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Fictionalising history

On Wilder Seas is the story of Maria, the only woman aboard the Golden Hind with Sir Francis Drake during his circumnavigation voyage. Inspired by an eye-witness account describing Drake’s raid of a ship off the Pacific coast of New Spain, the unknown sailor tells us: “Drake tooke out of this ship… a proper negro wench called Maria which was afterward gotten with child between the captain and his men pirates and sett on a small iland to take her adventures.”

Although other eye-witnesses add some few details, this fleeting reference is pretty much all we know about Maria. All we can be sure of is that she joined the Golden Hind on April 4, 1579 from the ship of Spanish nobleman Don Francisco de Zarate; she was aboard for Drake’s exploration of North America and his aborted attempt to find the Northwest Passage above America; and that she was abandoned, heavily pregnant, on an island in the East Indies, eight months later on December 12.

In writing Maria’s story, I set myself the challenge of sticking to the facts, where they could be ascertained, and fictionalising in the space between them. But I soon found that when it comes to Drake’s famous voyage, facts are few and far between.

Histories of the Golden Hind are based on the earliest published accounts: the first appeared in 1589, in Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation. A fuller account, The World Encompassed, was published by Drake’s nephew in 1628.
Both were heavily censored; Maria is not mentioned in either of them. Another episode: the trial and execution of the officer Thomas Doughty, accused of treason and beheaded at Port San Julian in July 1578, has been heavily edited in Drake’s favour, compared to eye-witness testimony.

A further indication of the unreliability of these accounts is the mystery surrounding the location of Drake’s colony Nova Albion. In Hakluyt and The World Encompassed, the colony where Drake and his crew lived for five weeks in the summer of 1579 is located at 38° N – in California, where Drake’s Bay is today.
But eye-witnesses placed it at 44°-48°N – between Oregon and Vancouver. This is also where it is located in contemporary maps made by cartographers who knew Drake, and on the Molyneux Globes, which were first published in 1592 by Emery Molyneux, who knew and had sailed with Drake.

It appears that in the written accounts cleared for publication in Elizabethan England and in the following decades, the location of the colony was revised – most likely to prevent the Spaniards from learning how far north Drake had sailed, and that he had been seeking the NorthWest Passage, which would give the English a shortcut route to challenge Spanish power on the American Pacific coast.

As a result, there is very little we can be sure of about Drake’s exploration of North America. While this is a problem for a historian, it is a gift for the novelist. It enabled me to fictionalise more fully in my portrayal of Drake in Nova Albion; it is where Maria’s story can live and breathe.

Thus, in my novel, Drake’s colony is sited on or near Vancouver Island, rather than California. I explored the idea of first contact between Drake’s English sailors and the First Nations peoples in this part of North America – but seen purely through the eyes of a woman unconnected to either culture. It gave me the freedom to imagine a far more shocking end to the colony than is suggested by the sources.

As for Maria’s fate, she sailed on from Nova Albion to cross the Pacific Ocean with Drake. The historical record leaves her about to give birth on Crab Island, 1 degree 40 minutes south of the equator, just east of Sulawesi. We cannot know if she survived the birth, or the exposure on a waterless, deserted island.

Here then, was another gap in the record – and one I was glad to fill with my own interpretation. I believe there was something special about Maria: it can be seen in the space between the facts; in what is left unsaid in the records.

Something about her was sufficiently compelling that Drake defied his own rule forbidding women on his ships – uniquely in her case – and permitted her to stay aboard for so long. During the course of my research, I learned about so many courageous, ingenious and resourceful women, living lives like Maria’s in the colonial New World. They gave me the confidence to trust in Maria’s ability to overcome her situation – and imagine her forging an alternative ending for herself than is suggested by the historical facts.

This article first appeared as a guest post on Tony Riches' historical fiction blog.

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In conversation with Natalie Grueninger

Writers Forum Magazine

Where I write

Phil Barrington chats to Nikki Marmery, author of On Wilder Seas

When my children were small, I had one day a week for writing, and could only write at the British Library, where it is wonderfully quiet, the chairs are comfortable, and a rare edition of a crucial 16th-century text is only ever 40 minutes away. Now they’re at school and my mind is my own again, I can write anywhere.
I use Scrivener, which keeps research and drafts in one place. It syncs between laptop and phone, so I jot down fragments of sentences on dog walks, research on trains and in queues, and write wherever inspiration strikes.
I have a writing room but it’s often too messy to write in. My desk is the epicentre: where I keep all the books, printouts, edits and anything else I’m working on. From there I work throughout the house during the day and on field trips to coffee shops.
My writing room used to the dining room. I annexed it about two years ago, when everyone was out. With three boys our mealtimes were far from a ‘dining’ experience, so we now eat in the kitchen off a wipe-clean tablecloth. I’ve spent much of the past 12 years either pregnant or looking after small children. It’s hard to maintain a sense of self during those years. My room helps me reassert who I am. It’s where I do what matters to me, not in service of my family.
I don’t like anyone going in there. The mess is carefully curated, Luckily the door screeches if anyone opens it, acting as an early warning signal. The window looks out on to the garden. We live in a rural village so there are often muntjac to look at, or pheasants, or my dog Brearley, barking at muntjacs and pheasants.
The most unusual thing in the room is my desk. I write historical fiction and am hugely drawn to historical ‘stuff’. The desk was my dad’s. Everyone else hated it, so years ago, when I bought my first flat, the desk came with me.
It was only after I wrote my novel On Wilder Seas that my dad told me it had originally belonged to his grandfather Sydney, a 19th-century sea captain – and circumnavigator. He hadn’t mentioned this before, even though I’d spent the past seven years writing a book about Sir Francis Drake.
Sydney’s diary of his voyage around Cape Horn is eerily similar to the diary of Francis Fletcher, chaplain on the Golden Hind, who documented the same voyage 300 years earlier. They discuss the same flying fish, petrels and ‘molly auks’.
Why was I do drawn to this story? Was it in my blood – or in my desk?
Now I keep Sydney’s photo on view as a reminder of what Dirk Gently called the interconnectedness of all things.
Most of my years of research is on the laptop, but I’ve lots of secondhand books, postcards from research trips, and a replica model of the Golden Hind. I keep a copy of the map that Drake consults in my novel above my desk, for reference and because I love old maps – especially with mistakes on them. This map shows Australia and Antarctica as one massive landmass, Terra Australis Nondum Cognita – the Southern Land Not Yet Known – which plays a part in my novel. It also shows the mythical island of ‘Brasil’ off the southwest coast of Ireland. The island appeared on maps well into the 19th century, when it finally became clear that it didn’t actually exist.
Having a writing room says: ‘This is what I do.’ It’s somewhere to keep books, maps, latest drafts. It provides a physical location for what can be an abstract notion. If you’re thinking in your writing room, it’s clear to any passing observer that you are in fact doing the important work of ‘writing’ and are absolutely not available to unload the dishwasher.

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Writers Forum

Events

STOCKHOLM WRITERS FESTIVAL:  STOCKHOLM

I will be appearing in a panel of debut authors and leading a session on researching hidden women in history.

May 22-24 2020 | Finlandshuset