Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton

“Run out and buy a copy.” “Couldn’t put it down.” “Wish they’d make it into a movie but in the end a great book never does well on film.”

These are just a few of the many superlative remarks I offer to you about Milton’s book. And yes, this is straight-shooting. I’m not being glib or sarcastic. Don’t stop reading this review, however, because I think you’ll want to learn a little more about my endorsement of this wonderful book.

Milton tells the story of one of the biggest mysteries of early American history, the lost colony of Roanoke from the late 1580s. It’s a mystery because for generations no one knew what became of the little cluster of colonizers on what would one day be the coast of North Carolina. In 1587 John White, an artist and governor of the colony, left Roanoke and sailed to England in search of supplies for the beleaguered group. When he returned to Roanoke, all he found was a pair of rough-hewn signs, one which contained the letters “C-R-O” and the other the word “Croatoan.” As this was the name of a nearby Native American tribe, White and countless people in the following 400-plus years assumed the local Indians had killed the settlers and destroyed the village. No one really knew for sure. No one, that is, until Milton’s book of 2006 and his very plausible and persuasive explanation. I won’t tell you; you’ll need to read the book.

Milton is a skilled writer. He’ll seize your attention and interest from the first pages and won’t loosen his grip until you’ve finished the last sentence. His writing style suggests gleaming eyes, a mischievous grin, and a tilt of the head as the storyteller weaves his way through the tale. Except in this case, the storytelling is accompanied by solid research and analysis, a truly rare combination in historical books and all the more infrequent in those written about early America. Dry? Not for a minute. Dull? You’ve got to be brain-dead to think so.

On a historical level, Milton accomplishes two major things with his book. First, he shows that Elizabeth I and Walter Ralegh (that’s Milton’s spelling, and he makes a convincing case for it) were major players in the early drama of British exploration of the New World. Elizabeth I is usually known for her skill at internal British politics and geo-political intrigue in Europe. Milton demonstrates that she was also involved in British expeditions westward.

Second, Milton pushes back the date of serious British colonizing in the New World from the traditional years of 1607 (Jamestown), 1620 (Plymouth), or 1630 (Massachusetts Bay). His research should reset that time to 1585 when members of Ralegh’s expedition first splashed in the surf off modern-day North Carolina. As Milton depicts, this wasn’t some fly-by-night whim of a spoiled gigolo-aristocrat. Roanoke was the culmination of extensive work by a man with admirable courage, determination, and vision. And the colony’s history consisted of similarly remarkable experiences among its lesser-known members. Their story should be known and cast as part of the formative stages of British colonization in North America.

Several points in the book surprised me. I didn’t understand the role that religion and spirituality had in this initial episode of British western exploration and colonizing. Though I knew something of global imperial rivalries between England and other European powers, I wasn’t aware of the extensive impact they had on the Roanoke experiment, nor was I cognizant of the military side to events that affected the colony. For example, a battle along the Roanoke River in 1586 had repercussions for the fate of the Roanoke settlement. Perhaps most of all, it hadn’t occurred to me that a clear-cut and commonsensical line of inquiry could unravel the mystery of Roanoke. Milton’s book is proof of the wisdom of Occam’s Razor (which argues for simplicity in theorizing).

All of these points were pleasant discoveries for me. The biggest thrill, though, was in realizing that an event or series of events more than 400 years old would resonate so loudly in its implications for today. That should strike you as strange for me to say, given that I spend so much time helping people see the importance of history in their current lives. Why wouldn’t I already believe in the applicability of the Roanoke experience?

Here’s my answer—it’s a measure of how good Milton’s book is that I was profoundly moved to appreciate the modern-day significance of Roanoke. Sure, I would have agreed to the point on a general level. However, reading Big Chief Elizabeth made me a devout believer of the need for you to think about Roanoke’s larger meaning for your life as a leader and an American.

I’d relish the opportunity to craft a module from Milton’s book.

One of the modules, not surprisingly, would pertain to leadership. In particular, the theme ought to be the link between leadership and the evolution of a significant long-term project. That’s exactly what Roanoke was, a project requiring substantial resources, including money, energy, and time. The various leaders involved acted as a distinct and tangible aspect of the project, something that we might tend to forget. We account for timelines, materials, and the rest, including the role of leadership and management. We don’t account, tragically in some cases, for the dynamic that leaders can become a category of action and outcomes unto themselves. Regardless of the extent of agreement among various leaders on a project and its primary points, they will inevitably begin to crack the unity and coherence of the endeavor because of their different styles, abilities, and so forth. Leader A acts one way and affects the project in a particular fashion, Leader B acts another with different effects, Leader C has his or her special imprint on the project, as does Leader D…and well, I think you get the idea.

This is the point—leaders become a phenomenon just like other pieces of the project. The project proceeds and ebbs and flows according to events encountered in execution. I urge you to understand those ebbs and flows not only through examination of commonplace elements (resources, staff, alliances, etc.) but also to the behavior of leaders and leadership over time. This will help tell the story of what has happened, why it happened, and where we go from here.

It’s precisely what you see when you read about Elizabeth I, Walter Ralegh, Ralph Lane, John White, Richard Grenville, Manteo, and several others in the Roanoke project.

Another module would examine the basic leadership behaviors as seen in these historical figures. Most especially, how these leaders helped or hindered in moving followers forward to a perceived end. John White, for example, was Roanoke’s Jimmy Carter—indecisive, obsessed with negotiation, and prone to horrible luck. Walter Ralegh was the well-connected leader. His success depended on his connections and when they took a bad turn, his leadership did, too. Richard Grenville was hard-driving, fierce, and aggressive. Manteo belonged to a tribe resident in the Roanoke region, and was eager to understand the changes and opportunities evident in relations with this new group, the British. He was extraordinary in his adaptability and nimbleness of mind.

I always enjoy thinking about placing myself back at precise moments in history. I conceive of such things as either an active participant (what would I have done?) or watchful bystander (what must it have been like?). In the case of Roanoke, there are countless moments for my musing. I’ll leave you with one of them.

In 1584 Ralegh turned his home, Durham House, into a sort of colony incubator, a facility where bright people stayed and helped analyze, plan, and prepare for his upcoming expedition to the New World. Within the walls of this ancient stone mansion, with colorful tapestries hanging on the walls and large plumes of white feathers standing in pots, Durham House became a beehive of activity for this thoughtful, ambitious, enterprising, innovative, and optimistic people. I wonder what it must have been like to hear their conversations and dialogue, the meetings they had and the meetings-after-the-meetings that invariably followed. Can you envision it? And have you ever shared and joined with others in making ready an effort to accomplish something important?

Your recollection is no different than theirs.

One last comment. I’ve written a brief leadership scenario, based on a part of the Roanoke experience. I’d like you to offer your opinion on how you would act as a leader in this scenario. It will only take a couple minutes of your time and you might find it engaging. You’ll locate it on another part of my website—scroll back up this page, look for and go into Activities, and click on Challenge Your Thinking. I’ll await your answer!