Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Sir Walter Raleigh by Margaret Duncan Kelly
The Story of Sir Walter Raleigh by  Margaret Duncan Kelly

Raleigh's Ships

T HIS is to tell how Raleigh tried to make another England in the great new land across the Atlantic Ocean.

Though the Spaniards said that the whole of this New World belonged to them, they only lived in a very small part of it. For America, as the New World is called, is nearly a hundred times bigger than Spain. It stretches from the frozen lands near the North Pole, where there is always snow and ice, to the sunny south, where there are strange beautiful flowers and bright-coloured birds.

The New World is really two great continents, which are joined only by a narrow strip of land. They are called North and South America.

The Spaniards had made their homes chiefly on the coast of South America, for it was in this part they had found the rich treasure of gold, and silver, and jewels. Here, too, they hoped some day to find the wonderful golden city of which the Indians had told them.

But Raleigh decided to make his new England in the unknown lands of North America. Here, he hoped, the brave, hard-working English settlers would become a great English nation, rich enough to trade with England, their mother country, and strong enough to fight her battles against the Spaniards in South America.

Raleigh had a step-brother named Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who was a very gallant captain and had already made several voyages to the New World. As the Queen would not let Raleigh himself go, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was made commander of the four ships which were to carry the English settlers to their new land.

They took with them food enough to last for a year, and all kinds of picks and spades and saws. The Queen sent Gilbert an anchor guided by a lady, as a token that she wished him good luck.

So the four little ships sailed west until at last they came in sight of land. It seemed to the sailors, who were looking for a rich and sunny country, a cold miserable place. It was an island, and round its shores thick fogs were always clinging. Off the coast lay a few fishing-boats. The Spaniards and Dutch had already found that there was good fishing near the shores of this land of fogs. The island had been called by its earliest discoverer Newfoundland.

Gilbert determined that, dreary though it seemed, he would take this island for England. He landed, and, cutting a sod of earth, he held it up and proclaimed: "The land from whence this sod is cut belongs from henceforth and for ever to England."

The captains of the fishing-boats stood silently by, while the English flag was set up on the shore. They had not dared to refuse Gilbert's invitation to go and see the ceremony.

But while Gilbert was on shore, his crews, who were angry and disappointed, tried to desert with his ships. One ship, indeed, Gilbert had to send home, but he persuaded the other three to sail with him further south, where the country would be warmer and richer.

Scarcely had they set sail when they were caught in a terrible storm. One ship was wrecked on the dangerous banks near the coast of Newfoundland; the other two ships still battled on against the winds. The sailors, terrified by the gales and fogs and huge sea-monsters, prayed to Gilbert to give up the voyage and sail for England.

The ship Gilbert was on was a tiny boat called the Squirrel.  The storm became so violent that the sailors knew such a small crowded boat would surely go down. The men on both ships begged Gilbert to go on board the larger ship and save his life; but he would not. "I will not," he said, "forsake my little company with whom I have passed through so many perils."

The men on the larger ship saw him sitting calmly in the stern of the Squirrel  with a book in his hand. As the two ships were driven for a minute nearer to each other, he called out, "Be of good heart, my friends! we are as near to heaven by sea as by land."

Soon afterwards the Squirrel  sank in the raging sea. So died gallant Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and so ended Raleigh's first attempt to make another England over the seas. But the very next year Raleigh sent two of his captains to explore the coast of North America, and find a good place for English settlers. This time he did not send out any settlers; he waited to hear what his captains discovered.

These captains steered more to the south than Sir Humphrey Gilbert had done. They came at last to a green and beautiful land, a land full of tall stately trees, a land where delicious grapes grew right down to the water-side. Beneath the trees, shy, graceful deer were roaming, while the startled hares scurried swiftly to and fro.

The Indians who lived in this land were peaceful and friendly. The brother of the Indian king came to meet them with a band of Indians. They brought pearls, and corals, and deer-skins, to give the English in exchange for the curious things these white men had to offer. The king's brother was especially delighted with a tin dish. He hung it round his neck as a shield! Soon the captains set sail once more to take the glad news to Raleigh of the beautiful land they had found for him. Two of the Indians sailed with them to see the country from which these wonderful white men had come. They gave Raleigh a bracelet of pearls as big as peas.

Raleigh told the Queen about this new land, and asked that he might call it Virginia, in honour of his virgin or maiden Queen. She graciously consented.

Once more Raleigh collected great stores, and fitted seven ships to sail to Virginia. This time he prayed the Queen to let him go himself. But Elizabeth cared too much for his safety; she could not spare her Captain of the Guard to go a dangerous sea voyage.


Sir Walter Raleigh

So Raleigh was forced to stay at home, and send instead his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville.

Grenville took the settlers safely to their new home in Virginia. Then, when they had built their houses and landed their stores, he sailed back to England. He left behind him enough food to last a year, and promised faithfully to go back the next spring with fresh supplies.

The settlers worked hard. They had to cut down many of the great trees to clear their land. Then they ploughed their fields and sowed the corn. Some of them went exploring to search for pearls, and gold or silver mines.

The year went slowly by, and these lonely Englishmen longed for the spring. Spring would bring them news of dear old England, and all the friends they had left behind them. Spring would also bring the fresh supplies of food. This was even more important, for their food was running short, and it was not yet time to gather in the harvest.

Spring came, and the settlers watched eagerly for the sails of Grenville's ships. "He is sure to come; he promised, and he will not fail us," they told each other as the days went by and no ship came sailing to their lonely shore.

Spring passed and summer came; but still the settlers scanned the sea in vain with eager, hungry eyes and anxious hearts.

At last "A sail! a sail!" cried one of the watchers. But their joy soon changed to fear; for many sails came crowding over the horizon. Grenville, they knew, would only come with two or three ships; this was a large fleet.

"It is the Spaniards!" they whispered with white faces; "they have come to burn our homes and make us their slaves."

Great was their joy to find that it was not the Spaniards, but Sir Francis Drake, the terror of the Spaniards. He had been fighting the enemy in South America, and his ships were filled with Spanish treasure. He was now on the way home, and had remembered to call at Raleigh's Virginia on the homeward voyage.

The home-sick settlers crowded round Drake's sailors, and wished that they too were going home. Drake loaded two ships with supplies, and said he would leave them behind him. So the settlers sat down to write their letters for Drake to carry home to England.

Suddenly a storm came on, and the ships with supplies were driven far out to sea. The settlers, in terror at the thought of being left again in their loneliness and want, begged Drake to take them home. "Take us back!" they cried; "we shall starve before Grenville comes!" Drake could not refuse. So they left their wild but beautiful Virginia, left their homes to the wild beasts, and their corn to the birds.

A few days later Grenville's ships, laden with good things, reached Virginia, only to find empty houses and deserted fields.

Meanwhile Drake's fleet, with the settlers on board, sailed across the Atlantic home to Plymouth Bay. Drake's sailors brought back treasure. Raleigh's settlers came back poorer even than they set out; but yet they did bring home two things which afterwards turned out to be more valuable even than treasure. These were two plants—the tobacco and the potato plant.

Sir Walter Raleigh was bitterly disappointed that the settlers had deserted Virginia. But he listened to their stories, and examined carefully the two plants. They told him how they had seen the Indians smoke tobacco. "They suck it," said one of the settlers, "through pipes of clay, which does them great good. So we ourselves during the time we were there used to suck it after their manner, and found it of great virtue."

When Raleigh heard this, he thought he would try to smoke himself. A very funny story is told about Raleigh and his man-servant.

One day this servant came into the room where Raleigh was smoking. He had never seen any one smoke before, and when he saw smoke coming from his master's mouth, he thought he must be on fire! He rushed for a bucket of water, and flung it over Raleigh to put the fire out!

Raleigh liked smoking so much that he gave many of his friends pipes with bowls of silver; and soon all the young nobles of the Court learnt to smoke.

But as for the potato, no one would eat it at all. They thought it was poisonous, because the potato flower is something like the deadly nightshade. Raleigh thought this was a great pity, for the potato plant could be made to grow in England, and would be food for the people when there was not enough corn. Queen Elizabeth tried to make people eat potatoes. She had them served up at a grand dinner; but the courtiers only pretended to eat them.

So Raleigh took his potato plants to Ireland. He planted them there in the broad lands the Queen had given him. The poor Irish, who had little to eat, soon began to like potatoes. At last they spread throughout all Ireland, until every little cottage had its potato patch. But this, of course, took many, many years.

Raleigh's castle in Ireland had a beautiful garden. Here he planted sweet-scented, yellow wall-flowers which had come from Virginia far away. Here, too, he planted stately cedars, and cherry-trees, with their gleaming blossom. In a corner of the garden were four old yew-trees, whose branches had twined together, making a shady summer-house. Beneath these trees Raleigh loved to sit with an English friend who lived in an old Irish castle. His friend knew how to make most beautiful poems. Often the two friends sat beside the swift-flowing river, each trying who could make the sweetest song or tell the most charming story.

The name of this friend was Edmund Spenser. He was writing a most wonderful story-poem called "The Faerie Queen." This poem describes the strange adventures of many a gallant knight and gentle lady. It tells how a ramping lion rushed suddenly at a fair lady as she wandered alone in a wild wood; but when he saw how fair and good she was, even the lion was sorry for her and kissed her weary feet. Instead of devouring the poor lady, he became her faithful friend. Wherever she went, the lion went with her as a strong guard; and "when she slept, he kept both watch and ward."

As Raleigh read "The Faerie Queen," with its stories of dragons, horrible and stern, vanquished by true knights, he thought he had never read so marvellous a poem.

"You must come with me to England," he said to Spenser; "you must show your poem to our gracious Queen."

So they left Ireland and came to the Court of the Queen. She listened to "The Faerie Queen," and took such delight in it that often she called Spenser to her presence.

But Raleigh was tired of the Court. He longed for adventures, and when he learned that English ships were sailing west to fight the Spanish treasure ships, he implored the Queen once more to let him go. Once more she refused, and once more Sir Richard Grenville went instead in Raleigh's ship the Revenge.

The King of Spain heard that the English were going to attack his treasure, so he sent a strong fleet of fifty-three battle-ships to surprise them. The English had only six ships. When the Spaniards came on them, near the islands off the American coast, many of the sailors were on shore. To fight was useless, so the command was given that the English ships were to fly.

Sir Richard Grenville in his ship, the Revenge,  waited to take on board the sailors who had gone ashore. "I would rather die," he said, "than dishonour myself, my country, and Her Majesty's ship by flying from Spaniards. I will force my way through both squadrons of them."

Swiftly the great Spanish galleons came sailing up and closed round the gallant little Revenge.  The fight was long and desperate. All day long the Revenge  fought on, firing low into the hulls of the galleons and smashing them through and through.

"And the sun went down, and the stars came out far over the summer sea,

But never a moment ceased the fight of the one and the fifty-three.

Ship after ship, the whole night long, their high-built galleons came,

Ship after ship, the whole night long, with her battle-thunder and flame;

Ship after ship, the whole night long, drew back with her dead and her shame."

But when morning dawned, the Revenge  seemed like the skeleton of a ship. Forty valiant men lay dead upon the deck, and all the rest were wounded; all the pikes were broken, and all the powder spent. Sir Richard Grenville, sorely wounded but still undaunted, gave the command, "Sink the ship!" But his men insisted on carrying him from the sinking ship on board a Spanish galleon.

There he died, and his last words were as brave as his life had been: "Here die I, Richard Grenville, with a joyful and quiet mind, for that I have ended my life, as a true soldier ought to do, fighting for his country, queen, religion, and honour."

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