, 1599 and 1600. He had an ulterior motive for doing so: while they were alive, he could continue to claim his title to the lordship of Virginia. In the end, his imprisonment robbed him of any rights in the New World.
The baton passed to a new generation of entrepreneurs and adventurers. But some of the new leaders drew their inspiration from Ralegh. As a young man, Sir Thomas Smythe, the head of the Virginia Company (which founded Jamestown, the first permanent English colony), had led the syndicate of investors who assumed control of Ralegh’s Roanoke colony in the late 1580s. From bitter experience, he learned the paramount importance of resupplying English settlements on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the leaders of Jamestown before his tragic death a few months after the founding of the settlement, ensured that the account of his first voyage to America (when he gave Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard their names) was dedicated to Ralegh.
Throughout Ralegh’s incarceration in the Tower of London, the very survival of Jamestown—the successor to Roanoke—looked to be in doubt. Would it go the same way as Roanoke? This question may have crossed his mind as he prepared to meet his maker on 29 October 1618.
As we know, Jamestown did survive, and its prospects were greatly increased just a few weeks after Ralegh’s death. In November, Sir Thomas Smythe and his fellow Virginia Company leaders, issued a “Great Charter”—a very deliberate reference to the medieval Magna Carta, the four-hundred-year-old document that provided the foundation for English individual rights.
As part of the charter reforms, the settlers were authorised to establish the House of Burgesses, which one historian has called “the first freely elected parliament of a self-governing people in the Western World”. Set free to run their own affairs and keep most of the proceeds of their own labour, the settlers managed an economy that was buoyed by the successful farming of tobacco—the plant that Ralegh had made fashionable in the Elizabethan court.
In a few weeks’ time, the Pilgrims will once again be honoured as the true founders of America—as they are every Thanksgiving. But it was Sir Walter Ralegh, dead before they even set foot on Plymouth Rock, that made their story, and America's, possible.