Empire builder: Walter Ralegh conquered in the name of his queen

Alan Gallay’s biography examines not only the colorful life of Sir Walter Ralegh but also his role in colonization.  

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire” by Alan Gallay, Basic Books, 576 pp.

Walter Ralegh, the Elizabethan courtier who’s the subject of Alan Gallay’s “Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire” hasn’t exactly lacked for biographies since his execution in 1618. He’s immortalized in popular imagination as the gallant who threw his cloak over a puddle so Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t muddy her leggings. His picturesque life – and particularly his role in the era’s colonization of Ireland, North America (famously sending a mission to the colony of Roanoke, Virginia), and South America (searching Venezuela for rumored heaps of gold) – has always been attractive to biographers. “Walter Ralegh: Architect of Empire” follows 2018’s “Patriot Or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh” by Anna Beer, for instance, which followed Raleigh Trevelyan’s 640-page book from 2002. 

“Architect of Empire” is likewise nearly 600 pages, but it distinguishes itself from the general pack through the ambition of its ideological scope. Gallay is the Lyndon B. Johnson Chair of United States History at Texas Christian University, and in this book he’s far more concerned with the main enterprises of Ralegh’s life than he is with courtly swordplay or covered puddles.

Specifically, Gallay is interested in colonization and in Ralegh as one of the premier colonizers of the Elizabethan era. Ralegh was in a perfect position to organize colonies and “plantations” in such places as Guiana (now Guyana), Virginia, and Ireland because, as Gallay writes, “His star was in the ascendant” in the mid-1580s. “The queen’s granting of multiple rewards to Ralegh left no doubt that he had become her favorite.”

Gallay’s book is a thorough and detailed interpretation of just what colonization meant in Elizabethan times. “At its root, colonialism is the movement of a group of people to new lands,” he writes. “If the lands are heavily populated ... conquest must take place before colonization.” Throughout his book, Gallay seeks to draw a wide line between conquest and colonization – sometimes a wider line than the facts support. “The intent of colonization,” he contends, “is to improve one’s life and the lives of people at home – and, quite often, the people whose lands are colonized. Those intent on conquest are not colonizers.”

This is rather too nice. Typically, in Elizabethan times, conquerors and colonizers were virtually indistinguishable, and despite Gallay’s claim that Ralegh “envisioned an empire without conquest, where the Native peoples would be full partners in the colonial enterprise,” that vision never came close to the reality of the slaughter and wholesale land theft Queen Elizabeth unleashed on every patch of potentially valuable territory within her reach. This is amply demonstrated by the destruction Ralegh’s own efforts (abetted by his friend and collaborator Edmund Spenser, whose allegorical poem “The Faerie Queene” Gallay analyzes with remarkable skill) caused in Ireland’s Munster “plantation.” 

Colonization, Gallay writes a bit bloodlessly, is “a physical process that involves movement of people and transfer of land ownership” but adds that it’s also an “ethereal” process in which colonizers pile fiction upon fiction in order to justify their actions. There’s quite a bit of that justifying happening in these pages.

Fortunately, the huge majority of Gallay’s narrative isn’t quite so freighted in his hero’s favor. “Architect of Empire” is mostly a detailed and spirited chronicle of one of history’s most colorful lives. Gallay follows Ralegh’s fortunes from his youth in Devon to his adventures at the court of Elizabeth I, where his good looks and bold spirit captured the favor of the queen. He kept that favor until he impetuously married one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting and was ostracized by his jealous monarch.

His expedition to Guiana in the mid-1590s was in part a desperate effort to win back that favor, but success was fleeting in any case. After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Ralegh’s star fell. He was falsely implicated in a plot to kill the newly installed King James, sentenced to death, reprieved, and later involved in a disastrously botched second expedition to Guiana. When the Spanish called for his death, King James (who, Gallay writes, “eyed Ralegh suspiciously”) consented, and the most famous man of his day was sent to the executioner’s block.

Gallay writes about this familiar story with a great deal of fresh energy and a thorough command of his sources. His version of Walter Ralegh is a refreshingly material creature, a climber and schemer very distinct from the romanticized gallant who too often appears in biographies. This is very much a Ralegh for the anti-colonial 21st century.

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