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A Kingdom Strange

A compelling return to the unsolved mystery of the lost Roanoke colonists.

By Chuck Leddy / April 21, 2010

A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke By James Horn Basic Books 320 pp., $26


In the wild dash of 16th-century European powers to colonize the New World, to exploit its natural resources and convert its indigenous peoples to Christianity, England was decidedly a laggard. Before 1600, while Roman Catholic Spain shipped untold riches in gold from its conquests in Mexico and Peru to Spain’s teeming ports, Protestant England’s efforts to establish a New World foothold had resulted in failure. So rich would Spain’s King Philip II become that he’d decide to launch a massive invasion of rival England, and he nearly succeeded.

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The strength of A Kingdom Strange, Early American historian James Horn’s account of England’s failed attempts to colonize 16th-century Virginia, is his deep understanding of the epic imperial rivalry between Spain and England. Horn wonderfully places the Roanoke Colony inside the historical context of global struggle between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. “[T]he English had fallen far behind Spain and France in exploring and colonizing the New World,” Horn writes, while Spain’s New World riches had created “a decisive shift in the balance of power in Europe.”

The two strongest proponents of England’s expansion into the New World were Sir Walter Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth I. Both believed that England needed to weaken Spain by establishing ports in the New World from which English “privateers” (the Spanish called them “pirates”) could harass and seize Spain’s shipments of gold. Sir Walter “was convinced that the most effective means of undermining Philip II’s power was by attacking his American possessions,” explains Horn. This strategy would prove highly dangerous for a number of reasons cited by Horn, including the risks of the Atlantic crossing, potential counterattacks on England’s New World settlements by Spanish armies, and equally lethal attacks on English settlers by hostile indigenous peoples.

Ralegh sent out a scouting expedition in 1584 to select the best location for a Virginia settlement. As the scouts explored the area around Roanoke Island (off today’s coast of North Carolina), “a number of the English were killed in a skirmish with Indian warriors.” This first attack would be a precursor of the difficult relationship between Roanoke Colony’s settlers and the local Indians. More than 100 English settlers would carry European diseases that decimated Virginia’s Indian tribes; the English would also rely upon Indian food and hunting grounds. In another ominous event described by Horn, the English retaliated after the Indians had robbed them by burning down an Indian town and cornfield.


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