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The Roanoke Enquiry

Why did England’s first colony fail?

A version of this enquiry appears in the SHP publication ‘The Impact of Empire’ byJamie Byrom, Chris Culpin and Michael Riley. The enquiry provides a detailed exploration of the encounters between the first English colonists in North America and the indigenous people. It is structured around a narrative account of Walter Raleigh’s attempt to establish a colony at Roanoke in 1585. As pupils work through the enquiry they construct an ‘analytical narrative’ in the form of an article for a history magazine. Their articles describe the key events, but must also explain why England’s first colony failed.

To download this enquiry as a Word document [ click here ].

Rationale

This enquiry provides a detailed exploration of the encounters between the first English colonists in North America and the indigenous people of the east coast. The enquiry is structured around a narrative account of Walter Raleigh’s attempt to establish a colony at Roanoke in 1585. At each of the five stages in the narrative pupils make a judgement as to why things went wrong. They consider the role bad planning and bad luck, the cultural differences between Europeans and Native Americans and the significance of the central characters on both sides. As pupils work through the enquiry they write the different sections of an ‘analytical narrative’ in the form of an article for a history magazine. Their articles describe the key events, but must also explain what went wrong with England’s first colony.

Stage 1 – So who’s this dandy? (analysing and interpreting a portrait of Walter Raleigh)

Learning Activities and Resources.

The hook for this enquiry is a 1585 portrait of Walter Raleigh which is projected onto the classroom wall. Pupils enter the classroom to the sound of Thomas Tallis. I ask the pupils to put up a hand if they are a dandy. They haven’t a clue what I mean, but everyone’s attention is immediately captured. I tell the class that a dandy is a man who pays excessive attention to smartness and fashion in his dress, and that Walter Raleigh was one of the biggest Elizabethan dandies. In pairs pupils look closely at the Raleigh’s portrait and pick out all the signs of ‘dandiness’. I then share some interesting information about Walter Raleigh: his relationship with the queen, his vast fortune, his seafaring and his determination, in 1585, to establish England’s first colony in North America. As a homework activity, I ask pupils to find out what contact there had been between Europeans and Indigenous Americans before 1585.

Rationale

This opening activity is intended to capture pupils’ interest in Walter Raleigh through the use of a portrait. I knew that Raleigh’s appearance would seem very peculiar to the class, so I personalised the portrait, by focussing on the concept of ‘dandiness’. This develops an understanding that Tudor people were very much like ourselves, although they expressed themselves in different ways! The homework activity is intended to place Raleigh’s 1585 voyage in context develop an outline knowledge of European contact with the Americas.

Stage 2 – Preparations for England’s first colony (a decision-making exercise)

Learning Activities and Resources.

I tell the class about Raleigh’s exploratory voyage to America in 1584 and his decision to establish England’s first American colony at Roanoke. In groups of three, pupils are asked to use their knowledge of Tudor England to predict how Raleigh will find solutions to the 5 major problems he faced in 1585: How will he pay for the colony? How can he persuade people to go? Who should lead the colony? What food and supplies will the colony need to get started? How should the indigenous people be treated? Pupils feedback their ideas then discover how Raleigh actually prepared for the voyage and settlement of Roanoke. They consider whether the colony at Roanoke was doomed from the start or whether it stood a good chance of succeeding. Pupils then draft the first part of an article for the BBC History Magazine. In the first part of their articles pupils give background details on Raleigh and describe his preparations in 1585, making judgement about the likely success of Raleigh’s expedition.

Stage 3 – The Voyage (a teacher-directed role play)

Learning Activities and Resources.

Individual pupils volunteer to role-play different historical characters: Richard Grenville (commander of the expedition), Ralph Lane (the first governor of the colony), John White (the artist), Thomas Harriot (the scholar), Wancheso and Manteo (the two native Americans who were returning to Roanoke with the colonists). I tell the story of the voyage to Roanoke with the help of a projected map and the different historical characters. Pupils make a judgement about whether the colonists were lucky, unlucky or made some mistakes on the voyage. They then write the second part of their history magazine articles

Rationale

Asking pupils to role play the different historical characters involves them in the story. At various points I am able to ask the historical characters what they are worried about, what they are pleased about or what they think they could have done differently. The speaking and listening activity prepares pupils for their writing. They enjoy adding to their magazine article by writing the second part of their analytical narrative.

Stage 4 – First encounters (text and picture analysis)

Learning Activities and Resources.

Pupils read an account of the colonists’ exploration of the waters around Roanoke. They are asked to focus particularly on the first encounters between the Native Americans and the English colonists. What do the English colonists find most surprising about the Native Americans? What do the Native Americans find most surprising about the English colonists? Pupils analyse and interpret John White’s paintings of the Native American villages. What do these paintings tell us about his attitude towards the indigenous people? How do the colonists differ in their attitudes towards the Native Americans? Why do the encounters start well but then go dreadfully wrong? Pupils discuss these questions and write the third part of their history magazine articles.

Rationale

The on-going story of the expedition provides a motivating context for pupils’ analysis of the texts and pictures. The text provides the essential narrative and allows pupils to explain why the first encounters resulted in violence. John White’s watercolour paintings provide a fascinating insight into his first impressions of the Native Americans. This contrasts with Grenville’s belligerence, and forces pupils to think about the role of individual personalities in history.

Stage 5 – Settlement and Conflict (text analysis)

Learning Activities and Resources.

In writing the final part of their history magazine articles pupils analyse what went wrong in the months after the colony was established. They read an account of the problems in maintaining law and order in Roanoke and of the difficulties of providing food and other provisions. They also read about the conflict with King Wingina and the final demise of the colony. Pupils analyse the text to find supporting points for different views about what went wrong: Was the end of colony simply a result of poor planning? Did the clash of cultures make the end of the colony inevitable? Were the colonists unlucky? How important a factor was the attitude and behaviour of some of the colonists towards the Native Americans? Pupils discuss these questions and then write the final part of their history magazine articles.

Rationale

The final part of the narrative focuses on the difficulties experienced by the colony, the conflict with the Native Americans and Drake’s rescue of the colonists. The text analysis and discussion help pupils to construct a clear and substantiated explanation of the failure of England’s first colony. The completed articles make a satisfying end product for the enquiry.

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