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VINE VOICEon 6 February 2003
Giles Milton tells the story of the early English colonisation of North America in this account. What really shines though is the sheer incompetence of the early settlers, their inability to till the earth, and their ignorant treatment of the native americans. Despite the ambitious and swashbuckling plans to colonise the new world in the name of Queen Elizabeth, they failed to bring adequate supplies and opted for a bad initial location.
Being from Ireland, where Sir Walter Raleigh had many estates around Youghal in Cork, I am familiar with the man, but I had not realised the extent of his involvment in this extraordinary tale. Raleigh, and his compatriot, Herriot shine though as men of vision and ability in the midst of all the foolishness, even though Sir Walter was not above pandering to the VIrgin Queen when required.
An interesting read that well ilustrates a piece of history that many of us might not be very familar with.
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on 4 September 2001
Having read, and thoroughly enjoyed Nathaniel's Nutmeg I looked forward to reading Big Chief Elizabeth. I was not disappointed. The book is written in a swashbuckling manner that takes you to the bridge of many an English Galleon as Britain tried to push forward the boundaries of her Elizabethan Empire. Detailing the rise and fall of an English hero, Sir Walter Ralegh, the book takes you to Roanoke and the first contact with Native American Indians. It tells, in full bloody detail, the way in which the trust of these natives was first gained and subsequently lost. It is a story of greed and betrayal, of hardship and suffering and details the true frontier spirit that drove the explorers of the Elizabethan Court.
If you enjoy reading about the characters that played a major role in shaping our history, you will certainly be captivated by this enthralling story.
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on 8 February 2002
Many people on both sides of the Atlantic will have some vague knowledge of England's first attempts to colonise North America. This book gives us a very good feel for the mood of the time, as England embarked on a ferocious and daring campaign of piracy and settlement which challenged and finally eclipsed Spain's supremacy on the ocean.
Perhaps the author should give some more information about the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, especially the plantation of Munster which was a testing ground for many of those who later founded the colonies in America, especially the extraordinary courtier Walter Ralegh, poet, courtier and adventurous pirate.
Overall, I found this book a very good reminder of half forgotten events, and a really excellent portrayal of the people on both sides of the Atlantic whose lives were shapen by the colonial experiment.
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Even better than Milton's celebrated Nathaniel's Nutmeg and Samurai William, this scrap of American history plays like a sci-fi tale of colonists seeking out a "new world". The human tragedy of Europe's first interaction with the original Americans is palpable. History, which to me as a child was ever dull and tortuous, comes to life in this modern swashbuckler.
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VINE VOICEon 25 May 2011
A highly readable account of the early attempts by Englishmen to colonise the North Eastern part of what is now the United States in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It starts from unfamiliar ground - an attempt by one Richard Hore as early as 1536 to capture a native American and bring him back to England. The attempt at capture failed but Hore did get there, so the first Englishman achieved that distinction a few decades earlier than is perhaps generally realised. The book retraces the landings of the various groups of adventurers and colonists in the Roanoke and Chesapeake Bay areas in the 1570s and 80s, and their often (but not always) bloody history of conflict with the native Americans. The fortunes and fate of the lost colony of 1587 are well covered and the epilogue arrives at a plausible conclusion as to their fate. The instrumental role of Pocahontas in finally achieving peace between the main tribes and the settlers is well covered. A great read, marred only slightly by a lack of reference notes (though the bibliography is fine) and the fact that the provenance of some of the illustrations is not clear and/or they are not positioned at the logical place in the text.
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on 25 November 2000
Everyone knows a little about English colonisation of the United States. We've all heard of Sir Walter Raleigh and Pocahontas. But here is the full story, an epic tale told at a cracking pace with all the excitement of a great novel. By using the words of the original participants, Milton allows us to feel their hope, greed, disappointment, misery, triumph and terror. This is history as you wish you'd been taught it at school - riveting from the first page to the last.
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on 29 April 2010
Big Chief Elizabeth is an interesting tale of the various attempts by English adventurers to establish colonies in America. Most of the attempts failed, mainly due to greed, laziness, arrogance and naivety, and faded away into obscurity. Some colonies, particularly the Ralegh colony established on Roanoke Island, entered into notoriety as the colonists, after their Governor sailed back to England, disappeared without a trace (bar a single carving on a tree).

The colonisation attempts in the Chesapeake Bay and Roanoke Island forms the centrepiece of Milton's book, but he sets the stage by introducing the personalities and rogues that led the Elizabethan efforts to establish a wealthy colony in America. The key rogue was Sir Walter Ralegh, sometime privateer and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Ralegh firmly believed the future lay in the distant shores of North America. But others played key roles in this saga: Sir Humpfrey Gilbert, Sir Richard Grenville, Manteo, the native American who told the English what they wanted hear, and of course the daughter of one of the Indian chiefs, Pocahantas, who married John Rolfe, but not before she entered popular history by saving the life of Captain John Smith.

There was a false expectation of fame and riches to be found in America, and many impoverished nobles seized the opportunity to make their fortune. However, their efforts came to naught, not least due to the tendency of the aforementioned nobles to shy away from the backbreaking work of establishing the infrastructure required for a successful colony, such as building houses and tending to food crops. This work was left to the common folk, but many of these lacked the necessary expertise to eke out a life from the soil, having been recruited from the cities. Milton discusses the trials and tribulations of these early settlers, and the mistakes they and their leaders made. One of the biggest blunders, and one that the English took a long time to learn, was the importance of fostering good relations with the natives. This was critical, as due to the settler's failure to successfully exploit the available food resources, there was a great reliance on trading with the natives for food. Nonetheless, from these pioneering efforts in the Chesapeake, the Jamestown colony was born, the first permanent settlement in America.

This is the story of the settlers, pioneers and adventurers that formed the core of the Elizabethan colonisation efforts. Milton writes in an easy and generally non-academic manner, making the material much more accessible. There are also numerous illustrations, mainly of the key characters in this saga. I find it annoying that some authors of exploratory type works such as this book do not include maps for the reader's reference. Doing so makes it much easier to get a sense of the location and travels of the protagonists. However, Milton has avoided this mistake by including a couple of maps of the key areas discussed.

Overall, Big Chief Elizabeth is an enjoyable book and will increase the reader's awareness of the first colonial efforts in America.
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on 21 July 2003
Giles Milton brings history to life in an entertaining and fascinating manner.
Using letters and surviving documents of the period, the writer brings to life all the players in the story of England's attempts to colonise the New World. With the storytelling skill of a great novelist, this book will amuse, suprise and occasionally shock, as the courage, stupidity and brutality of the period unravel.
From Walter Raleigh to Pocahontas, this book has it all!
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on 19 May 2015
'Big Chief Elizabeth' is Milton at his best. Witty, exciting, appalling at times (we are talking the late 16th/early 17th century here, so fans of blood and gore are well served), this is the story of a few generations of 'gentleman adventurers' who sailed to America to do their adventuring, only to die miserably (most of them) or start tobacco plantations (the few survivors). Adventuring is not for sissies, clearly, and the high proportion of 'gentlemen' among the early colonists did pose some interesting problems. Their appetite was tuned to courtly food rather than the raw fare they had to settle for on board ships as well as in the colony; also their gentlemanly mentality was very much at odds with the back-breaking work needed to build up a colony. Adding to the unsuitability of much of the personnel, there were the problems with the indians (unhelpfully provoked by the colonists) that made the very survival of the settlement a close-run thing.

Even if you already know all about Roanoke Island, Jamestown and Pocahontas, Big Chief Elizabeth is still extremely enjoyable if only for its vivid depiction of life in Elizabethan times. It is impossible not to be captivated by this book. Buy & read!
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This book explores the Elizabethan colonisation of North America, stretching from John Cabot's voyage in 1497 up to the finally successful settling of Jamestown in 1611 - although the real focus of the book is Walter Ralegh's repeated efforts to establish a permanent colony at Roanoke. You have to admire his persistence, and that of the colonists - no fewer than four attempts were made, most ending in death and starvation and disaster.

This isn't an especially scholarly read, and I do question some of Milton's conclusions - most particularly his confident assertion about what happened to the colonists who disappeared from Roanoke. Surely if the answer was so easily discovered it wouldn't have been a mystery all this time? However, I digress.

This is an immensely entertaining read, fast-paced, lively-told, and full of an extraordinary cast of characters, from Ralegh himself, to Grenville and John White, John Smith and Pocahontas, Manteo and Powhatan. I could have done with a bit more depth and detail, but it serves for a light introduction to the era.
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