John White (colonist and artist)


John White (colonist and artist) : biography

c. 1540 – c. 1593

The Spanish Armada

Further bad news awaited White on his return to England. Just two weeks previously Queen Elizabeth I had issued a general "stay of shipping", preventing any ships from leaving English shores.Milton, p.247 The reason was the "invincible fleetes made by the King of Spain, joyned with the power of the Pope, for the invading of England" – the Spanish Armada. White’s patron Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to provide ships to rescue the colony but he was overruled by the Queen.Milton, p.248

The Brave and The Roe

In early 1588 White was able to scrape together a pair of small pinnaces, the Brave and The Roe, which were unsuitable for military service and so could be spared for the expedition to Roanoke. Unluckily for White they were barely suited for the Atlantic crossing and the governor endured further bad luck as the ships were intercepted by French pirates who "playd extreemely upon us with their shot", hitting White (to his great embarrassment) "in the side of the buttoke".Milton, p.249. White and his crew escaped to England with their lives but "they robbed us of all our victuals, powder, weapons and provision", and the journey to Virginia had to be abandoned.Milton, p.250 By this stage White appears to have formed the view that he was born under "an unlucky star".

Return to the "Lost Colony"

Finally, in March 1590, with the immediate threat of a Spanish invasion by now abated, Raleigh was able to equip White’s rescue expedition. Two ships, the Hopewell and the Moonlight set sail for Roanoke.Milton, p.257 The return journey was prolonged by extensive privateering and a number of sea battles, and White’s eventual landing at the Outer Banks was further imperilled by poor weather.Milton, p.260 The landing was hazardous and was beset by bad conditions and adverse currents. During the landing on Roanoke, of the mariners who accompanied White, "seven of the chiefest were drowned".Milton, p.262

Governor White finally reached Roanoke Island on August 18, 1590, his granddaughter’s third birthday, but he found his colony had been long deserted. The buildings had collapsed and "the houses [were] taken downe".Milton, p.265 The few clues about the colonists whereabouts included the letters "CRO" carved into a tree, and the word "CROATOAN" carved on a post of the fort. Croatoan was the name of a nearby island (likely modern-day Hatteras Island) and a local tribe of Native Americans. Roanoke Island was not originally the planned location for the colony and the idea of moving elsewhere had been discussed. Before the Governor’s departure, he and the colonists had agreed that a message would be carved into a tree if they had moved and would include an image of a Maltese Cross if the decision was made by force. White found no such cross and was hopeful that his family were still alive.Milton, p.266

True to their word, the colonists had looked after White’s belongings, which had been carefully buried and hidden. However, local Indians had evidently looted the hiding place, and White found "about the place many of my things spoyled and broken, and my books torne from the covers, the frames of some of my pictures and mappes rotten and spoyled with rayne, and my armour almost eaten through with rust"Milton p.267

Due to weather which "grew to be fouler and fouler",Milton, p.268 White had to abandon the search of adjacent islands for the colonists. The ship’s captain had already lost 3 anchors and could not afford the loss of another. White returned to Plymouth on October 24, 1590.

The loss of the colony was a personal tragedy for White, from which he never fully recovered. He would never return to the New World, and In a letter to Richard Hakluyt he wrote that he must hand over the fate of the colonists and his family "to the merciful help of the Almighty, whom I most humbly beseech to helpe and comfort them".