Delving into the Mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
(with help from an aiglette)
It’s a joy to be invited to contribute to A Bookish Affair to mark the end of my virtual book tour for The Lost Duchess just out in paperback. Many thanks for this opportunity.
With so much rich material behind the story of the book and the Lost Colony of Roanoke it’s difficult to pick out just one facet to talk about, but I thought I’d concentrate on a detail which gains significance in the fictional story and show how the narrative is woven into and around surviving traces from real history. In the details a story comes to life.
The detail concerns an aiglette (sometimes called an ‘aglet’ or ‘aiglet’). An aiglette is the metal tag of a lace, known as a ‘point’ in Elizabethan times, which was used to make it easier to thread through the eyelet holes of a garment, such as in fastening breeches to a doublet.
[Picture 1: An aiglette on a doublet c. 1580 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ]
An aiglette could be ornamental as well as functional and made or decorated with precious metal or gems, but more usually it was a simple thin brass cone. The relevance of an aiglette to The Lost Duchess comes in untangling the conundrum of the disappearance of the men left on Roanoke by Sir Richard Grenville a year before the arrival of the colonists led by Governor John White. We sometimes forget that the ‘Lost Colony’ wasn’t the only one to disappear!
Grenville left at least fifteen men to safeguard the fort on Roanoke which he found inexplicably deserted in the summer of 1586. (He didn’t know that the garrison there had been evacuated by Sir Francis Drake a few weeks earlier.) The challenge for me in writing a story with this episode in the underlying history was to come up with a convincing explanation supported by credible clues. I decided to make a bit of a detective story out of the search for an answer, in much the same way that historians are still puzzling over what happened to the Lost Colony to this day.
Part of the enigma is the dearth of traces. Why has no definitive physical evidence for the whereabouts of the Lost Colony ever been found? You’d think that at least 113 men, women and children would leave some trace of their existence – a button or coin or other artefact capable of dating – but there’s nothing that can be linked to the Lost Colony with any certainty.
[Picture 2: The Kendall ring found on Hatteras Island by the Croatan Project of East Carolina University at the site of the ancient capital of Croatoan. The engraved prancing lion has been attributed to the Kendall coat of arms and, since there was a Master Kendall listed amongst the first Roanoke garrison commanded by Ralph Lane (1585-6), it’s been suggested that the ring forms a material link between the first Englishmen to arrive on Roanoke and Native Americans in the region. But the ring still doesn’t represent a direct connection with the Lost Colony or shed light on the Colony’s exact location.]
The accounts kept at the time and in the decades immediately afterwards are our best evidence for what happened to the Lost Colony, but as regards the fate of Grenville’s men all we have is White’s diary:
‘…The same night, at sunne set [Governor White] went aland on the Island, in the place where our fifteene men were left, but we found none of them, nor any signe, that they had bene there, saving onely we found the bones of one of those fifteene, which the Savages had slaine long before...’
The friendly Croatan tribe later told the settlers that Grenville’s men had been attacked by hostile American Indians led by Wanchese. As for hard evidence, all that White had to go on were those bones. There’s an obvious difficulty here for a novelist because where was the proof that the bones belonged to an Englishman, moreover an Englishman ‘slaine’ by ‘Savages’? This is where I used a little imagination. I inserted a find of the kind that archaeologists are still searching for – I had my characters ‘discover’ an aiglette.
In the story there’s a gradual build up. Kit Doonan, who leads much of the action, begins casually searching in the sand after wandering off behind the beach soon after arrival with his friend Manteo (a Croatan Indian in real history).
I set the scene thus:
‘The sun sank to a shimmering red disc like a boss of molten metal plunging behind the dark shield of the land. Fireflies began to glow and cicadas started to trill. The smell of spruce and pine hung resinous in the cooling air. Kit walked along the bank and then to the edge of the trees. Manteo followed him. They both probed and scraped, examined and pondered, picking over driftwood and shells, pinecones and roots. Every so often one of them would find something that would make them both crouch down, heads together.
“A button? Kit asked, fingering something black, round and smooth which seemed to have a hook on the back.
“A nut,” Manteo answered, shaking his head and smiling in the shadows…
They come across the bones of turtles, and then an unmistakably human tooth. Next they unearth human leg and arm bones, and then a skull smashed to pieces. This is the evidence of a violent attack.
As Kit says:
“Whoever this was, he didn’t die a natural death. Beasts wouldn’t pulverise a skull and leave the rest intact.”
The manner of death is consistent with what happened later to one of the Lost Colonists as a matter of fact. We know about the brutal murder of George Howe from John White’s account and, again, that’s threaded into the story. But going back to the bones found when the Lost Colonists first arrived, how did White know that they belonged to one of Grenville’s men and weren’t those of a native Indian killed in some tribal skirmish? I speculate that there were no clothes left since White didn’t mention any, and European clothes may well have been taken as trophies by the attackers. So where was the proof of identity? Here it is:
‘He delved again and touched a thin strip of something metallic. He held it up to the vestiges of light. It was brass, a tiny elongated cylinder, fatter at one end than the other: an aiglette of the kind that a man would have at the end of the laces on his doublet or sleeves…’
The aiglette is the evidence: a soldier’s aiglette which isn’t gilded or jewelled. Kit imagines the man brought down, ‘perhaps clubbed or struck by an arrow, the clothes ripped off him as he lay dying, the lace torn away and lost in the dirt to later rot and leave just its capping behind…’
In the remaining wilderness areas around Roanoke Island and the Pamlico Sound there may well be clues like this still waiting to be found.
[Picture 3: Deserted shore of the Pamlico Sound]
I hope this little vignette will give some insight into the way The Lost Duchess has emerged from the history, both based on the accounts and indirectly through small incidental details. It may also offer a glimpse of the devious workings of my mind!
Jenny Barden June 2014
Note: John White’s account as quoted appears in The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of The First English Settlements in North America 1584-1590 edited by David B Quinn and Alison M Quinn
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