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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, surrounded by savages of dubious intent.  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), but it was foolhardy souls like this who, in the face of staggering odds, won for Europe its new dominions.

The expense of settling Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay was largely borne by Ralegh, a pampered favorite of Queen Elizabeth.  He comes across as the one player who had a vision of what the American colonies might become and a stubborn determination to establish them.  In Milton's portrayal, he is the quintessential Renaissance man--courtier, poet, scientist, diplomat, soldier, etc.--and the hero of the tale.  Ralegh made every effort in these early years to treat the natives fairly, even making one of them, Manteo, who had been brought back to England and educated, the Lord of Roanoke.  Ultimately his peaceful policy was abandoned, but thanks to the rising demand for the tobacco which his minions had brought back with them his vision of a permanent colony became a reality, though he tragically ended up on the chopping block, beheaded by James I on a dubious accusation of treason.

Milton relies heavily on first hand accounts, many presented with their original chaotic spelling, and these take some getting used to, but they do lend the tale a greater immediacy than it might otherwise have had.  With stories of piracy, war at sea and on land, cowardice and bravery, blind luck and vicious backstabbing, there's always plenty of action and the whole thing ends with an improbable love story.  Never mind what you think you remember from those school days long ago; this is history at its exciting and informative best.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Giles Milton (2 books reviewed)
Giles Milton Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Giles Milton
-REVIEW: of Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton (John Tamny, Real Clear Markets)

Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY : Exodus from Genesis : At 17, Chris Stewart lost out on the ultimate teen dream - stardom with   Genesis. At 48, he's living the ultimate mid-life dream - of bucolic bliss  in Spain. And now he has written the book that could make him the new  Peter Mayle. Could stardom beckon again? (Giles Milton)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Nathaniel's Nutmeg
    -BOOK SITE : Big Chief Elizabeth (FSB Associates)
    -BOOK SITE : Nathaniel's Nutmeg (FSB Associates)
    -Roanoke Revisited (National Park Service)
    -REVIEW : of BIG CHIEF ELIZABETH The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America By Giles Milton (Janet Maslin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Big Chief Elizabeth (Stephen Pritchard , Books Unlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Big Chief Elizabeth (Sukhdev Sandhu, Books Unlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of NATHANIEL'S NUTMEG Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. By Giles Milton (Kevin Baker, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Steve McQuiddy, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Nicholas Lezard, Books Unlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Rachel A. Hyde, The Charlotte Austin Review Ltd)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (David Jays , ZA@Play)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, Pacific Rim Voices)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Michael Burgin, Pif Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg ( John Berthelsen, Far Eastern Economic Review)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Andrew Donaldson, Sunday Times sa)

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "walter ralegh"
    -ARCHIVES : "ralegh" (NY Review of Books)
    -Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618) (luminarium)
    -The San Antonio College LitWeb Sir Walter Ralegh Page
    -ESSAY : Sir Walter Ralegh's treason: a prosecution document. (Mark Nicholls, The English Historical Review)