Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review
"Grenville & The Lost Colony of Roanoke"
by Andrew Thomas Powell
Andrew Thomas Powell’s "Grenville & the Lost Colony of Roanoke" was the fifth secondary source that I read to prepare myself to write a historical novel about the Algonquian natives and English colonizers of Roanoke Island (coastal North Carolina) during the 1580s. Mr. Powell is a former mayor of Bideford, a port city in West Country of England. He is not a professional historian. He is rather disdainful of the historians that have written books about Roanoke. I have read most of those books and believe he is off base. I do give him credit, however, for striving to achieve his purposes. His motives are sincere. He is conscientious. What he presents misses little that is known.  His book is quite readable.

I compliment Mr. Powell, also, for the biographical information he provides about Sir Richard Grenville, a long-time resident of Bideford and important participant in the Roanoke colonial endeavors. I fault him, however, for touching briefly on Grenville’s hot-temper, down-playing it, in my judgment, in his introduction – “I found him to be a complex man who no doubt had a temper if matters did not go his way.” Powell gives one brief example of Grenville’s temper in his biographical chapter. When he was twenty, Grenville killed an antagonist in a duel, in the words of the yeoman of the deceased, “running him throughe wit his sworde.” Two other examples appear in Grenville’s official report of his 1585 voyage. Mr. Powell makes no comment about Grenville’s exhibited temper.

On the Island of St. John in the West Indies Grenville and a band of soldiers met Spanish soldiers on a swampy plain to parlay. Grenville wanted the Spaniards to provide his fleet food and water. Intimidated, the Spaniards agreed to provide Grenville what he requested. On the day appointed for that to happen, the Spaniards did not appear. Grenville had the nearby woods set on fire.

A silver cup belonging to Grenville’s scouting party was stolen by an Algonquian native of the village of Aquascogooc on the mainland off Pamlico Sound. Grenville had a subordinate officer and several soldiers return to the village to demand the cup’s return. The inhabitants of the village fled. The subordinate, acting on Grenville’s orders – I am presuming -- had the village and its corn fields burned.

The bulk of Mr. Powell’s book consists of chapters of official reports written by the leaders of the several stages of attempted colonization and the relief of such. He transcribed the reports into modern English. This is helpful. That these sources are grouped together and easily accessible is also helpful. The author provides footnoted comments here and there to add collateral information and occasional perspective, much of it useful. The reports, however, leave out (heedlessly or intentionally) certain information that historians desperately need to narrate a fuller account of what transpired. For instance, who of Governor Lane’s colony actually participated in the voyage to the Chesapeake Bay during the winter of 1585-1586? John White? Thomas Harriot? Knowing this absolutely matters. Not provided important details in original sources forces historians to search those sources for clues to that information. Thus, we have interpretation and speculation.

Powell interprets and speculates somewhat in his last two chapters. Yet he criticizes historians for doing just that. This annoyed me. Near the end of his book (pages 221-222) he writes: “for all the documentation that exists, there remains a whole raft of debates, not only about what happened to the planters’ colony of 1587, but also about exactly what interpretations should be applied to the original accounts describing the whole series of events that took place during this period in English history. One of the great problems with this is the reliance of so many modern writers on the work of David Beers Quinn in his one-time authoritative book 'Set Fair for Roanoke,' first published more than fifty years ago. [See my August 1, 2014 , Blogs about English Settlements at Roanoke 1584-1590 entry] That reliance has led to a plethora of hypothesizing which, as time has passed by, appears to have become wilder and more fanciful; so much so that it could be argued it is difficult to unearth the original story.”

Is he saying that he believes these historians are presenting interpretations as fact? I have read four of their works; they haven’t. Without exception they delineate which is what. That Mr. Thomas does not like certain interpretations should not exclude them from being presented. I welcome them. The story of Roanoke needs a more complete accounting. Their interpretations stretch my imagination. They offer me possibilities that I may choose to utilize when I write my novel.