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The artist-explorer and the lost American colony


American Indian Chief by John White, 1585

Crossing the Atlantic was always a risky business in the 16th century, and very few attempted it. In the autumn of 1587, John White left America for England on a desperate errand to obtain provisions and help for his new Virginia colony. He managed to return through fierce equinoctial storms, but no boat would venture out in mid- winter, and in the spring of 1588 every available ship was being commandeered to fight the Armada.

Back in Roanoke, waiting for him, were White’s daughter, son-in-law and baby granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born in America. With one hundred other men, women and children they faced aggrieved and hostile American Indians and the driest summer in eight hundred years. (According to recent research on tree rings, the terrible drought lasted three years.)

White finally managed to hire two smaller vessels, and set out across the Atlantic, but the two ships were captured by privateers and their cargos were taken. With nothing to deliver, the ships limped back to England. It was 1590 before White gained passage on a privateering expedition that agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the way back from the Caribbean.

In 1590, on his granddaughter's third birthday, White landed. He found the settlement deserted. Ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children had vanished without any sign of a struggle or battle. The only clue was the word "Croatoan" carved into a post of the fort and "Cro" carved into a nearby tree.

White thought this meant they had moved to Croatoan Island, but the men of the privateer refused to search any further. The next day, “White stood on the deck of his ship and watched, helplessly, as Roanoke Island receded.”

He was never to return to America. The fate of the Lost Colony remains a mystery today.

White first saw America in 1585 when Sir Walter Raleigh sent him and a group of English settlers to found the colony of Virginia along the tidewaters of coastal North Carolina. White surveyed part of the coast and painted watercolours "of everything then unknown in England – plants, animals and birds and the men and women he met in this all new world, especially their dress, weapons, tools and ceremonies” (British Museum). It must have been exciting to see and paint what he had never in his life seen before.

On March 15, seventy of White's watercolours will be exhibited at the British Museum. A New World: England’s first view of America also features a selection of Elizabethan portraits, historic maps, and maritime and scientific instruments from the period.

I wonder if John White ever had time to sketch or paint his granddaughter.

Exhibition details are here.

Update: New revelations from an ancient map.