Before there were pious pilgrims, there were bold merchants

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Poor planning, foolhardy leadership, and rotten weather brought down the plans of those 16th-century English merchants who hoped to plant colonies on North American soil. They were adventurers and gentlemen, dreamers and schemers, but their several attempts came to nothing, all devolving into chaos, cannibalism, and bankruptcy.

However, their stories - of Indians, monsters, bright red sheep and rabbits, and gold, silver and crystal - fired the next generation with a rare enthusiasm, and this colonial dream became the passion of one of England's most feted courtiers and notable seamen, Sir Walter Ralegh (original spelling).

He was an extraordinary man: a courtier, navigator, financier, explorer, merchant, privateer (the polite term for pirate), civil servant, soldier, and renowned poet. He was beloved of Elizabeth I, yet he died a traitor's death.

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Ralegh is, of course, one of those characters from history who is so much bigger than life and who achieved so much that it seems daft to try to contain him within the pages of a single volume. It was this same Ralegh who convinced the queen that by granting him the sole right to claim, explore, and settle North America in her name, she would have riches untold. (He must have been some talker.)

Thus, nearly 500 years ago, a small group of white men landed on the shores of North America and named it Virginia (for the Virgin Queen). Their purpose was to capture some natives and bring them to England to learn their language and everything else they could about the country they wished to colonize.

Ralegh's brainchild succeeded. Within the space of a few years, he had planted a colony of Englishmen on Roanoke Island, Virginia.

But this incredible episode of early American history, this sequence of brave, foolish, daring ventures (no less daring or daunting to them than the first ventures into space in the 1960s) is just the opening of Giles Milton's exciting "Big Chief Elizabeth," which chronicles the century-long battle to establish a permanent settlement in Virginia

From the outset, the colony's success was hardly assured: Infertile land, famine, incompetent or brutal governors, appalling storms, lost provisioning ships, and the war with Spain at home, all militated against any early or easy success. Nor were the relations with the native Americans one dimensional either: Under the guidance of the big chief, Powatan, the natives were reluctant hosts and frequently hostile neighbors.

Milton relates this astonishing saga of courage, derring-do, and endurance with all the gusto and relish of a "boy's own" adventure novel. Though never coy about the hardships, nor indeed about the tortures inflicted by Powatan's warriors upon their English captives, Milton doesn't revel in the gruesome or gory details. Neither does he lose sight of the colonists' essential Englishness and the ties that bound them to England - these were not settlers in the later sense of the word.

But Milton's talent for encapsulating the essence of character is perhaps his greatest asset, given the large number of key players in this vast historical drama. And they're all here - Ralegh, John Smith, Pocahontas, the bullish Ralph Lane, and the lexicographer Thomas Harriot, whose alphabet of Algonquin has puzzled and intrigued scholars for years. Milton succinctly fills in their backgrounds and all that they gained and lost in pursuit of this dream. Along the way, he also reveals the fate of the lost settlers of Roanoke.

In less capable hands, a history of this scope and breadth would probably have become muddled in a minutiae of detail, obscuring one of the most riveting tales of our past. But Giles Milton is a great storyteller, and "Big Chief Elizabeth" is a great story. With history like this, who needs fiction?

Melissa Bennetts is a freelance writer living in England.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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