1584: The First English Voyage

The earth bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor. Arthur Barlowe

John White's depiction of two Algonquian sitting down for a meal.
John White's depiction of two Algonquian sitting down for a meal.

British Museum

1584 Voyage

In the late sixteenth-century, England’s primary goal in North America was to disrupt Spanish shipping. Catholic Spain, under the rule of Philip II, had dominated the coast of Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Florida for the latter part of the 1500s. Protestant England, under the rule of Elizabeth I, sought to circumvent Spanish dominance in the region by establishing colonies in the New World.

England’s attempt at colonization would serve two purposes. First, a colony would act as a buffer against Spanish control of the North and South American coasts.

Second, a colony would act as a base for privateering, allowing English ships to attack Spanish vessels and gain control of Spanish treasure and trade routes in the region. Sir Walter Raleigh, with the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, sent a reconnaissance expedition to the New World in April, 1584.

The expedition, two ships under the command of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, arrived on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina in July, 1584. The goal of England’s 1584 expedition was not to establish a colony but to scout potential locations along the eastern seaboard for future settlement. The sailors found a potential site at Roanoke Island, a small land mass resting between the mainland and the Outer Banks. Barlowe, in his account of the voyage, attested that “the soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful, and wholesome of all the world.” 

In addition to praising the natural resources of Roanoke Island, the 1584 expedition also made contact with the Carolina Algonquian. Perhaps the most important outcome of the 1584 expedition was the return to England with two Algonquian on board, Manteo of the Croatoan tribe and Wanchese of the Roanoacs. The two Algonquian were the subject of much fascination upon their arrival in England and likely boosted Raleigh’s efforts to enlist more investors in the potential colony. In addition, Manteo and Wanchese provided the English with detailed descriptions of Algonquian culture and social structure.

On April 9, 1585, almost one year to the day of the first expedition’s departure, 600 English soldiers and sailors in seven ships (with Manteo and Wanchese on board) sailed from Plymouth, England in an attempt to establish the first English colony in North America.

Last updated: May 10, 2021