Arthur Barlowe (ca. 1550–ca. 1620)


Arthur Barlowe was an English explorer and sea captain who helped to lead a reconnaissance expedition to Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina, preparing for a larger English settlement the following year. Little is known about Barlowe’s life other than that by early in the 1580s he was a gentleman-soldier attached to Walter Raleigh‘s household in London. In 1584, Barlowe and Philip Amadas captained two ships that landed at Roanoke Island in what would become the Virginia Colony. The explorers remained in the region for two months, and upon his return Barlowe produced a report, “The first voyage made to the coastes of America,” that appeared in Richard Hakluyt the Younger‘s Principall Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, published in 1589. An entertaining narrative, Barlowe’s report appears to have been based on a ship’s log of the voyage, and the final text may have been reworked by others, including Thomas Hariot, Raleigh’s primary assistant, and Raleigh himself. Raleigh used the completed report as a propaganda tool to further his aims of settling a permanent colony in Virginia.

Before sending a group to colonize Roanoke and its environs, Raleigh wanted to reconnoiter the region. In 1584 he sent Barlowe, along with Philip Amadas, to explore the region and report back on its potential as a colony. The fleet consisted of two ships (names unknown), Amadas’s flagship and Barlowe’s smaller pinnace, and it left the West of England on April 27, arrived in America on July 2, and explored the area of the present-day Outer Banks for about two months. Then the pinnace returned to England with two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese, who became linguistic informants for Hariot, who learned from them the Algonquian language. The flagship under Amadas’s command explored further up the North American coast before heading to Bermuda and then to the Azores to hunt privateering plunder.

The First Voyage to Roanoke. 1584.

Barlowe’s “First Voyage” report is important for several reasons. Not only is it one of the earliest detailed English commercial reports written from direct observation about any place in North America, but its strikingly optimistic analysis of the region contributed to two major English disasters in Virginia: Raleigh’s failed 1585 colony under Governor Ralph Lane and the infamous Lost Colony of 1587 under Governor John White.

One of the report’s primary strategies was to create a positive image of Virginia in the English mind to support Raleigh’s future colonies. Barlowe accomplished this goal by idealizing the region. For instance, he presents a garden metaphor early in the narrative that colors the rest of the report. Barlowe writes that the English found shoal water near Virginia that “smelled so sweet, and so strong a smell, as if we had been in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kinds of odoriferous flowers.” The garden motif draws on one of the most powerful images in the Renaissance imagination, the Garden of Eden, a reference Barlowe highlights later in the report when he writes that “The earth brings forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor.” Barlowe emphasized this abundance by using the word “abundance” four times in the report. He presents further evidence of the land’s richness and Edenic qualities by pointing out that the natives raised an amazing three crops of corn during the growing season. He claims that English plants could also be cultivated in Virginia as proven by his experiment with English peas which grew fourteen inches within ten days of planting.

Barlowe also idealized the Indians, emphasizing their kindness to the English and their generosity as trading partners. He describes them as a people “most gentle, loving and faithful, voide of all guile and treason, and such as live after the manner of the golden age.” They were also ideal trading partners who would exchange their natural commodities for English finished goods at exorbitant rates.

The manner of their attire.

Once the report was written, Raleigh used it to further his colonial ambitions. It was undoubtedly circulated to people in positions of power, including the Parliament, of which Raleigh was a member; the powerful merchant community; the military; and at Court. Queen Elizabeth I knighted Raleigh on January 6, 1585, in part because of the report’s claim that an English colony could easily be settled in Virginia. To encourage his efforts, the Queen provided Raleigh with the services of soldier Ralph Lane to function as governor of the 1585 colony on Roanoke. Barlowe accompanied this voyage, as well, likely as captain of the Dorothy.

As to the report’s weaknesses, Barlowe’s claims about Virginia proved too rosy. The region was abundant with commodities, but these commodities required considerable infrastructure to exploit; and the Virginia Indians were friendly to a small exploratory force from England, but did not find a large colony of permanent invaders appealing. The failures of Raleigh’s two colonies in 1585 and 1587 were in part the result of Barlowe’s extravagant promises.

Major Work

  • “The first voyage made to the coastes of America, with two barkes, wherein were Captaines Master Philip Amadas, and Master Arthur Barlowe, who discovered part of the Countrey, now called Virginia, Anno 1584,” in Principall Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (Richard Hakluyt the younger, 1589)

Around this year, Arthur Barlowe is born.
April 27, 1584
A fleet of two ships, a flagship commanded by Philip Amadas and a smaller pinnace commanded by Arthur Barlowe, sets sail from the West of England, bound on a reconnaissance voyage to America.
July 2, 1584
An English reconnaissance voyage to America, commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe and funded by Sir Walter Raleigh, reaches the Outer Banks off the coast of present-day North Carolina.
July 13, 1584
The English exploration party led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe goes ashore somewhere on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, claiming the land "in the right of the Queens most excellent Majesty."
Mid-August 1584
The English exploration party led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe sails for England, taking along two high-ranking Algonquian Indians, Wanchese and Manteo.
Arthur Barlowe's report of an English reconnaissance voyage to America is published in Richard Hakluyt's Principall Navigations with the title "The first voyage made to the coasts of America, with two barks, where in were Captaines M. Philip Amadas, and M. Arthur Barlowe, who discovered part of the Countrey now called Virginia, Anno 1584."
Around this year, Arthur Barlowe dies.
  • Barlowe, Arthur. “Arthur Barlowe’s Discourse of the First Voyage.” In The Roanoke Voyages 1584–1590. Vol. I. Ed. David Beers Quinn. New York, New York: Dover, 1991.
  • Moran, Michael G. Inventing Virginia: Sir Walter Raleigh and the Rhetoric of Colonization, 1584–1590. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
  • Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
  • Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584–1606. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
APA Citation:
Moran, Michael. Arthur Barlowe (ca. 1550–ca. 1620). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/barlowe-arthur-ca-1550-ca-1620.
MLA Citation:
Moran, Michael. "Arthur Barlowe (ca. 1550–ca. 1620)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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