Nikki Marmery, the author of On Wilder Seas, was inspired by a throwaway line in a 16th-century manuscript to resurrect the hidden life of an African woman taken on board the Golden Hind as spoils of – if not war, then piracy. She tells Historia how she reconstructed Maria’s life.
On Wilder Seas is the story of Maria, the only woman aboard the Golden Hind during Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage in 1577-1580. It is inspired by a single line in a browned and curling manuscript at the British Library in London, in which an anonymous sailor describes the raid of a Spanish merchant ship off the Pacific coast of El Salvador.
From this ship, it says, “Drake tooke… a proper negro wench called Maria, which was afterward gotten with child between the captaine and his men pirates, and sett on a small iland to take her adventure.”
I was pregnant when I first read this account. Perhaps that is why I was so drawn to this horrifying story of a woman, alone among men, sailing into the unknown – who survived the Pacific crossing only to be abandoned to face the great ordeal of childbirth on a desert island so far from her home.
I wanted to know everything about her. Where had she come from? What was it about her that made Drake defy his own rule forbidding women on his ships – uniquely – in her case? What happened to her after she was abandoned? But scarcely more than this brief reference exists in the historical record.
And while other details from the anonymous sailor’s narrative were used to compile the first published account of Drake’s circumnavigation, in Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nationin 1589, all mention of Maria was erased. Nor was she referenced in Purchas His Pilgrimes, which carried an account of the voyage in 1625, or in the fuller account, published as The World Encompassed by Drake’s nephew in 1628. Maria was excised from the story, presumably because it did not reflect well on Drake.
Despite this erasure, Maria’s story was not unknown to contemporaries. Fifty-eight sailors returned to England on the Golden Hind in September 1580, and gossip about the events of the voyage could not be contained.
On November 1, 1611, William Shakespeare unveiled his new play, The Tempest, at the new Blackfriars Theatre. In scenes that suggest knowledge of Maria’s plight, Sycorax, an African woman from Algiers, is abandoned by sailors, heavily pregnant on an island1. If Sycorax was inspired by Maria, it was not a sympathetic portrait:
“This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child,
And here was left by th’ sailors.”
In 1625, the first English translation of William Camden’s Annales, a history of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, was published. Camden reports the return of Drake from his circumnavigation, “to the great admiration of all men”, though he lists as a “crime layde to his charge” that he had “most inhumanely exposed in an Iland, that Negro or Black-more-Maide, who had beene gotten with Child in his Ship.”
This was the sum total of all evidence about Maria for 300 years – until the archaeologist Zelia Nuttall uncovered in the Spanish archives the depositions of John Drake, Sir Francis’s nephew and his page during the circumnavigation voyage.
In 1582 John Drake had captained his own ship in the fleet of Edward Fenton’s disastrous voyage to the Americas. Marooned at the River Plate and captured by the Spaniards, he was interrogated about his famous cousin’s voyage. He said: “They ran along the coast towards Guatulco, taking, on their way, a vessel bound for Lima in which there travelled a gentleman named Don Francisco de Zarate…. [Drake] took from Don Francisco a negress named Maria and the pilot of said ship.”
In all these references, Maria appears only fleetingly. Described in objectifying, dehumanising language: a “black-more maid”; a “proper negro wench”; a passive object who is taken and set down; “gotten with child”; it is hard to see the real woman. I wanted to know what Maria would say about herself if she could; what were her motivations and aspirations?
Although the trail on the historical Maria was cold, I decided to build a picture of her by researching other women who lived similar lives – crucially, from own-voice narratives to avoid the misrepresentation that is so common when women are described by men.
It is usually vanishingly rare to find records of early modern African women speaking in their own words, but in the Spanish New World, that is not the case. Via the work of historians who have found such voices in the archives, I was able to read the words of women like Maria in colonial Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Brazil.
In this, Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World 1550-1812, edited by Kathryn McKnight and Leo Garofalo, was a fantastic resource.
Here I read the words of wily women such as Paula de Equiluz, who defended herself in a witchcraft trial in Cartagena in 1624 – afterwards living freely, having obtained her release from slavery during the trial; of Felipa de Santiago, an African woman in Seville, petitioning the crown in 1594 to travel with her three children to join her Spanish husband in New Spain; the wills of affluent free black women in Lima, and the eye-witness accounts of brutal Queen Leonor, leader of the palenque – a settlement of refugees from slavery – of Limón.
Here were canny female litigants who used Spanish law for their own ends: to protect themselves from abusive husbands, and to be reunited with enslaved spouses from whom they had been parted.
Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico by Javier Villa-Flores also helped me re-imagine a bold and active Maria. Using voices from the archives, Villa-Flores shows how enslaved people used blasphemy as a strategy of resistance.
By renouncing God, and denouncing themselves, a slave might invoke intervention by the Holy Office, which had the authority to remove a slave from an excessively abusive slave-owner. By threatening to blaspheme before a master inflicted punishment, enslaved people practised a form of ‘moral bribery’, holding the master accountable for the grave sin of blasphemy.
In my novel, I imagined Maria using this strategy herself, and later, relying on the shocking power of blasphemy to distract Drake at a crucial juncture. The language she uses to minimise her punishment: “I am an ignorant woman without judgment,” are the words of real women in similar positions, as recounted by Villa-Flores.
In these, and many other resources, I found very different possibilities for Maria from the passive, objectified woman described in the English sources.
Through these voices that echoed across the centuries, I found inspiration to reconstruct Maria as she undoubtedly was: an active and courageous woman, armed with the skills and intelligence to exert her will, despite her circumstances; a woman on a journey of her own no less important to her than Drake’s, with her own secrets, aims and motivations.
In a previous life, Nikki worked as a financial journalist, editing magazines about credit and foreign exchange trading. She now writes historical fiction from a rural village in Buckinghamshire. Read more about On Wilder Seas at nikkimarmery.com, on Twitter @nikkimarmery and Instagram @marmerynikki.
1 This possibility was first raised by Miranda Kaufmann in her 2017 book Black Tudors. Previously, David L. Cole expounded the many similarities between Drake’s voyage and The Tempest, suggesting Shakespeare, who was 16 at the time of Drake’s return in 1580, was heavily inspired by the circumnavigation voyage. Drake’s Brave New World and ‘The Tempest.’ CEA Critic, vol. 51, no. 4, 1989, pp. 40–52.
Portrait of an African slave woman, c1580s, attrib Annibale Carracci: via Wikimedia
Fragment of the Anonymous Narrative, British Library, Harley MS280 f83
The capture of the Spanish treasure-ship Cacafuego by Sir Francis Drake (the ship Maria was on) from an engraving by Friedrich van Hulsen, 1626: via Wikimedia
Vera Totius Expeditionis Nauticae by Jodocus Hondius, 1595, showing Drake’s route around the world: via Wikimedia