Captain Arthur Barlowe’s Narrative of the First Voyage to the Coast of America

“We found such plentie . . . that I thinke in all the world the like abundance is not to be found.”

Summary Overview

Captain Arthur Barlowe’s Narrative of the First Voyage to the Coast of America is a colorful account detailing the explorer’s favorable initial impressions and cordial first contact with the indigenous population during a reconnaissance of North America’s Atlantic coast. Barlowe’s groundbreaking 1584 expedition was sent to collect sufficient positive evidence to promote establishment of an English colony in what would become the United States. Once a base of operations had been founded, it was hoped colonists could exploit extensive natural resources for immediate survival and eventual profit. A second, secret motive was to provide a haven for English sea raiders from which to loot treasure-laden Spanish ships en route to Europe from the New World.

Barlowe and co-captain Philip Amadas were both in the employ of Sir Walter Raleigh, an explorer, courtier, and expedition financier to whom Barlowe’s narrative was addressed. Raleigh had written approval from Queen Elizabeth I to undertake the expedition and was contractually obligated to have a permanent colony in place within a decade.

Defining Moment

Captain Barlowe’s exuberant report on the New World helped inspire English colonization. Though English settlers suffered setbacks, their efforts ultimately changed the course of American destiny and world history, while leaving behind an enduring mystery. Barlowe’s words—bolstered by his sensation-causing transportation to England of two American Indians—inspired Queen Elizabeth I, and her successor, James I, to commit fully to American colonization. As a result, Raleigh funded two further expeditions to the site of Barlowe’s landfall: Roanoke Island, on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, in a broad swath of land halfway between Spanish settlements in Florida and French settlements in Canada.

Bad luck and poor timing doomed Roanoke Colony to failure, however. A fleet dispatched under command of Sir Richard Grenville sailed in 1585—the year that war between Protestant England and Catholic Spain erupted. Storms scattered the ships and spoiled foodstuffs before the fleet reunited at Roanoke in summer, too late to plant crops. Grenville departed for England, promising to return with supplies and reinforcements the following spring. Meanwhile, some one hundred colonists built a fort, explored their surroundings, and ran afoul of local inhabitants. When Grenville, delayed by war and bad weather, did not appear at the appointed time, the Roanoke colonists accepted passage home with privateer Sir Francis Drake. Grenville arrived shortly afterward and left a small contingent at the abandoned outpost to protect Raleigh’s interests. The unsuccessful colonists made a major impact by introducing several New World products to England: potatoes, sweet corn (maize), and tobacco.

In 1587, Raleigh sent another expedition, under artist John White, to set up a colony at Chesapeake Bay. The colonists went ashore first at Roanoke to pick up Grenville’s men —who had disappeared—and the fleet commander refused to let them reboard. The colonists, insufficiently provisioned, persuaded White to return home to collect supplies. The Spanish Armada and other unforeseen circumstances delayed White for three years. When he finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, he found it deserted and thus began the unsolved mystery of the Lost Colony.

The Anglo-Spanish War brought colonization to a standstill until peace was declared early in the seventeenth century. The first successful English colony in America, Jamestown (in present-day Virginia), was not founded until 1607. It was the leading edge of a wave of settlements throughout the world, forming the basis of a widespread empire that remained a dominant global force for the next 350 years.

Author Biography

With his evocative account of a land of plenty populated with friendly inhabitants eager to trade, Arthur Barlowe played a pivotal role in launching the English settlement of America. His shrewd commentary—incorporating flattery for his patron and monarch, sensual descriptions of what he saw and experienced, and tabulations of diverse resources that let investors of all stripes envision huge profits to be made—fired English imagination to such a degree that interest in the New World remained high for decades afterward. The lure of America as a treasure trove of untapped wealth, a vast reservoir of fertile lands awaiting cultivation, a starting point for future explorations of passages to distant spice markets, and as a refuge for the oppressed persisted throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Costly wars, uncooperative weather and seafaring mishaps, friction with American Indians—nothing could deter the desire to establish an English presence in America once the idea had taken root.

Raleigh was quick to use Barlowe’s 1584 narrative to persuade Queen Elizabeth I to formally approve colonization and fund future expeditions. The narrative was first published in 1587 and was later reprinted in full in The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1599–1600), a project from Richard Hakluyt the elder, a major promoter of and investor in American colonization.

Yet despite his instrumental contribution, Arthur Barlowe remains an enigma. Facts are scarce and most of what is known about his personality must be deduced from his behavior as described in the narrative. Genealogical records indicate he was born about 1550 in Lancashire, England. Married in his late teens to Abigail Cade, he fathered at least two children. A son, Edward (b. 1570), had offspring who later returned to settle in America. Arthur probably fought in Ireland between 1579 and 1583 during the Desmond Rebellions alongside Raleigh. It is supposed that he and fellow captain and colleague in exploration Philip Amadas served for a time in London at Durham House, Raleigh’s home that had been a gift from his grateful queen. After his trail-blazing voyage in 1584, Barlowe faded into the mists of history. He is assumed to have died in about 1620.

Document Analysis

The consequences of Arthur Barlowe’s written report of his voyage to America are still felt to this day. His presentation of Roanoke Island as an appropriate site for settlement would soon involve the lives of hundreds of sailors and settlers and result in the expenditure of huge sums of money. Ultimately, his seemingly innocuous narration initiated English colonization of North America and other parts of the globe, affecting the fate of millions of people and profoundly influencing world events.

Barlowe wrote his narrative as part of a modest and immediate task: to convince his employer, Sir Walter Raleigh, that he had done his work to specifications. Raleigh himself was following in the footsteps of his older half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert. In 1578, Gilbert obtained a six-year license from Queen Elizabeth to explore the Americas, and that same year, commanded a westbound fleet that encountered a fierce gale mid-ocean and was forced to turn back. In 1583, with the license about to expire, Gilbert again sailed west with a fleet, touching at Newfoundland, which he claimed for England. Without supplies to establish a colony, he turned for home and ran into another storm, which sank his command vessel with all hands.

Raleigh subsequently inherited his late half brother’s rights. On March 25, 1584, Queen Elizabeth issued Raleigh a charter for the exploration of a territory to be called Virginia (named in honor of her sobriquet as the Virgin Queen). One month after the charter was formalized, two small ships were outfitted, and Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas set sail for the new territory.

Through his explorations, Barlowe claimed discovery of an excellent spot to found an American colony. Based on this information, Raleigh in turn persuaded Queen Elizabeth and other investors to fund the costly enterprise. The proposed site required at the very least potable water for drinking and irrigation, arable land for crops, standing timber for shelter and defense, and sufficient fish and game to sustain colonists. Woody Roanoke Island—which also featured a temperate climate and the protection of the Outer Banks as a buffer against the stormy Atlantic Ocean—met these requirements. In addition, the inhabitants appeared well disposed toward accepting European newcomers as neighbors.

Barlowe stopped short of making an actual recommendation; it was not his responsibility. As an employee, he merely presented his observations—in the most positive terms possible, verifiable with further testimony from fellow explorers if necessary—and let others with more power make the final decision whether to proceed with colonization. If the venture succeeded, it would redound to his credit. If it failed, he could not be blamed.

Barlowe began his narration by outlining the task and explaining what he did and why. The unabridged title of the document as written underlines the significance of the job and names the person who ordered the undertaking. In a brief introduction, Barlowe strokes Raleigh’s ego and stokes his ambition. He also pays homage to the queen and acknowledges the true purpose of his explorations.

The Nature of the Land

Astutely glossing over the routine of his six-week voyage from England to the Canary Islands and then the West Indies—the typical course that Raleigh and others would follow on the way to prey on enemy vessels—Barlowe focused on answering a pertinent question: Did the selected site have the qualities needed to support a colony?

While still out of sight of land, Barlowe introduced America to Raleigh and other readers by appealing to their senses, describing “so strong a smel, as if we had bene in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kinde of odoriferous flowers.” After making landfall on an island and formally claiming the land in the name of the queen, Barlowe and the crew set out to explore the terrain.

They were encouraged by the sight of “Deere, Conies, Hares, and Fowle . . . in incredible abundance.” Rather than merely list native animals, Barlowe provided a concrete example of nature’s bounty that any hunter could appreciate: “having discharged our harquebuz-shot, such a flocke of Cranes (the most part white), arose under us, with such a cry.” The discovery of wild grapes meant that the settlers’ diet would not only be supplemented with sweet, nutritious fruit, but that it would be possible to make wine.

Barlowe’s findings relative to the amount and variety of natural resources sufficient to sustain human life would be enhanced during the first colonization attempt in 1585–86. Among the settlers were two handpicked Raleigh employees: artist John White and scientist Thomas Hariot (or Harriot). The pair visually and textually described Virginia’s flora and fauna and provided valuable information about American Indians in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588).

The White-Hariot report was not especially brief, nor entirely true. However, in its words and pictures, it indicated tremendous commercial possibilities in a number of diverse areas, sure to attract investors from many industries. Among dozens of potential American sources of profit, Hariot mentioned silk, alum, tar and turpentine, oils derived from nuts, furs, pearls, dyes, iron, and copper.

Hariot also built upon Barlowe’s emphasis on the abundance of trees. This had special significance in England, where once-thick forests had been depleted over the centuries from constant harvesting. America’s virgin stands of cedars, oaks, beech, pine, fir, and willow could be employed for myriad uses. Standing timber provided the material for homes, stockades, furniture, utensils, and firewood. Trees also could be fashioned into sturdy ships, should further exploration along the coasts be desirable or should escape become necessary.

The Character of the “Natural Inhabitants”

The longest and most revealing section of Barlowe’s narrative concerns his company’s interaction with the “natural inhabitants” of Virginia. The first contact occurred within several days of the Europeans’ landing, when an unnamed man approached, was brought aboard ship, fed, and given token gifts. Soon, they met with Wingina, a chieftain from an Algonquian tribe. Wingina greeted the newcomers with a generous and accepting gesture: “hee made all signes of joy and welcome, striking on his head and his breast and afterwardes on ours to shew wee were all one.”

Though the indigenous people were friendly toward the Europeans, they were involved in conflicts with other tribes, as evidenced by the chief’s wounds acquired in battle and by the palisades erected around their villages. Barlowe portrays the people as skilled at hunting and fishing. He describes how they used fire to hollow out logs to use as boats, salvaged iron nails from shipwrecks, and formed communities with agricultural traditions and institutional hierarchies.

Despite such obvious signs of intelligence and humanity, Barlowe occasionally refers to the inhabitants of Virginia as “savages.” This and similar derogatory terms (such as “heathen,” “pagan,” or “barbarian”) directed at the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere reflected a deep-seated contempt—reinforced by advanced weaponry that clubs, spears, and bows and arrows could not match—endemic to the European powers most committed to empire building. To varying degrees, the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italians, Dutch, and English in the early years of exploration each perceived other civilizations as unenlightened and not fully human. Viewed as lesser beings without the elevating benefits of Christianity, “savages” became merely obstacles to be removed in the course of exploitation.

Barlowe and the crew were quick to take advantage of their hosts via trade, setting a pattern that would recur throughout the settlement of America and be repeated in locales around the world. Barlowe and company exchanged cheap, shiny tin pots, kettles, and other trinkets for piles of deerskins and handfuls of pearls worth considerable sums back in England. Both parties seemed satisfied with the exchanges. The English, however, refused to part with their swords in barter.

Barlowe seemed impressed by the well-wrought metal headband of gold or copper that the chief wore as a sign of his nobility; he also makes note of the copper jewelry worn by Wingina’s people. To develop this potentially profitable resource, Raleigh included metallurgist Joachim Gans among the settlers of the 1585 expedition. Gans, coincidentally the first recorded Jew to reside in colonial America, had discovered an efficient method of purifying copper ore, reducing smelting time from months to just days, an important factor in the forging of ship cannon. He was sent abroad to search for fresh deposits of copper and other metals that could profitably be employed. He had barely begun his exploration of American mineral wealth when, like the other colonists, he returned to England in 1586 with Drake’s fleet.

Besides providing a glowing introduction to Virginia, Barlowe’s most significant act as early liaison between the English and the American Indians was to persuade Manteo, a Croatan, and Wanchese, the ruler of the Roanoke Indians, to accompany him to Europe. Both were put up at Raleigh’s home in London and displayed at Queen Elizabeth’s court. Though Wanchese remained distant and suspicious (and soon severed ties with the Europeans), Manteo proved invaluable to future colonization efforts. He made several trips between England and America, and worked extensively with Thomas Hariot to explain the customs of his people and to help translate the Algonquian language. Manteo also learned to speak English.

A steadfast ambassador of goodwill, Manteo sailed with both the 1585 and 1587 expeditions to America. He helped colonists survive the winter of 1585–86, obtaining food and defusing hostilities after skirmishes between settlers and American Indians by serving as go-between with other tribes in the area. His efforts allowed White and Hariot access throughout the region, where they could record in pictures and words vital information about the peoples and lands of the New World. Manteo returned to England with the colonists aboard Drake’s ships. In 1587, in recognition of his faithful service, Manteo was named lord of Roanoke, the first American Indian peer. Later that same year, he sailed with the second wave of Roanoke colonists under John White. In August 1587, Manteo was baptized into the Church of England.

Manteo’s fate remains unknown, like that of the colonists he accompanied in 1587. Soon after the birth of his granddaughter Virginia Dare (the first English child born in the New World), John White, governor of Roanoke Colony, sailed for England. He left in the midst of a region-wide drought during deteriorating relationships with American Indians—some of whom settlers had slaughtered by mistake—to collect provisions necessary to the survival of more than one hundred colonists.

Delayed by circumstances beyond his control, White finally returned with two supply ships to Roanoke in 1590, only to find the colonists missing. The only clues were the words “CROATOAN”—the name of a neighboring island (now known as Hatteras)—carved into a wooden post at the settlement, and “CRO” inscribed into a tree trunk. A Maltese cross, the agreed-upon secret sign that would have been left behind had the colonists evacuated under duress, was not present. Though White and his crew searched for the vanished colonists for two months, they found no trace, and in the face of turbulent sailing weather, were forced to return to England. A broken man, White died in his early fifties in 1593.

The colonization effort that Arthur Barlowe’s initial report had spawned languished until 1607, when the first successful English toehold in America was established at Jamestown. The colony at Jamestown would serve as the example for other colonization attempts that continued for years afterward, until the American Revolution, when the former English province of Virginia became the state of Virginia, one of the original thirteen states of the new United States. Other states—Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia—were later formed in whole or in part from territory the English Crown once claimed under the original Virginia charter.

In the meantime, the Lost Colony of Roanoke—America’s oldest and most baffling mystery—became the stuff of legend. Archaeologists, historians, playwrights, and novelists have advanced numerous ideas, from cannibalism to Indian massacres to alien abduction, in attempts to explain what happened to the vanished colonists. Though no tangible proof has yet been uncovered to support any hypothesis, several possibilities seem plausible.

The simplest explanation is that the desperate colonists, unprepared to live off the land, piled into several small boats left behind for local exploration—or built larger vessels from ample forests nearby—and sailed off to either find a more favorable location or return home; they were lost at sea, where their remains would never be found.

Similarly, the colonists may have set out via land to relocate elsewhere. Hacking their way through the wilderness along the coast or traveling inland into the unknown, they perished of hunger, illness, or at the hands of American Indians and were buried in unmarked graves along the way. The final few survivors, too weak to perform burials, succumbed above ground where animals scattered their bones.

An intriguing scenario is that the colonists were assimilated into an American Indian tribe, though probably not in the vicinity of Roanoke, since the settlers had alienated local inhabitants with indiscriminate killings. This hypothesis was renewed periodically between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries by alleged sightings along the East Coast of American Indians with European features (such as blond hair or blue eyes) or using surnames and words of English origin. However, none of the sightings was ever reliably documented. To scientifically prove or disprove the theory of tribal integration, the Lost Colony DNA Project was initiated in 2005 to test descendants of families resident in the eastern Carolina region for American Indian heritage.

Essential Themes

Without Barlowe’s optimistic narrative, expeditions to North America might never have been launched in the 1580s. Had the captain landed among hostile people and been killed in his quest (as happened to early explorers Juan Ponce de León and Giovanni Verrazano), English efforts could have been quashed altogether. A gloomy report might have discouraged Queen Elizabeth and Raleigh, postponing colonization long enough to allow competing European powers to gain supremacy.

As it happened, the promise of the New World, as outlined in Barlowe’s document, spurred the English forward. Following the foundation of Jamestown, numerous English colonies—some successes, some failures—were established along the eastern seaboard of North America by the late seventeenth century. Notable among these were settlements in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Plymouth Colony, Saybrook Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut Colony, Rhode Island Plantation, Delaware Colony, and the provinces of Maine, New Hampshire, Maryland, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. In addition, in the mid-seventeenth century, the English captured the provinces of New Netherland and New Amsterdam from the Dutch, renaming the areas New York and New Jersey.

Early colonization attempts had relatively slight, temporary, and localized impact on American Indians; handfuls of individuals on either side perished in sporadic clashes. In the long, quiet interim after the Roanoke failures, it might have seemed that the English had given up and gone home for good.

However, from the early seventeenth century onward, a steady stream of English settlers came to America. Some American Indian groups, peaceably minded and eager to trade for items they could not otherwise possess, embraced the newcomers. Others wanted nothing to do with the settlers and fiercely resisted their incursions. Whether they embraced the settlers or resisted them, indigenous peoples were adversely affected by the settlers’ presence.

Regardless of the inhabitants’ responses, the English persisted and gained ground through the tactics of squatting on, fencing in, and formally documenting newly acquired lands. The American Indians they met then had no tradition of individual land ownership: Territory was considered communal, and tribes were mere stewards of traditional hunting grounds. By raising boundaries and occupying and cultivating claimed lands, the English advanced on many fronts. The original inhabitants—wracked by European diseases for which they had no immunity and unable to withstand the Europeans’ superior firepower—were forced to retreat farther and farther west into the unknown.


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  • Brimacombe, Peter. All the Queen’s Men: The World of Elizabeth I. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.
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  • Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.
  • Hume, Ivor Noël. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey. New York: Knopf, 1994. Print.
  • Miller, Lee. Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Arcade, 2001. Print.
  • Smith, John. Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America. Ed. James P. P. Horn. New York: Lib. of America, 2007. Print.
  • Stick, David. Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1983. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Berkhofer, Robert F. The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.
  • Chaplin, Joyce E. Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500–1676. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. Print.
  • Kelso, William M. Jamestown: The Buried Truth. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2008. Print.
  • Nicholls, Mark, and Penry Williams. Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend. New York: Continuum, 2011. Print.
  • Sloan, Kim. A New World: England’s First View of America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print.