British Empire Books

Big Chief Elizabeth
How England's Adventurers Gambled
and Won the New World

AuthorGiles Milton
PublisherHodder and Stoughton

Giles Milton recounts the fascinating story (or rather stories) of the English attempts at planting colonies in the New World during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He actually tracks the exploratory endeavours throughout the Tudor period from Henry VII and then finishing with James' reluctant, but ultimately successful, colonial enterprises at Jamestown from 1607. But it was during the Virgin Queen's reign that the attempts at colonisation really got underway and it the ultimate destination, Virginia, was named in her honour and with her blessing.

One of the prime movers in this story is Sir Walter Raleigh - despite the fact that he never set foot on the colony or lands that he did so much to try and put in place. Despite this lack of physical contact, he was undoubtedly the catalyst who put together several attempts, expeditions and relief fleets to try and get the fledgeling colony of Roanoke and the City of Ralegh underway. His relationship with Elizabeth was pivotal in giving him the financial ability and legal authority to put his plans into operation. He was, however, working at the limits of Tudor technology and had the added complications of local Indian tribes and the undying rivalry of the true European superpower of the age, Spain.

Milton explains just how important the strategic considerations were in choosing Roanoke as the starting point for Raleigh's empire. On the one hand, a reconnaissance trip revealed that the Indians in the area were tolerant and did not seem overly hostile to the Europeans' presence. However, its location behind sand bars was hoped to protect the fledgling colony from accidental discovery by prying Spanish ships who it was expected would seek out and destroy before it could be fully established. The location was to prove to be a fatal mistake as English ships struggled to get close enough to the colony and many of the attempts to do so ended in tragedy either for the smaller pinnaces that tried to get to and from the beaches or for the ships that had to stay out in the deep seas which meant that they were at the mercy of storms, currents and winds. Time and again, relieving ships foundered at this crucial stage. Its attempt to hide from the Spanish was prescient - and at least one attempt got very close to discovering its location - but in the end its enforced isolation was one of the prime reasons for its failure.

The author compares the failure of the Roanoke colony to the ultimate success of the Jamestown one. The dividing line between success and failure was a very thin one and often relied on the judgement of individuals or events far away from Virginia back on the other side of the Atlantic. It is an unsettling story in that the remarkably liberal attitudes (for the Elizabethan period) of Raleigh for respecting the local and existing tribal powers and trying to use persuasion rather than force were ultimately set aside for a more brute force method by the Jamestown leaders like De La Warr and Dale. There was to be a twist in the tale though as the actions of Pocahontas seemed to vindicate Raleigh's ideas and brought peace and prosperity to the fledgling Virginia colony. The prosperity was helped by the identification of tobacco as being a prime commodity that Europeans were prepared to pay highly for. War, love and tobacco make unlikely bedfellows in the telling the story of the first successful English colony in the New World.

The author is an accomplished writer who builds up the tension nicely. He turns what could have been a very dry account into a spellbinding story with a clear narrative, but one that reserves surprises for later in the story. He does speculate at times, but there is much to speculate about. The sources are necessarily incomplete with over four centuries of intervening history between us and the events, the amount he has managed to dig up and put together in a coherent manner is a testament to his talent. Another welcome addition to the book are the clear maps and illustrations which help illuminate the colony as those original planters would have done so. They are well placed and add much to the flavour of the period.

He saves the best for the end of the book where he details what 'may' have happened to the over 100 missing colonists. He drops hints and clues throughout the book but then brings these together in a fitting climax for such a mysterious event.

I recommend this book for anyone who has a real interest or fascination for early European exploration in North America.

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by Stephen Luscombe