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Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America Paperback – October 19, 2001

4.6 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1st edition (October 19, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312420188
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312420185
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,257,882 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on November 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Milton has followed up Nathaniel's Nutmeg with another tale of English exploration with all its hardships and heroics, vanity and violence, successes and stupidity. Big Chief Elizabeth charts England's efforts to plant a colony. It starts with the poorly planned ventures of English gentlemen (who on one voyage waited until they were several days out to sea before deciding that they might want to plan their course), but the bulk of the book is devoted to Sir Walter Ralegh's numerous expeditions. Despite it's title, the book really isn't about Elizabeth, who shows up to graciously lend her name to things or to bestow Ralegh with a new title and money to finance his adventures.
Strange deatails abound, such as the fact that tobacco was recommended as a cure for numerous diseases--especially for pregnant women and children!
Milton describes numerous colorful characters, such as Ralegh, who spent a small fortune on his clothes, James Harriot, who deciphered the Indians' language by creating an entirely new alphabet, and Ralph Lane, a colonial governor who loved nothing more than harsh conditions and privation.
A fine read.
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Format: Hardcover
When you hear the word "Roanoke," you generally think, "Oh, yeah, the lost colony," and don't give it another thought. It was just another of the dozens of colonies which were already in progress in America at the time, and the one which unfortunately didn't work out. This is what I always thought anyway, but no, it turns out to have been quite a bit more than that.

You see, Roanoke was the first English colony in America. The first. After several remarkably incompetent attempts to settle North America in the 16th century, (one of which was notable for the explorer's failure to even agree upon a route to it until they were at sea), a colony was finally established there in the spring of 1587. (Interestingly, this was almost a full 100 years after Colombus' discovery.) The colonists were left to fend for themselves in the summer of 1587, with a promise that a boat would be back within a year. But it wasn't until 1591 that a return ship finally made it, and by then all of the English colonists had vanished. The only trace of themselves left behind was the word "Croatoan," carved into a tree. This mystery endures today, although the author does a pretty good job of clearing it up.

The Roanoke story is the centerpiece of this book, which is a concise and detailed history of the failed attempts and then ultimate success of the English to colonize North America. It is a strange and utterly fascinating story. We learn of Sir Walter Ralegh (author's spelling), who was the dreamer of the project, but who was only able to finance it with the help of his benefactor, Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, his success and the success of his venture depended entirely on her, and when he fell out of favor with her in 1592, he not only lost his backing, he was thrown in jail!
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book for all of us for whom names like Roanoke, Jamestown, Francis Drake, Sir Walter Ralegh, Powhatan, Pocohontas, and John Smith are merely dim memories from grade school Colonial History studies. Giles Milton has taken a marvelously colorful cast of characters and a set of intrinsically dramatic events and made of them a wonderfully readable, genuinely exciting history of the earliest English efforts to colonize North America.
An accretion of myth has grown up around colonization, which at least implies that Europeans stumbled upon bountiful lands and picked them clean at the expense of helpless native populations. Milton's book masterfully recaptures a sense of how enormous were the risks, human and financial, which accompanied the process. The human risk was taken by the colonists and administrators who set sail for a New World which Milton amply demonstrates they knew practically nothing about. The book charts the stuttering attempts to establish a secure foothold on the Atlantic Coast, through episodes of shipwreck, starvation, murder, and war; ending with the uneasy truce reached between colonists and natives when John Rolfe fell in love with and married Pocohontas, legendary daughter of the warrior chieftain Powhatan. Lest anyone believe that the English had an easy time of all this, consider the moment when just fifteen men were left behind to hold the fort at Roanoke, alone amidst an unexplored and untamed wilderness. These men and a subsequent group of colonists famously disappeared--the lost colony of Roanoke--though Milton offers an intriguing theory of their fate in an Epilogue.
The expense of settling Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay was largely borne by Ralegh, a pampered favorite of Queen Elizabeth.
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Format: Hardcover
Giles Milton has created a book that is even better than his previous history-as-adventure book, Nathaniel's Nutmeg. Much of his style with his wonderful use of the grand adventure mixed with shocking tidbit remain but Big Chief Elizabeth is a far more focused piece of work. It does not roam the world and the centuries but cleanly focuses on the clash between two worlds: Elizabethan England and the New World. It sets up the mystery of the Roanoke lost colonists and the adventures of John Smith and Pocohontas, to name only two familiar situations within the book, within an historical framework that touches upon all the familiar characters of England and the early American colonization. But best of all, the story is told with great skill, some humour, much derring do, and sympathy for all sides. Milton is able to bring out the human elements of these almost mythical characters. This book is highly recommended for anyone who likes a good, exciting story. A fine achievement from a wonderful weaver of history.
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