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Much ink has been spilled over the disappearance of some 100 colonists from Roanoke Island between 1587 and 1590--to which English writer Durant (Bess of Hardwick, 1978) now contributes with mixed results. Scholars and aficionados of the ""Lost Colony"" will discover, as Durant is quick to acknowledge, that his account depends almost entirely on the work of D. B. Quinn, who assembled all the pertinent documents in The Roanoke Voyages (1955) and examined the entire subject of English colonization in his monumental England and the Discovery of America (1974). Casual readers on this side of the Atlantic may be perturbed, meanwhile, by what Durant assumes they will already know about Elizabethan history--the scope and intensity of Anglo-Spanish rivalry, the court intrigues of Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, the parallel English colonization of Ireland, and the like. And both specialists and non-specialists will find Durant's ""solution"" to what became of the Roanoke colonists ingenious and provocative (they were murdered by Powhatan, he suggests, just before the founding of Jamestown), but hardly so obvious or clear-cut as he makes out. (There will almost certainly be some puzzling over the title, because Sir Walter Ralegh, nominally the sponsor of the colony, figures only incidentally in this telling of its story.) Nonetheless, Durant's account has a number of very real strengths. As popular history it is uncommonly careful and restrained--the positive side of Durant's dependence on the scholarly literature--and often as not, especially when reconstructing the horror of naval warfare or the breathtaking ineptitude of those earliest colonizers, it is excellent indeed. There are revealing portraits of some remarkable characters, among them Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville, who led the first attempt to plant a colony on Roanoke in 1585; artist John White, who led the second attempt in 1587, the one that disappeared without a trace; Simon Fernandez, the pilot who preferred privateering to the dull work of transporting colonists and their cattle; Thomas Hariot, scientist; and Richard Hakluyt, the historian. Well-chosen maps and illustrations fortify the text and dramatically reveal the changes wrought by the last four centuries along what is now the coast of North Carolina. Not always the ideal book for a general audience, in short, but the best one on Roanoke around.

Pub Date: March 18th, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum