Six months ago, I reviewed science writer Andrew Lawler’s new book on the lost colony of Roanoke, The Secret Token, and I expressed some concerns about the content of the book. Lawler, who is fresh from a book tour promoting the volume, read the review, and wanted a chance to respond. Today, I present Andrew Lawler’s response to my review. After his comments I will add a few thoughts.
Jason Colavito’s comprehensive review of The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke (Doubleday, 2018) makes several claims that require correction.
I of course must defer to Lawler’s expertise in having read many more of Quinn’s books and articles than I have, but I must admit to being confused by the fact that the claims from Quinn’s earlier books do not match what he wrote in Set Fair for Roanoke. There, Quinn states of 300 South American Indians that Drake “is likely to have left them at St. Helena Sound.” He then says that the hurricane drowned “a good many of his intended reinforcements,” meaning the African and Turkish slaves, while “it is not unlikely that […] a few of them saved their lives” by swimming ashore, but “we cannot say” whether this is the case. In a somewhat earlier piece, from 1982, “Turks, Blacks, and Others” he again says nothing about a large colony of slaves put ashore at Roanoke: “In the sunken vessels may well have perished many of his black and Indian passengers. Though some may have survived, this may explain why we hear nothing further about blacks and Indians. […] Somehow the facts about what actually happened at Roanoke went unrecorded, and hence the exact fate of the many people Drake ‘rescued’ in the course of his voyage from Spain to San Agustin may now never be known.”
This argument is by no means new; Irene Aloha Wright concluded that the slaves were intended for Roanoke in a 1916 book. Most recently, last year Mary Frear Keeler, writing in Sir Francis Drake's West Indian Voyage, 1585-86, was much less certain, and wrote that they might have been meant either for Roanoke or Florida. While it is certainly a possibility that hundreds of captured slaves were put ashore on the outer banks, as Quinn sometimes notes, there is no record of them joining the Roanoke colony, and while it makes no difference to me one way or the other whether they did or did not go to Roanoke versus any other place along the coast, or died, a suggestion and an interpretation are different than facts, and in the absence of evidence, it can only be speculation, to be settled when and if the remains of these slaves or their belongings come to light.
Regarding George Bancroft’s account of Roanoke, as someone who has read dozens of nineteenth century textbooks in researching my mound builder book, I feel that it is, by nineteenth century standards, plainspoken, unadorned, and factual. The closest analog in the Gothic is probably Poe’s “Gold-Bug” (1843), and that is notable because that story was one of his least Gothic, with rather plain prose and a straightforward tale of ratiocination. Indeed, Bancroft’s account is not substantively different from other accounts of its era: Frederick Butler’s Sketches of Universal History gives substantively the same account a few years earlier, but William Stith’s History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia from 1777 is perhaps the one account that does make the story explicitly into a morality tale, with reference to mystery and elements of “savage Indian” motif, at much greater length than Bancroft, though it is a few years too early to have influence from the Gothic. Bancroft is less Gothic (which is concerned with encountering the sublime through terror and awe) than possessed of Romantic inclinations, which overlap with the Gothic but are not wholly synonymous with them. (Romanticism, of course, also was connected to the sublime, but more readily through greatness than terror.) Bancroft is suffused with the spirit of Romanticism, including its interest in sensation, history, and the romance of adventure and misadventure. But his account doesn’t have the elements of the Gothic that relate mystery and horror to an encounter with the Burkean sublime, nor attempt to induce terror and sensation to achieve it.
My dismay was not that Lawler is giving aid and comfort to fantasists—indeed, I praise him for decrying the he racist interpretations of Roanoke. Instead, my dismay was in finding that even a writer who was honestly and fairly examining a historical event from an inquisitive and science-based perspective found himself on the wrong side of the divide between academic and popular history. And make no mistake, I fault the academic historians for too frequently treating race, class, and gender as the holy trinity of history and remaining stubbornly narrow in subjects considered worthy. A topic that is popular is not automatically unworthy, and it is treatment like Lawler received—eye-rolling and dismissal—that creates the vacuum into which fringe historians and fantasists expand to fill the void. I’ve experienced it myself more than once when a historian or academic has scoffed at some subject of my interest or gruffly dismissed a query as unworthy of notice. It’s annoying, and problematic.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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