The follow up to his best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg
, Giles Milton's Big Chief Elizabeth
is a sprawling, ambitious tale of how the aristocrats and privateers of Elizabethan England reached and colonized the "wild and barbarous shores" of the New World. Milton's story ranges from John Cabot's voyage to America in 1497 to the painful but ultimately successful foundation of the English colony at Jamestown by 1611. However, the main focus of the book is Sir Walter Raleigh's elaborate and tortuous attempts to establish an English settlement on Roanoke Island, in present-day North Carolina, following the first English voyage there in 1584. Scouring contemporary travel accounts of the period, Milton creates a colorful and entertaining account of the greed, confusion, and misunderstanding that characterized English relations with the Native Americans, and the violent and tragic conflict that often ensued.
Milton has a good eye for a surreal or comical story, such as the colony's first encounter with Big Chief--or Weroanza Wingina, whose exotic title "quickly captured the imagination of the English colonists, and they began referring to their own queen as Weroanza Elizabeth." The Elizabethan cast is also dazzling: the flamboyant and ambitious Walter Raleigh, who provided the money behind the Roanoke ventures; the "sober" ascetic scholar Thomas Hariot, who provided the brains; and hardened adventurers, like Arthur Barlowe and Ralph Lane, who provided the muscle. The myths and stories also come thick and fast, from John Smith and Pocahontas, to the importation of the fashion of "drinking tobacco," but the problem with Big Chief Elizabeth is that it lacks a central driving story. In the end, it reads like an entertaining, but rather labored jog through early Anglo-American history, something that has been done with greater skill and originality by, for one, Charles Nicholl in his fascinating book The Creature in the Map. Those who enjoyed Nathaniel's Nutmeg will probably like Big Chief Elizabeth, but with some reservations. --Jerry Brotton, Amazon.co.uk
From Publishers Weekly
Moviegoers who were enraptured by Hollywood's recent spate of films featuring Elizabeth I will enjoy the latest absorbing history book from British writer Milton, whose 1999 triumph, Nathaniel's Nutmeg, received much acclaim. Sir Humfrey Gilbert was an eccentric English explorer with his eye on America who convinced the queen to grant him leave to establish a colony there, but he was never successful. After his death, Sir Walter Raleigh, a court favorite, was charged with exploring the New WorldAan appointment fraught with failures and successes. Raleigh established the first British colony on Roanoke (two decades before the settlement in Jamestown), but by the time badly needed supplies arrived from England in 1591, all the colonists had unaccountably vanished. That event has inspired many theories, but Milton argues persuasively that they were killed by the avenging chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas. Nevertheless, Raleigh played a huge role in Britain's long-standing claim to America, not only by bringing settlers to lay claim to the new land but also by introducing tobacco to Elizabeth's court and turning "smoke into gold." Although Milton's historical revelations are few and he has a penchant for dramatic prose ("the paved thoroughfare lies buried beneath the dust of centuries"), he offers another entertaining read. 50 b&w illus., 3 maps. History Book Club selection. (Nov.)
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