The History Man

The Complete Works Part II (at last)

Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg was one of my favourite reads last year, so when I found a copy of his earlier The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville I snatched it up and started reading immediately, despite not knowing who Sir John actually was.

Mandeville was, it turned out, a major figure of English literature almost completely written out of history by the Victorians, who knew better (they thought) about his fanciful claims of travelling to the Holy Land and the Far East in the fourteenth century. Mandeville’s account of his journey, known simply as The Travels, influenced readers from Columbus to Keats, and on discovering it himself Milton set out to determine how much of it was true.

The result is a highly readable blend of history and travelogue, with Milton’s late 20th century journey intermingled with Mandeville’s mid-14th. Gradually, Milton confirms the truth behind the clues left by Mandeville, by visiting ancient monasteries and churches in Turkey, Cyprus, Syria and Israel. As he travels, he peels back nearly seven hundred years of accumulated history to find lingering traces of medieval times; traces which, in some instances, are only barely visible. In one case, a single priest is all that keeps an ancient monastic tradition alive; in another, a few Northern Cypriots’ vague memories of an old eccentric are all that remains of perhaps the last in a line of medieval Christian kings. In the most striking passage, Milton stays at a remote monastery in the Sinai Desert virtually unchanged since Mandeville’s day.

The second half of Mandeville’s Travels was, by contrast, full of fantasy and borrowed fable, all of which led to his dismissal by later generations. But Milton unlocks the riddles of these fables too, leaving the reader convinced that Mandeville deserves a place in the annals of travel and literature alongside Marco Polo and Chaucer—not least because his popular tales persuaded a certain Italian that travelling to the East by sailing West was a good idea.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg also pointed to the significance of past voyages and distant places in the founding of modern America; but Milton’s third book, Big Chief Elizabeth: How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World, deals with its founding head-on. A story full of familiar names—Elizabeth, Walter Ralegh, Francis Drake, Pocahontas and King James the First—becomes intriguingly exotic in Milton’s hands. Drawing on prodigious primary sources, he fills the pages with lurid tales of horror and hardship, all the more engrossing in their original Elizabethan spelynges. None of the horror is gratuitous, though; it’s an essential part of showing how precarious the early settlement of Virginia was. And the horror came from (and to) both the English and the local tribes. The almost complete extermination of the first waves of settlers was met in turn by the stern brutality of their subsequent reinforcements.

As compelling as its stories of early Virginia are, Big Chief Elizabeth is equally as interesting as a portrait of England and its rulers in the sixteenth century. The skirmishes against the Spanish which led to the Armada, the vibrancy of Elizabethan London and the confidence and curiosity of its people, and the contrast between the opulent Elizabeth and her slovenly, dour successor James the First, add vital context to the struggles of the first Virginians. In the end, the hero of the book is as much sixteenth century England as the adventurers it produced.

It’s a period which clearly fascinates Milton, and with stories like these it isn’t hard to see why. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg also focussed on those years, as does his fourth book, Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan. Samurai William is the story of the first Europeans in Japan, in particular William Adams, an English navigator who only just made it to the country’s shores and ended up as the mediator between Europe’s traders and Japan’s warlords. Skilfully playing off rivalries between the English, Dutch and Portuguese, Adams accrued considerable power and status in Japanese eyes, and more than once rescued England’s factory at Hirado from disaster.

By telling Adams’s story, Milton tells also of the beauty and brutality of Japan at the beginning of the seventeenth century—a place of great refinement but also cruelty, where the threat of the sharpened blade was never far away. This was no land of easily outgunned tribes: Japan was more than a match for the greedy, squabbling nations of Europe, and once Adams was gone it rejected them altogether, closing its doors to the world for two hundred years. Milton’s achievement is to show how pivotal one remarkable Englishman was in keeping the doors open for as long as they were.

After hunting down his first four books, I’m more than happy to follow Milton to whatever time and place he takes us; his newest, White Gold, about the North African white slave trade in the eighteenth century, sounds just as intriguing. I’m looking forward to hearing him talk about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Here’s what people said about this entry.

And very interesting his talk was. Full of healthy doses of barbarism and intrigue. Can’t wait to read it. It was fun getting my copy of Samurai William signed, too.

Added by Rory on a Tuesday in August.