What is history's greatest mystery?
To celebrate BBC History Magazine’s 20th birthday, we asked 20 experts to nominate a historical enigma that they’d dearly love to see solved…
Why did Mao’s chosen successor flee China?
Chosen by Rana Mitter
On 13 September 1971, a Trident 1E jet fell from the skies over Mongolia, crashing into the Gobi Desert. All nine people on board were killed – including the senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader and army general, Lin Biao.
The announcement of Lin’s death astonished not just China, but the world. For the general had been the chosen successor to Chairman Mao, China’s leader since the 1949 Communist Revolution. Lin was the head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and a legendary general in his own right: his tactics had contributed to communist victory during the brutal civil war of 1946–49. And the status of Lin’s PLA rose even higher in the sixties and seventies, as the madness of the Cultural Revolution swept the country.
Yet at dawn on 13 September 1971, Lin and eight others – including his wife, Ye Qun, and son, Lin Liguo – rushed from their home to the waiting jet. The plane took off successfully, but in their haste to leave, they had not refuelled the plane, and the aircraft crashed.
Lin was one of Mao’s most trusted colleagues; why would he flee? The official Chinese explanation was that Lin had been plotting to overthrow Mao and was attempting to leave China before his arrest. He was supposedly flying to the Soviet Union (at that time, a state hostile to China). All the Chinese records were destroyed shortly after Mao’s death, so there are no documents that contradict the official version of events.
Yet there are aspects of the story that make no sense. Why would Lin Biao have wanted to lead a hasty coup? Mao was clearly ill by the early 1970s, and his colleagues must have known they would not have to wait long for a successor. An argument made in later years was that Lin, like Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, opposed warming relations with the United States, whereas China’s prime minister, Zhou Enlai, was very much in favour. One theory is that the factional battles that bubbled around this dispute led Lin’s family to flee before they fell victim to the intrigues of court politics. There is also evidence that Lin had grown tired of politics by 1971; instead, it was his wife and son who stood to lose their political standing.
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More evidence has come to light in recent years, including a Soviet investigation into the crash site (revealed after the end of the Cold War), that muddies the waters further. For instance, the plane appeared first to have headed south, not north, from Beijing, suggesting the USSR may not have been its original destination.
Yet there is still no definitive explanation for the crash. What the ‘Lin Biao incident’ does show, though, is that during the Cultural Revolution, longstanding alliances within the Chinese leadership disintegrated into a snake pit of distrust. So it is perhaps no wonder that today China’s communist leaders regard the period as a disaster.
Rana Mitter’s next book, China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism, is out later this year
Was the Trojan War fact or fiction?
Chosen by Daisy Dunn
Surely the greatest unsolved mystery of the ancient world is whether the Trojan War actually happened. As the subject of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, the war – said to have been fought between the Greeks (known as the Achaeans) and the Trojans over a 10-year period – occupied an important place in the ancient imagination. But far from seeing it as merely fictional, the Greeks – among them leading historians, such as Thucydides – tended to believe that the conflict formed part of their ancient history.
The historian Herodotus described the Trojan War as breaking out almost 800 years before his own time – ergo, in the 13th century BC. However, the mathematician Eratosthenes dated it slightly later: to 1184–83 BC, to be precise. And some of the details contained in The Iliad are reminiscent of this general historical period. The scale and splendour of the palace of King Priam, for instance, is evocative of the opulent palaces built by the Mycenaeans in the Peloponnese – a peninsula in southern Greece. But Homer’s poem is not a historical record. Completed some 400 years after the point in the late Bronze Age in which it is set, it describes a world in which gods mingled with men; the protagonists belong to a mythical age of heroes. In what sense, then, could the Trojan War that Homer described have been real?
The protagonists belong to a mythical age of heroes. In what sense, then, could the Trojan War that Homer described have been real?
The site of historic Troy has been located at Hisarlik, near the Dardanelles, on the west coast of Turkey. Excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century, it was found to contain many archaeological layers. A few arrowheads and some broken human bones have been discovered in levels datable to the period of Homer’s war. There were also clear signs of a devastating fire – potentially the same blaze Homer described the Greeks as kindling after they stormed the Trojan citadel.
These finds may seem meagre, but they are bolstered by evidence from elsewhere in Asia Minor. Specifically, the Hittites (an ancient Anatolian people) referred on writing tablets to conflicts concerning Troy, which they called ‘Wilusa’. They even mention a ruler there named Aleksandu; in The Iliad, Paris, prince of Troy, is known as Alexandros.
This archaeological evidence, added to the confidence of the ancient historians, encourages us to take seriously the possibility that a war was fought at Troy in the late Bronze Age. But if there was a conflict, it must have been quite different to the one Homer described. It is difficult to imagine it lasting a decade, for example, when the site was comparatively small, and the gods could not really have meddled on the battlefield. But might Homer’s poem have been created to commemorate and elevate artistically a war that ended in tragedy for the Trojans?
Ultimately, we still cannot be sure if Homer’s poetry was composed to preserve distant memories of a real war, fought by men from all over the Greek world and triggered by a prince absconding with the wife of another man. The truth about the Trojan War remains, at least for now, out of our reach.
Daisy Dunn is a classicist, author and critic. Her latest book is Homer: A Ladybird Expert Book (Michael Joseph, 2019)
What is the Voynich Manuscript trying to tell us?
Chosen by Elma Brenner
If you were to leaf through the worn parchment of the Voynich Manuscript, you would encounter page after page of incomprehensible text. The volume, held today by Yale University, is written entirely in an unknown script that no one has yet been able to identify, accompanied by a series of vivid, beguiling illustrations. As well as being unable to decode the manuscript’s contents, scholars also don’t know who created it – or why they chose to make it apparently indecipherable.
The parchment that makes up the manuscript has been dated to the 15th century, and it was likely produced in central Europe in the later 15th or 16th century. As we cannot understand the text, the illustrations are the best indication of the manuscript’s contents. It seemingly includes medical and scientific material, with pages dedicated to the medicinal properties of plants as well as the pharmaceutical substances that can be derived from them, a section on astrology and astronomy, and a segment that may (or may not) list recipes.
Some of the visual material, however, is very difficult to interpret. A sequence of illustrations shows nude female figures reclining in water or another fluid, surrounded by piping systems. Do these images literally display the therapeutic benefits of bathing, or are they allegorical?
In light of the illustrations, it’s possible that the text itself could be related to harnessing the powers of nature and the cosmos, potentially through magical and alchemical processes – these ideas had gained great traction in Europe at this time, but experiments relating to them were typically carried out in a clandestine manner. The manuscript’s compiler would have likely wanted to keep this knowledge secret, both to prevent others from appropriating it and because the church and secular authorities frowned on alchemy and magic.
The manuscript was housed at the court of a figure fascinated by alchemy and magic, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612). Rudolf may well have acquired it from the English astrologer John Dee (1527–1608), who shared his occult interests.
The contents of the Voynich Manuscript still remain an enigma
While historians have uncovered many of the intricacies of people’s furtive fascination with magic during the 15th and 16th centuries, the contents of the Voynich Manuscript still remain an enigma. It’s most likely that the text is written in cipher, where words in an as-yet unidentified language have been reconfigured into a unique alphabet, with added complexities thrown in to make the riddle even harder to unravel.
Over the years, many researchers have attempted to unpick the cipher; the work of the American husband-and-wife cryptanalyst team William and Elizebeth Friedman is particularly notable. Alongside their vital codebreaking work during the Second World War, the Friedmans also applied their expertise to the Voynich Manuscript, continuing to study it in the 1950s. Yet not even their brilliant minds were able to crack the code. Hopefully, one day a scholar poring over the manuscript will make a breakthrough, and its secrets will finally come to light.
Elma Brenner is the medieval specialist at Wellcome Collection
What befell Abu Bakr and his fleet?
Chosen by Gus Casely-Hayford
In the late Middle Ages, Mali developed into the most formidable sub-Saharan African empire the continent had ever seen. It was wealthier than any other African state and, with trading and cultural links that connected it to many of the major centres of the medieval world, it was truly formidable.
The empire reached its height in the 14th century. It was during that century that Abu Bakr Keita, the last emperor hailing from the founding dynasty, ascended the Malian throne. Yet the newly appointed emperor faced an unprecedented challenge: he was as ambitious as his forefathers, but his kingdom was bound by the unforgiving Sahara desert on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, leaving him scant opportunities for expansion.
Mansa Musa, who served as Abu Bakr’s councillor and heir apparent, noted that the emperor’s desire to expand his kingdom at close quarters grew over time, until it bubbled over into obsession. Early in his reign, Abu Bakr sponsored an audacious attempt to sail across the Atlantic Ocean by funding the construction of a grand armada, containing hundreds of ships. Once the fleet was complete, he bade farewell to his admirals, telling his captains not to grace Mali’s shores again until they had successfully sailed to the far reaches of the Atlantic.
When only a single vessel limped home, though, he lamented his actions. But Abu Bakr was undeterred. Leaving his trusted lieutenant, Mansa Musa, to administer his empire, in 1312 he tried again. This time, he personally led the expedition, travelling in an even larger armada of thousands of fully laden ships. But neither the emperor nor his vessels were ever seen again. Many still believe that he successfully crossed the Atlantic to found a new Malian state – but sadly, beyond a bevy of beautiful songs that recall the voyage, there is no concrete proof of this.
Neither the emperor nor his vessels were ever seen again
While we may not know definitively what happened to Abu Bakr’s fleet, the legacy of his unbridled ambition fundamentally changed the nature of the Malian imperial project. Mansa Musa, who succeeded him, did not totally share Abu Bakr’s fixation with growing the empire via acquiring new land, building an unrivalled army and strengthening trading partnerships. Instead, he also devoted his time and energy to overcoming a different kind of boundary.
In the Malian city of Timbuktu, Mansa Musa championed a project that was infused with the enterprising spirit of his predecessor: he decided to build the greatest centre of intellectual enquiry that the world had ever seen. Both men, then, had attempted to alter Mali’s sense of self – yet the answer to whether Abu Bakr was successful lies, no doubt, with his lost fleet.
Gus Casely-Hayford is a cultural historian and broadcaster. He is the director of V&A East, set to open in 2023
What happened to Jesus’s body?
Chosen by Tom Holland
Bitter arguments have raged for 2,000 years over what is perhaps the most contested and historically influential mystery of recorded history: the fate of the body of Jesus Christ. To this day, the world can be divided into those who believe the corpse of an executed man accused of treason vanished from its tomb in Judea because that convicted criminal had in fact been the Son of God, and those who do not.
From the inception of Christianity, its followers understood that Christ’s resurrection was a central tenet of their faith. Paul wrote to a community of Christians in Corinth two decades after the likeliest date of Christ’s crucifixion: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.”
To bolster their evidence that Christ had in fact risen from the dead, they cited eyewitness accounts that he had left his tomb. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul, the earliest Christian source, explicitly referenced two men whom he knew personally as people who had witnessed the risen Christ: James, Christ’s brother, and Peter, Christ’s leading disciple. To the degree that the available sources enable us to judge the matter, Christians seem always to have believed in the literal truth of the resurrection.
But what are historians to make of this? There have been – and continue to be – many who are certain, just like Paul, that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Yet to invoke the supernatural as an explanation for a mysterious episode in the past is not something that historians have been licensed to do for many centuries now. “The theologian,” historian Edward Gibbon wrote in the 18th century, “may indulge the pleasing task of describing religion as she descended from heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian.”
What of the theory that Jesus’s body was stolen from his tomb by his disciples? This, after all, is at least as old as Matthew’s gospel. Other people accused of having removed the corpse include Christ’s own family, the Sanhedrin (the assembly of Jewish elders), and – according to the early Christian theologian Tertullian – a gardener worried “that his lettuces would be trampled down by crowds of visitors”.
What of the theory that Jesus’s body was stolen from his tomb by his disciples? This, after all, is at least as old as Matthew’s gospel
Then there is the argument that Jesus was never actually crucified. A gospel, written by a Gnostic Christian called Basilides and subsequently reworked in the Qur’an, proposed that Christ had swapped places with Simon of Cyrene. Simon had apparently offered Christ, who was carrying the cross he was to be executed on through Jerusalem, his assistance, and Simon was eventually nailed to it in Christ’s place. In a further refinement of this story, an Islamic sect called the Ahmadis claim Jesus then travelled to what is now the Indian state of Kashmir, where he lived to the ripe age of 120 and, upon his death, was buried in a tomb that can be seen to this day.
More outlandish theories have been proposed, too, including the idea that Christ never existed at all, and the saga of his resurrection was instead a reimagining of the myth of Adonis (who was also apparently resurrected). Another theory (as provocatively proposed by the Dead Seas Scrolls scholar John Marco Allegro) has it that the story was prompted by the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
In short – to paraphrase John’s Gospel – there are many theories, but were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Tom Holland is a historian, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019)
Where did Amelia Earhart spend her tragic last moments?
Chosen by Clare Mulley
“Was Amelia Earhart eaten by crabs?” one American magazine considered last year, in reference to coconut crabs’ habit of consuming carrion, before deciding it was “hard to say, really”. For most dead 20th-century celebrities, the first thing that usually comes up in research are dates of birth and death. But pioneering American aviator Amelia Earhart has to make do with just the former, 24 July 1897, and a rather romantic ‘date of disappearance’ of 2 July 1937. Whether she actually died that day remains a mystery – involving, among other factors, four border collies, 13 bones and an unknown number of crabs.
Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were heading to Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean on the final leg of their attempt to circumnavigate the globe when they disappeared. She was already famous as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. “Flying may not be all plain sailing,” she wrote in her memoir, “but the fun of it is worth the price.”
She had ordered a customised Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, complete with extra fuel tanks, autopilot and other specifications, for her circumnavigation attempt. Before being delivered, the Electra briefly featured in a 1936 romcom. “I wonder what all those gadgets are for,” Clark Gable quipped in the cockpit. Yet when Noonan inspected the aircraft, he was disappointed at just how few navigation aids there were.
Earhart and Noonan set off the next June, covering three-quarters of their route before the month was out. They only had to cross the Pacific before Earhart could celebrate her 40th birthday as the unchallenged ‘queen of the skies’. In their last confirmed radio transmission on 2 July, Earhart gave coordinates indicating that they had missed Howland before saying: “Wait”. The transmission then stopped.
The US navy searched the area for two weeks, but no trace of the Electra was found. Officially, pilot and navigator had died after their aircraft crashed into the ocean. But many have offered alternative theories to explain the mystery.
Officially, pilot and navigator had died after their aircraft crashed into the ocean. But many have offered alternative theories
In 1940, 13 human bones, including a skull, were found on Nikumaroro, a coral reef 400 miles from Howland Island. Yet the tragic image of Earhart surviving a forced-landing on the reef, only to die of starvation and exposure, appeared to be false; the bones were identified as belonging to a “muscular European” male whose 5ft 5½in frame was smaller than both Earhart’s and Noonan’s.
In 1991, aircraft fuselage was found on Nikumaroro. Although experts are divided over whether the aluminium dates from 1937 or the Second World War, the discovery was enough to reignite interest.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery has since reported that 57 authentic radio transmissions on Earhart’s frequencies were received across North America between 2 and 6 July 1937 – including one, heard by a Texan housewife, of Earhart reporting injuries. In 2017, four border collies apparently detected the scent of human remains beneath a tree on Nikumaroro, but no bones were recovered. Most recently, Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who uncovered the Titanic, searched the seas around the reef for evidence of Earhart’s Electra – but found nothing.
So, was Amelia Earhart eaten by crabs? This seems possible, although whether it was on the sands of Nikumaroro or somewhere beneath the ocean is harder to say. Yet perhaps we should pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic last moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.
Clare Mulley is an author and broadcaster. Her books include The Women Who Flew for Hitler (St Martin’s Press, 2017)
Where is King Harold buried?
Chosen by Marc Morris
As every schoolchild knows, the fate of Anglo-Saxon England was decided by the death of Harold Godwinson. Whether or not the king was struck in the eye by an arrow, as the Bayeux Tapestry might seem to suggest, his demise on 14 October 1066 meant that the battle of Hastings was won by his opponent, Duke William of Normandy, later to be remembered as William the Conqueror.
But what happened to Harold’s body once the battle was over? One suggestion that gathered adherents in recent years is that he was buried at Bosham in Sussex, an important manor that belonged to his family. This idea was inspired by the discovery in 1954 of a grave within the church containing the remains of a well-dressed Anglo-Saxon man. To suppose that it is Harold, however, requires a massive leap of faith, for no written source suggests that the king was interred there. The bones at Bosham could belong to anyone.
Turning to the written sources, perhaps the most famous suggestion is that Harold was buried at Waltham Abbey in Essex. The abbey had been refounded by the king as a house of secular canons, and, according to its own chronicle, some of these men travelled to Sussex after the battle to claim his body. They were aided by his former partner, Edith Swan-Neck, “who knew the secret marks on the king’s body better than others did”.
Here too, however, there are grounds for scepticism. The Waltham Chronicle was not written until the late 12th century, more than a century after the events it purports to describe. By the 13th century another chronicler there composed a fresh account claiming that Harold survived the battle and lived for many years as a hermit in Chester.
- Everything you wanted to know about the 1066 Norman invasion and the battle of Hastings – but were afraid to ask
That leaves us with the two contemporary accounts of the battle, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio and the Gesta Guillelmi by William of Poitiers. The Carmen states that Harold was buried on top of a cliff on the Sussex coast, under a mocking inscription that said he could continue to guard the shore. William of Poitiers says the same, and this is significant, for on other occasions he substituted the Carmen’s account with his own version of events. Poitiers’ implicit endorsement is important because he was William the Conqueror’s chief propagandist. Had William allowed Harold’s body to be taken to Waltham for burial, it seems fairly certain that Poitiers would have told us so.
Marc Morris is a historian and author who specialises in the Middle Ages
Why was the world fooled by the Cottingley Fairies?
Chosen by Richard Sugg
One hundred years ago this August, two cousins, 12-year-old Frances Griffiths and 19-year-old Elsie Wright, used a borrowed quarter-plate camera to take three fairy photographs near their home in Cottingley, West Yorkshire. What’s more, the cousins had acted with the express encouragement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the famously hard-headed detective Sherlock Holmes.
Purely by chance, the two initial fairy photographs the girls had produced in 1917 had come to the author’s attention through Edward Gardner, a prominent member of the Theosophical Society. In 1920, Gardner travelled up to Yorkshire in the hope of prompting more fairy photographs. By November 1920, the Yorkshire fairies had travelled to London, and invaded the entire city, staring out at bemused readers from the pages of the Strand magazine.
Even now, these images remain some of the most potent and familiar fairy icons of all time, rivalling Victorian artistic imaginings, as well as the works of Walt Disney. Yet once we take a hatpin and dissect these gauzy creatures, they fracture into a peculiar mosaic of questions, contradictions and uncertainty. Just how did the inventor of the world’s most famous investigator fall for the tricks of two young Yorkshire girls? To put it another way: just why did Doyle, Gardner and so many others want to believe in fairies in 1920?
And what of the cousins themselves? As the historian Simon Young put it: “In 1917 Frances and Elsie were out to trick their family, in 1920 the world.” What motivated the cousins to do so? And who was the ringleader in this second, celebrity phase of the Cottingley Affair?
Just how did the inventor of the world’s most famous investigator fall for the tricks of two young Yorkshire girls?
Doyle would go to his grave in 1930 still believing the pictures to be genuine. For decades just two women knew the truth. When their confessions of fraud hit the press in March 1983, “the reputations of the world’s most famous fairies and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” lay (wrote The Times) “in tatters”. But might one of the cousins have been forced to confess? And what was it that kept them silent so long?
Perhaps the strangest question of all is this. Were there really fairies at the bottom of the garden in Cottingley? For Frances always insisted that the fifth picture was genuine, and that she had actually seen a fairy man staring at her from a willow branch.
Richard Sugg is a historian and author. His books include Fairies: A Dangerous History (Reaktion Books, 2018)
Did Richard III order the murder of the princes in the Tower?
Chosen by Nathen Amin
The fate of Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, respectively 12 and 9 when they vanished, has elicited intense debate for centuries. Was their disappearance, as some have claimed, a Tudor stitch-up to smear King Richard III, one of British history’s infamous villains? Or was something more sinister afoot?
On 9 April 1483, only a few months before the boys disappeared, Edward IV died, leaving behind a court that was crippled by divisions. As his heir was still a child, opposing factions swiftly mobilised in a bid to seize governance of the kingdom. In one corner were Edward V’s maternal relations, the Woodvilles; in the other stood his paternal uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Their ambitions were incompatible.
While travelling to London to prepare for his coronation, Edward V’s convoy was intercepted by Gloucester at Stony Stratford, and three of the boy’s companions – including his uncle, Anthony Woodville – were arrested without warning. When news reached Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, she fled with her youngest son, Richard of York, and his five sisters to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. Meanwhile, Gloucester continued on to the capital, where he was formally named Protector on 10 May. He then placed Edward V in the Tower, ostensibly to await his crowning. Aside from the Woodvilles’ expulsion from power, little appeared untoward.
However, matters took a dramatic twist during a council meeting on 13 June. On Gloucester’s orders, Edward IV’s close friend William Hastings was seized, dragged outside, and beheaded amid accusations of treason against the Protector. Two days later, Gloucester and Buckingham surrounded Westminster Abbey with soldiers and compelled Elizabeth to turn over her youngest son, York, who then joined his brother in the Tower. The next week, both boys were suddenly declared illegitimate on the grounds their father had supposedly married prior to his Woodville wedding – making Gloucester the legitimate Yorkist heir. The duke, for his part, did not protest, and four days later he assumed the throne as King Richard III – although many differ over whether he ascended as the reluctant benefactor of Edward IV’s personal shortcomings, or the orchestrator of a coup.
But what of the disinherited boys? Contemporary accounts are guarded. According to one, they were seen playing in the Tower grounds, though another noted that with each passing day they were seen less and less, until they disappeared altogether. Word even reached Bristol that they had been “put to silence”.
If they had been silenced, suspicion over who was responsible falls on a number of heads. The prime suspect has traditionally been Richard III, although others certainly benefited; no one can deny that Margaret Beaufort and her son, Henry Tudor, gained a great deal by capitalising upon rumours the boys had died to garner support from Yorkists formerly loyal to Edward IV.
If they had been silenced, suspicion over who was responsible falls on a number of heads
Another theory that has recently gained traction is that one or both princes survived and were spirited away under the cover of darkness. Indeed, some came forward claiming to be the missing Yorkists: just less than a decade later, Perkin Warbeck was attempting to convince anyone who would listen that he was the younger of the boys, spared by a compassionate cut-throat. That Warbeck later rescinded his claims has only muddied the waters.
The fate of the princes remains compelling to this day – more than 500 years since they were last seen in public. And whether one believes that the boys were slain by those they trusted, or conversely spared this savage fate and instead sentenced to live out the rest of their lives in the shadows, the debate stubbornly rumbles on.
Nathen Amin is a historian and author. His books include House of Beaufort (Amberley Publishing, 2017)
Why did an English colony vanish into thin air?
Chosen by Malcolm Gaskill
When Sir Richard Grenville landed 600 stinking, seasick men at Roanoke Island in July 1585, he had no inkling that a mystery would consume the island a scant five years later. His first concern was survival; and to survive on Roanoke, an island off the coast of what would later be North Carolina, the settlers would need help from the indigenous Secotans. But Governor Ralph Lane (one of the settlers) treated them brutally, so when the colonists ran low on food, Grenville had to return to England for supplies.
While Grenville was at sea, Lane, suspicious of an attack, led a raid that saw many of the Native Americans massacred, including their leader, Chief Wingina. The Secotans had been defeated, but the colonists were in disarray. A fortnight later, Sir Francis Drake rescued the survivors, including Lane. Grenville returned to Roanoke in the summer of 1586, then left.
In May 1587 John White, one of the original settlers, led a fresh cohort of settlers to Roanoke, among them his pregnant daughter Eleanor Dare. White was not a natural leader, and relations with the indigenous population were strained. Dwindling supplies again necessitated a trip back to England. So White bade farewell to his daughter and granddaughter, Virginia Dare – the first child born in America to English parents.
An ongoing conflict with Spain meant that White was unable to return to Roanoke until 18 August 1590: his granddaughter’s third birthday. But Virginia had vanished, along with the entire colony: 115 men, women and children were gone. White’s home had been ransacked, his possessions scattered. But there were no graves or skeletons in sight. And, encouragingly for White, a prearranged code word ‘Croatoan’ – an island 50 miles south – had been carved into the palisade. Had his family managed to sail there? White didn’t have time to find out. The hurricane season compelled him to sail back to Plymouth, leaving his questions unanswered.
Search missions failed. In 1609 a report reached London from Powhatan Indians that the Roanoke colonists had been killed, but this was unsubstantiated. In the early 18th century, visitors to Hatteras Island – as Croatoan was known – detected the influence of English culture. This revived old tales of pale-skinned, grey-eyed Native American children, suggesting the assimilation of Roanoke’s settlers. However, DNA analysis is an obsolete avenue of investigation – requiring living relatives or bones – and it’s believed that these paleskinned indigenous children could have albinism, a condition more common among Native Americans than Europeans.
In 1609 a report reached London from Powhatan Indians that the Roanoke colonists had been killed, but this was unsubstantiated
Even the colony’s precise location remains unknown. Coastal erosion means the site is likely under water; a theory that was bolstered in 2002 when a swimmer found a 16th-century axe head.
Above all, the question of where the Roanoke settlers ended up remains an enigma – although a drawing of a fort, discovered in 2011 beneath a patch on a map by John White, seemed like a breakthrough. In 2017 archaeologists announced that they had found Elizabethan artefacts at the site, 50 miles west of Roanoke, but whether these belonged to the lost colonists is unclear.
Historical theories of the fate of the Roanoke colonists range from shipwreck, enslavement by the Spanish, reassignment to one of Sir Walter Ralegh’s secret commercial operations, and quiet resettlement in Chesapeake Bay. A stone grave marker found in a North Carolina swamp in 1937, supposedly inscribed by Eleanor Dare but dismissed as a forgery, may well be genuine after all. Somehow, the more we learn, the more the mystery deepens. Only one thing is certain: the case on Roanoke will be not closed any time soon – even if it can never be solved.
Malcolm Gaskill is professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia