Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Big Chief Elizabeth – How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World: Giles Milton

I’m so glad that the writing of history has improved over the years, and a good history book can be just as exciting to read as any novel. Details linking past and present add colour and interest to what is already a fascinating topic – how Sir Walter Raleigh set out on the task of settling English men and women in the New World. Covering the period from 1582 until 1616 by which time the colony of Jamestown had become self-sufficient, the tremendous challenges facing the would-be colonists are described in detail.

The first few attempts at colonization ran into tremendous difficulties for a variety of reasons: incredibly poor planning, horrendously bad leadership, extreme bad luck in terms of the weather (hurricanes did enormous damage to the ships), and time after time the failure to choose the right people to send: the failure to send women, the failure to send anyone who knew how to cultivate crops, the failure to send people who knew anything about basic survival under tough conditions, and so on. It seems that city men in Elizabethan times were just as (or possibly more than) addicted to gluttony and the easy life as men today - it was the women who did all the work and who finally enabled a colony to survive, once someone had the foresight to send them along.

Here you will find details of the relationship between Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth, the true story of Pocahontas (not the Disney version), and the prescience of King James who wrote that tobacco made “a kitchin of the inward parts of man, soiling and infecting them with an unctuous and oily kinde of soote”. Upon his succession to the throne he quickly imposed heavy taxes on the importation of tobacco. But it was the growing of tobacco that made the colony of Virginia (named after the Virgin Queen) a viable enterprise.

I am forced to admit a terrible ignorance of American history, having always imagined that the “Pilgrim Fathers” were the founders of the English colony. Fortunately Milton has corrected my misperceptions, and I now know that the Pilgrims were only the second colony, founded almost twenty years after Jamestown. An excellent read, and I look forward to correcting misperceptions on other matters of historical interest thanks to Milton.