The Rising Shore - Roanoke: a novel by Deborah Homsher
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John White, Explorer and Artist

John White's Report of the Fourth Voyage to Virginia
John White vs Simon Fernandes, his Pilot
John White Leaves his Company Behind
The Ugly Voyage to EnglandThe Sad Return to Roanoke Island
John White, Illustrator and CartographerJohn White and Thomas Hariot

John White's Report of the Fourth Voyage to Virginia

Most of what we know about the Roanoke colonists comes to us from a report by John White, who was governor of the company and father of Elenor White Dare. In that document, White describes a number of events that took place on the voyage to the Virginia wilderness. He reports that some members of the company ate fruit on the Caribbean island, Santa Crux (St. Croix), that made their tongues swell. He notes that two Irish men of the company, Darbie Glaven and Denice Carrell, were left behind on the island of St. John's (Puerto Rico). He records the birth of Virginia Dare, his daughter's infant, and the death of another newborn on Roanoke Island. He also describes the christening of his Algonkian ally, Manteo, and the slaying of George Howe, one of the company's assistants, by "divers Savages" who beat him hard enough to crush his head and then fled into the mainland.

John White vs Simon Fernandes, his Pilot

John White's report includes frequent complaints against the Portuguese pilot, Simon Fernandes, whom White would have known personally, since Fernandes had navigated to Virginia at least twice before and been part of the 1586-87 expedition. White accuses Fernandes of "lewdly" forsaking the company's flyboat in the "Bay of Portugal" before they crossed the ocean and of interfering when the company tried to mount a raid to get salt from a Spanish settlement on the coast of Puerto Rico. According to John White, Fernandes refused to carry the colonists on to the Chespeake's bay, where they were supposed to settle, and instead forced them all to disembark at Roanoke. It is impossible to tell whether John White gives a fair report of Simon Fernandes or if he smears the pilot's reputation in order to divert attention from his own failings.

John White Leaves his Company Behind

John White sailed home just a few weeks after the birth of his granddaughter in order to beg more supplies and gather reinforcements for the settlers. He did not want to leave Virginia, but was petitioned twice, by "not only the assistants, but divers others, as well women as men," until he was at last "through their extreme entreating, constrained to return into England." White brought with him a statement from the colonists proving that he had not willingly abandoned then, but been forced to depart by their pleading. It read:

May it please you, her Majesties subjects of England, we your friends and countreymen, the planters in Virginia, doe by these presents let you and every of you to understand, that for the present and speedy supply of certaine our knowen and apparent lackes and needes, most requisite and necessary for the good and happy planting of us, or any other in this land of Virginia, wee all of one minde & consent, have most earnestly intreated, and uncessantly requested John White, Governour of the planters in Virginia, to passe into England, for the better and more assured help, and setting forward of the foresayd supplies: and knowing assuredly that he both can best, and wil labour and take paines in that behalfe for us all, and he not once, but often refusing it, for our sakes, and for the honour and maintenance of the action, hath at last, though much against his will, through our importunacie, yielded to leave his governement, and all his goods among us, and himselfe in all our behalfes to passe into England, of whose knowledge and fidelitie in handling this matter, as all others, we doe assure ourselves by these presents, and will you to give all credite thereunto, the 25 of August 1587.

The Ugly Voyage to England

The voyages of both vessels that left Roanoke in August 1587 were unlucky. As the flyboat weighed anchor to depart, a capstan bar broke, and the taut machine, suddenly loosed, spun backward, striking 12 men with the remaining bars, hurting "most of them full sore, that some of them never recovered it" (this on a ship that had only 15 men aboard). John White was berthed on that ship.

The larger vessel, the flagship, piloted by Simon Fernandes, also encountered trouble. Fernandes's crew was beset with sickness as they crossed the ocean, so that when at last they reached Portsmouth, the surviving sailors were so few, and so weakened, that they "were scarce able to bring their ship into harbor, but were forced to let fall anchor without, which they could not weigh again, but might all have perished there if a small bark by great hap had not come to them to help them."

In short, all sea ventures at this time were difficult and could be deadly.

The Sad Return to Roanoke Island

John White would not return to Roanoke for three years. His attempts to rejoin the men and women he had left in America were frustrated by uncooperative sea captains, piracy, and England's clash with the Spanish Armada, for Queen Elizabeth commandeered all large ships to help resist the Spanish navy. White did manage to set sail with a small band of colonists in 1588, but they wasted effort chasing Spanish prizes and were ultimately attacked by a French ship and forced to return home.

At last in 1590 White found berth in a small fleet headed to the Caribbean and Virginia (White's writings). Upon arriving in the Outer Banks region, where he hoped to find members of his colony, the search party was repeatedly misled by glimpses of smoke and strange lights. Tragically, Edward Spicer, who had been captain of the Roanoke colonists' third ship in 1587, was drowned during this search when his small boat overturned in the rough waters of the passage between the barrier islands.

When at last White did step foot on Roanoke Island, he discovered an empty, abandoned fort and the word "Croatoan" carved into a post. In his report, he complains that the native Algonkians had dug up his sea trunks, ruined his maps, and cast out his armor to rust. He does not mention Elenor or his granddaughter. A storm prevented White from visiting nearby Croatoan Island to search for survivors. He and his ships were blown toward the Azores and the mystery left undisturbed on the coast of North America.

John White, Illustrator and Cartographer

John White may or may not have been an effective leader, but he was clearly an excellent illustrator and cartographer. His watercolors of the fish and birds he studied throughout the Caribbean and in North America are vivid, and his pictures of Algonkian men and women, their villages, activities, and manner of dress, show a liberal curiosity. These watercolors were completed while he was part of the 1585-86 expedition outfitted by Sir Richard Grenville and led by Ralph Lane.

White may also have ventured with Martin Frobisher, who explored the arctic in 1577. A detailed picture of the English fighting a band of Eskimos survives.

John White and Thomas Hariot

Today, John White's illustrations of Virginia are best known through the engravings that were included in "A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia," by Thomas Hariot. Hariot was also a member of the 1585 expedition that remained in Virginia for a year, during which time Hariot explored widely and recorded facts about the country: its potentially useful plants (he appears to have trusted milkweed silk could be woven into cloth), minerals, trees, fish, and animals, and the manners of its native people. His "Briefe and True Report" was surely meant to encourage future investment in Ralegh's envisioned New World empire. At the same time, its accuracy proves Thomas Hariot to have been a budding Elizabethan scientist, the sort of man Sir Walter Ralegh admired and was glad to sponsor.

Both Thomas Hariot and John White appear to have lived out their lives engaged in work for Sir Walter Ralegh, who was intent on taming his vast estates in Ireland. Thomas Hariot received a gift of land in Ireland from Ralegh. John White is known to have resided on one of Ralegh's estates. The place and time of John White's death are uncertain.

White's last recorded words, from Ireland in 1593, speak of surrender: "And wanting my wishes, I leave off from prosecuting that whereunto I would to God my wealth were answerable to my will."

See also the National Park Service page on John White:


THE RISING SHORE - ROANOKE is a novel by Deborah Homsher.