Conquerors first, prospectors second, then the pioneers: that is the order of those by whom America was opened up for English-speaking people. No Elizabethan colonies took root. Therefore the age of Elizabethan sea-dogs was one of conquerors and prospectors, not one of pioneering colonists at all.
Spain and Portugal alone founded sixteenth-century colonies that have had a continuous life from those days to our own. Virginia and New England, like New France, only began as permanent settlements after Drake and Queen Elizabeth were dead: Virginia in 1607, New France in 1608, New England in 1620.
It is true that Drake and his sea-dogs were prospectors in their way. So were the soldiers, gentlemen-adventurers, and fighting traders in theirs. On the other hand, some of the prospectors themselves belong to the class of conquerors, while many would have gladly been the pioneers of permanent colonies. Nevertheless the prospectors form a separate class; and Sir Walter Raleigh, though an adventurer in every other way as well, is undoubtedly their chief. His colonies failed. He never found his El Dorado. He died a ruined and neglected man. But still he was the chief of those whom we can only call prospectors, first, because they tried their fortune ashore, one step beyond the conquering sea-dogs, and, secondly, because their fortune failed them just one step short of where the pioneering colonists began.
A man so various that he seemed to be Not one but all mankind's epitome is a description written about a very different character. But it is really much more appropriate to Sir Walter Raleigh. Courtier and would-be colonizer, soldier and sailor, statesman and scholar, poet and master of prose, Raleigh had one ruling passion greater than all the rest combined. In a letter about America to Sir Robert Cecil, the son of Queen Elizabeth's principal minister of state, Lord Burleigh, he expressed this great determined purpose of his life: I shall yet live to see it an In-glishe nation. He had other interests in abundance, perhaps in superabundance; and he had much more than the usual temptations to live the life of fashion with just enough of public duty to satisfy both the queen and the very least that is implied by the motto Noblesse oblige. He was splendidly handsome and tall, a perfect blend of strength and grace, full of deep, romantic interest in great things far and near: the very man whom women dote on. And yet, through all the seductions of the Court and all the storm and stress of Europe, he steadily pursued the vision of that West which he would make 'an Inglishe nation.'
He left Oxford as an undergraduate to serve the Huguenots in France under Admiral Coligny and the Protestants in Holland under William of Orange. Like Hawkins and Drake, he hated Spain with all his heart and paid off many a score against her by killing Spanish troops at Smerwick during an Irish campaign marked by ruthless slaughter on both sides. On his return to England he soon attracted the charmed attention of the queen. His spreading his cloak for her to tread on, lest she might wet her feet, is one of those stories which ought to be true if it's not. In any case he won the royal favor, was granted monopolies, promotion, and estates, and launched upon the full flood-stream of fortune.
He was not yet thirty when he obtained for his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, then a man of thirty-eight, a royal commission 'to inhabit and possess all remote and Heathen lands not in the possession of any Christian prince.' The draft of Gilbert's original prospectus, dated at London, the 6th of November, 1577, and still kept there in the Record Office, is an appeal to Elizabeth in which he proposed 'to discover and inhabit some strange place.' Gilbert was a soldier and knew what fighting meant; so he likewise proposed 'to set forth certain ships of war to the New Land, which, with your good licence, I will undertake without your Majesty's charge. . . . The New Land fish is a principal and rich and everywhere vendible merchandise; and by the gain thereof shipping, victual, munition, and the transporting of five or six thousand soldiers may be defrayed.'
But Gilbert's associates cared nothing for fish and everything for gold. He went to the West Indies, lost a ship, and returned without a fortune. Next year he was forbidden to repeat the experiment.
The project then languished until the fatal voyage of 1583, when Gilbert set sail with six vessels, intending to occupy Newfoundland as the base from which to colonize southwards until an armed New England should meet and beat New Spain. How vast his scheme! How pitiful its execution! And yet how immeasurably beyond his wildest dreams the actual development to-day! Gilbert was not a sea-dog but a soldier with an uncanny reputation for being a regular Jonah who 'had no good hap at sea.' He was also passionately self-willed, and Elizabeth had doubts about the propriety of backing him. But she sent him a gilt anchor by way of good luck and off he went in June, financed chiefly by Raleigh, whose name was given to the flagship.
Gilbert's adventure never got beyond its base in Newfoundland. His ship the Delight was wrecked. The crew of the Raleigh mutinied and ran her home to England. The other four vessels held on. But the men, for the most part, were neither good soldiers, good sailors, nor yet good colonists, but ne'er-do-wells and desperadoes. By September the expedition was returning broken down. Gilbert, furious at the sailors' hints that he was just a little sea-shy, would persist in sticking to the Lilliputian ten-ton Squirrel, which was woefully top-hampered with guns and stores. Before leaving Newfoundland he was implored to abandon her and bring her crew aboard a bigger craft. But no. 'Do not fear,' he answered; 'we are as near to Heaven by sea as land.' One wild night off the Azores the Squirrel foundered with all hands.
Amadas and Barlow sailed in 1584. Prospecting for Sir Walter Raleigh, they discovered several harbors in North Carolina, then part of the vast ' plantation' of Virginia. Roanoke Island, Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, as well as the intervening waters, were all explored with enthusiastic thoroughness and zeal. Barlow, a skipper who was handy with his pen, described the scent of that fragrant summer land in terms which attracted the attention of Bacon at the time and of Dryden a century later. The royal charter authorizing Raleigh to take what he could find in this strange land had a clause granting his prospective colonists -all the privileges of free denizens and persons native of England in such ample manner as if they were born and personally resident in our said realm of England.'