History goes overboard

It's a rip-roaring read, but this salty tale of England's first American adventures leaves David Goldblatt feeling queasy
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Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, 416pp)

Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, 416pp)

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. All of this combined with an understandably hostile local population, catastrophic levels of ignorance, illness and indiscipline.

With the death of Elizabeth and the eclipse of Raleigh, the task fell to a tougher and more organised group of Englishmen. They headed for Chesapeake Bay in 1606, establishing Jamestown. This semi-penal boot camp would endure. Taking a sharper line with dilatory colonists and Indians, the English shot, bribed and battered their way to a permanent toehold on the continent. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Except I'm not sure that it is. I really enjoyed this book, but it left me feeeling uneasy. First, there is the problem of history and facts. I could stand the embellishing, the details of Sir Walter's starchy ruff that cannot be known but can be assumed. I could even stand the conjecture about Indian states of mind. What I could not stand is the absence of footnotes.

I know this is popular history and, yes, footnotes are a pedant's delight. But they are also a check on the imagination and a link to the evidence. It is important that the possibility of cross-reference and correction is there in a book that sails so close to the winds of fiction.

Second is a problem of context. In the end, the success and failures of this handful of individuals is but a tiny fragment of a complex picture driven by historical processes that barely disturb the galloping, character-driven narrative. In this era, the English nation-state emerges and begins to assume its classical relationship to its Celtic peripheries. Its internal coherence was forged in the fires of European war. Its ruling class was steadily shifting in composition. The role of London was growing. None of these imperial adventures can be understood without reference to these forces.

More than anything, there is a problem of tone. There are moments when the book reads like Carry on Colonialism. To be fair, there is much farce and slapstick in its disasters and privations. But one wonders whether a book could be written in quite so light a register about the colonisation of Ireland - where Raleigh, Harriot, Lane and the Big Chief herself all got their hands very dirty.

To put it another way, England's adventurers did not "win" the New World, as Milton's subtitle says. They stole it from people who lived there and worked it with the stolen labour and lives of millions of Africans. Did they "gamble"? Viewed as one of many tragic encounters of advanced agrarian civilisations with hunter-gatherers, they could hardly lose.

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