Book review: Roanoke, A Novel of Elizabethan Intrigue

Roanoke, A Novel of Elizabethan Intrigue
By Margaret Lawrence
Published by Delacorte Press, February 2009
Copy supplied by the publisher
ISBN: 0385342373

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

If you’re looking for a good mystery to read during this Season of the Witch, I recommend “Roanoke”, which is about the first, failed English colony in America. Nobody really knows the ultimate fate of the little group of Englishmen and women who settled on Roanoke Island back in 1585. It’s now a thriving city in the state of Virginia, but back then it was a backwater island up the windswept coast of the Carolinas, past Cape Feare, inhabited by the Secota Indians.

Queen Elizabeth granted the charter for Roanoke to Sir Walter Raleigh, her favorite at the time, to explore the new world and bring back any treasures he found, because the queen needed money to pay for her war against King Philip of Spain, who was mounting an armada to invade England. But within five years the colony was abandoned; every single white person in it had disappeared. Even the Secotas weren’t sure what had happened to them.

The plot of “Roanoke” revolves around the premise that the poor little colony was meant to fail. Most of the colonists were just common folk, pressed into service in the British Navy, newly released from jail, or respectable merchants who had fallen on hard times. All of them thought they could get a fresh start in America, living off the fat of the land and skimming enough off the top to send back to Queen Liz while they lorded it over the local savages, which is how they referred to the Indians. I assumed that the colony was meant to be an experiment, that if these poor commoners managed to survive, then it would be safe to send some important people there.

In fact, the queen’s advisors have planted a couple of spies among the colonists, a handsome young fellow named Gabriel North and his mentor and friend Robert Mowbray, who have orders to make sure that the colony will pay off financially. To that end, Gabriel has orders to seduce the Queen of America; a widowed Indian princess named Naia, whose father Wingina is the ruling chief of the Secotas, to get information about the Indian’s pearl beds and mythical gold mines. The Secotas liked to ornament themselves with long strings of fresh water pearls and jewelry made out of copper. Foolish, greedy white people who saw these brightly polished necklaces and bracelets mistook them for gold, and were determined to have it. But all Gabriel got out of Naia was love, and all the rest of the colonists got was the shaft.

It was painful reading about the clash of Native American culture versus English “civilization”; while Gabriel and Naia are busy making friends and eventually making love, the other Indians are busy trying to teach these silly white people how to survive in the rugged Virginia wilderness. But the settlers feared them as much as they depended on them, perhaps fearing for their Christian souls if they started mimicking the ways of the “savages”. So they kept fishing with a line from a single boat instead of using nets to catch many fish, and going on shooting parties to chase down one deer or boar at a time instead of setting snares to catch many rabbits. Then they started splitting up to look for the nonexistent gold mines, while their fearless-and senseless—leader Captain Lane ordered his soldiers to raid the Indian villages, first to steal their food, then to kidnap and torture the inhabitants to force them to reveal where their gold was. Then the other local tribes, who were not friendly to the Secotas or the English, began raiding the settlement, which kept the English too busy to bother their erstwhile allies.

Eventually Governor White sailed back to England, promising to return with more supplies and soldiers, but by then the Spanish Armada was headed toward England, so everybody kind of forgot about Roanoke in the excitement. Except for Robert Mowbray, Sir Walter and the other investors in the colony, all of whom kept demanding an accounting of their missing money and their missing relatives and friends. By the time Her Majesty’s government got around to sending relief ships in 1890, there was nothing left of Roanoke but abandoned buildings.

A desperate Gabriel finds himself stranded in America with rapidly dwindling supplies and fellow colonists when two Spanish ships show up at Roanoke, to see what the English have left behind and if it’s worth stealing. So Gabriel ends up betraying Naia to the Spanish, in order to save her and her two young children from starvation. Meanwhile, back in England Robert nearly loses his life trying to find out who is responsible for abandoning the colony. By the time these two old friends and spies meet again, they’re both fugitives on the run from Her Majesty’s justice, but they have managed to track down the man whose jealousy of Sir Walter Raleigh led to the destruction of Roanoke. They’re not able to kill him, but they do manage to get the attention of Queen Liz, who takes care of the matter herself, more discreetly. So Mr. Big gets to keep his life and his position, but his influence at court is greatly reduced, while the ones who actually did his dirty work—spying and assassinating-are executed. Such is the usual fate of minions who serve ambitious men.

History does not say whether the survivors of Roanoke colony, most of them women, ever made it back to England. But Margaret Lawrence comes up with a convincing explanation for how they could have survived, along with their sole protector, Gabriel North, who has to go up against a jealous Indian suitor of Naia’s as well as the Spanish soldiers who come poking around after the English have abandoned Roanoke. It’s not a pretty story, but most stories of political finagling aren’t, and there was a lot of finagling going on over Roanoke and its’ inhabitants, the Native Americans and the unlucky English. So much so that I’m surprised that the local Indians didn’t turn on the English when they sent another group of settlers to Plymouth Rock some years later, but that’s another story.