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  • What Happened in RoanokeRalph Lane’s Narrative Incursion
  • Kathleen Donegan (bio)

Writing from the “new Fort in Virginia” in September 1585, colonial governor Ralph Lane proclaimed he was on “the goodliest soile under the cope of heaven” (Quinn 210, 207). If it were to be fully possessed by Englishmen, he projected, “no realme in Christendome were comparable to it” (208). But the following June, he and his company frantically pulled up stakes and returned to England, trailing a wake of violence behind them. Shoreside, their onetime hosts were shocked, incensed, and deeply set on reprisal. What drove the colony out so precipitously? To answer that question, we might look to the three primary sources produced in that settlement. Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report from the New-Found Land of Virginia tells us a great deal about the land, its potential commodities, and its inhabitants, but it does not tell us what happened. John White’s watercolors provide detailed portraits of individuals, material culture, and social organization in the area, but they do not tell us what happened. The text that comes closest to doing so is a third but frequently unread source: Ralph Lane’s An Account of the Particularities of the Imployments of the English Men Left in Virginia.1 Upon Lane’s return to London, he composed this report of the colony’s progress and failure at the behest of Sir Walter Ralegh. The manuscript was circulated among backers of colonization and members of Elizabeth I’s court and was later edited and published, along with Lane’s early enthusiastic letter, by Richard Hakluyt in his Principall Navigations of 1589.2 If Lane’s letter contained the kind of confident projections that promoted colonial settlement, his Account contained, but could barely contain, something else: a confused attempt to narrate a history in which he was a principal actor, but which he still did not fully understand. The document Lane produced is a troubled one but, as I will argue in this essay, that very trouble provides valuable evidence about what happened in the field of colonial incursion.

To learn what happened in Roanoke in 1585 and 1586, there is both no [End Page 285] better and no worse place to look than Lane’s narrative. No better place, because Lane was in command of the settlement and his is a detailed record of this very early English incursion. As governor, Lane was charged with creating and fortifying a base from which English privateers could raid Spanish galleons full of New World gold. He was also meant to assess and describe the potential of the place for a full-fledged colony: its geography, its resources, and its people. Finally, he was expected to give an account of all that transpired there. However, Lane’s English company was forced to abandon Roanoke, leaving an enterprise so recently begun hanging on the edge of ignominy. Returned from the debacle, scores of unsettled men were out and about in London telling tales. If a successful mission required careful accounting, a failed one demanded a more thorough explanation still. Lane’s report was expected not only to deliver the facts but also to halt the rumors and to justify this dismal showing.

There is also no worse place to learn about what happened that year in Roanoke because, to put it simply, Lane’s report is a mess. It lacks fluidity, has maddening omissions, and is poorly organized. It tells too little, leaving gaping holes in the story, except for where it tells too much, laying out everything Lane intended to do instead of describing what he did. It declares allegiance to certain rhetorical terms—order, division, particularity—and then immediately subverts them. It requires uncomfortable reading practices: to discount what’s on the page because these pages are filled with nonevents, to search for what is not on the page because everywhere information is suppressed, to riffle back and forth between pages because the text refuses steady chronology. Having failed at his commission, Lane also failed at accounting for it.

Harriot and White, on the other hand, were secure in their commissions. They were charged with gathering as...