LIKE GILES Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg, which was really a popular history of the spice trade, Big Chief Elizabeth is really a popular history of the early attempts to plant an English colony on the mainland of what is now the United States. If his titles indicate Milton's distance from academic writing, the character of the prose is unequivocal. These books are rattling good reads. There is just something about adventure on the high seas that brings out the Boy's Own in this writer, and this reader.
Yet Milton has taken as his raw material the same unpromising documents that any academic historian would begin with: the journals of captains, merchants and mercenaries, dry state papers, geographical prospectuses and scientific treatises. Out of it he has woven a tale of high adventure and low farce, court intrigue and royal romance, maritime misadventure and the chaotic exercise in survivialism that constituted transatlantic colonisation.
Court intrigue and romance are both provided by Queen Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh. Trading sonnets for sinecures, Raleigh amassed a fortune and spent a good chunk planning the creation of an American colony. Around him he gathered an eclectic slice of Elizabethan England. The grizzled Ralph Lane, who learnt colonising in Ireland, would be the first Governor of the Colony of Virginia - a man never happier than when reduced to his last maggot-infested biscuit. Richard Grenville would command the first two fleets that carried colonists westward in the mid-1580s, but was diverted by the lure of Spanish treasure. He would die leading a single ship against a Spanish fleet of 53.
Thomas Harriot was the mad scientist. Mathematician, geographer and linguist, Harriot was Raleigh's in-house Renaissance man. In addition to compiling enormous amounts of information and misinformation about the Americas, he learned, translated and transcribed the complex Native American language, Algonkian. That he was able to rested on the capture of two Indians on the first Raleigh-backed mission to Virginia. The book's sensitive, artistic type is John White. An accomplished watercolourist, he exchanged his paint- box for the governership of Virginia, but lost his daughter and his pride in a disastrous second expedition that left a hundred colonists abandoned.
The account of these failed attempts to establish a permanent colony on the island of Roanoke, off the Carolina coastline, takes up most of Big Chief Elizabeth. It offers both humour and enlightenment on just how difficult it is to colonise populated territory 3000 miles from base with pre-industrial technology. Tiny, slow and insanitary ships had only the most primitive navigational techniques; food preservation technologies only worked by making the food almost inedible. …