Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review

"Thomas Hariot, Science Pioneer"
by Ralph C. Staiger

Ralph C. Staiger’s “Thomas Harriot Science Pioneer” was written primarily for middle school and high school students. I read it hoping to glean some information about Harriot that is missing from the various secondary sources that I have read about English settlement attempts in the 1580s at Roanoke Island (inside North Carolina’s Outer Banks). I have a better understanding now of how and why this young man of common birth became such a trusted associate of Walter Raleigh. I appreciate more Harriot’s uniqueness. A lifelong bachelor, he cared little for social conventions. He had an extraordinary need to discover the why of things. He was a problem solver. What he achieved was the end product of imagination, disciplined observation, and precise data collecting. His range of inquiry encompassed mathematics, navigation, alchemy, linguistics, shipbuilding, ballistics, ciphers and codes, and astronomy.

Walter Raleigh had need of such a person in 1584 as he was putting together an exploratory voyage to the New World. I found it interesting how Harriot became known to Raleigh. Raleigh wanted to find a suitable location to establish a colony and a permanent way-station for English privateers before or after they raided Spanish treasure ships sailing past the West Indies from Mexico and Central and South America. He sent Harriot on this first voyage mostly because of the young man’s advanced theories about navigation but also, probably, to have a pair of very inquisitive eyes to assess the location explored and the native population encountered.

Harriot was a vital member of the 1585 voyage, which established a military colony on Roanoke Island. Almost all of what we know today about the Pamlico and Albemarle Sound areas and the native people then comes from Harriot’s detailed report to Raleigh written after his return to England in 1586. Ralph Staiger summarizes adequately what Harriot detailed in his report. He provides nothing beyond what historians in greater detail provide.

The remainder of the book tells us about Harriot’s activities from 1587 to his death in 1621. He assisted Raleigh by helping to organize his patron’s Irish estates and by keeping accurate Raleigh’s extensive and complex financial records. He visited Raleigh during the years of Raleigh’s imprisonment in the Tower of London. Harriot profited greatly from the patronage of Raleigh’s friend, Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland. In 1597 the Earl provided Harriot a house on his estate adjacent to his residence, Syon House, three hours by boat from London. This permitted Harriot to conduct his observations and research in total privacy. Additionally, it removed him physically from his and Raleigh’s enemies, who were accusing Harriot of being a “conjuror” and atheist, charges that eventually put Northumberland in the Tower. Staiger presents additionally several chapters about Harriot’s scientific achievements. Not being too technical in his explanations, Staiger succeeds in portraying Harriot as a remarkable, today unrecognized scientist.

This book added a bit more to my knowledge of Harriot. It did not provide as much information about the two voyages and the 1585-1586 settlement as professional historians do. There is much I would like to know about certain events and activities at and about Roanoke of which Harriot probably was a participant. No book offers this information because no original source apparently exists that provides it.

I did not like Staiger’s reference to and occasional use of what historians consider a bogus journal, supposedly written by Harriot’s Latin grammar school friend, Thomas Buckner, who may have been Harriot”s companion in America in 1585 and 1586. Such a journal could have provided much of the missing information I seek. The fact that historians give no credence to this “journal” leads me to believe that it is a hoax and Staiger has been irresponsible for using it as a source.