Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Guest post from Jenny Barden: Drake's First Great Enterprise - the Tragedy behind the Triumph

I'm happy to welcome Jenny Barden to the blog. Her debut novel Mistress of the Sea, published on Thursday by Ebury/Random House UK, is described as "an epic, romantic swash-buckling adventure set at the time of Francis Drake." It begins in Plymouth, England, in the year 1570, as Ellyn Cooksley stows away aboard Drake's expedition ship the Swan, disguised as a cabin boy, and begins an adventurous and life-changing journey to the New World.

Jenny is also the coordinator of the 2012 Historical Novel Society conference, to be held in London in a month's time, and I'm pleased she was able to take time from her schedule to compose such a detailed and informative post!  The photographs included below are Jenny's, taken on her travels, and the map of the region is her composition as well.


Drake's First Great Enterprise - the Tragedy behind the Triumph
by Jenny Barden

It's easy to think of a daring escapade such as Drake's attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train' in 1573 as a rip-roaring adventure and overlook the suffering which lay behind it and the cost in lives lost. But Drake's success came at a heavy price, indeed it was born of tragedy, and tragedy dogged the enterprise right up until the moment he left Panama for Plymouth with his fabulous haul in booty.

What motivated Drake in his first venture against the Spanish, and for the rest of his life right up until the defeat of the Spanish Armada and beyond, was a desire for vengeance for what he saw as the treachery which led to the rout of John Hawkins' fleet at San Juan de UlĂșa in 1568. Hundreds of English mariners were killed in this fiasco when the Spanish reneged on their truce and launched a surprise attack on Hawkins' ships while they were at anchor undergoing repairs following a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Also lost were the hostages held by the Spanish as surety for the truce, and the Master of the Queen's flagship, Robert Barrett, a brilliant seaman and Drake's cousin, who was seized after a parley. Most of the English ships were destroyed or overrun, including the flagship along with those left on her, amongst them was Hawkins' nephew, Paul, who was only a boy. 

Map of the Spanish Sea and Spanish Main, 1570.  Click to see larger version

All these captives were destined for long imprisonment, some for forced labour, and others for cruel death after examination by the Inquisition. Robert Barrett was eventually burnt at the stake. Many more men died later of starvation or at the hands of Indians when they were put ashore from the overcrowded Minion, the largest of only two ships to escape, and even then, when the Minion eventually limped back home, most of the men left aboard were desperately sick, those who had not died of thirst or hunger on the way. The other ship to escape was the tiny Judith and that was captained by a young seaman called Francis Drake. It was his first command of any significance.

Drake later wrote of the scars this episode left:

Fort San Lorenzo at Portobelo, built after Drake's
raid on Nombre de Dios and his attack on the
Silver Train
'As there is a general vengeance which secretly pursueth the doers of wrong and suffereth them not to prosper, albeit no man of purpose empeach them, so is there a particular indignation, engrafted in the bosom of all that are wronged, which ceaseth not seeking by all means possible to redress or remedy the wrong received.'

This is how Drake described the desire for vengeance which drove him in his enterprise to seize the Silver Train. He later presented this account to Queen Elizabeth I on New Year's Day, 1593.* He never forgot the men who were lost at San Juan de UlĂșa, and as reports of the fate of the captives filtered back to England, his bitterness only intensified.**

Drake was a driven man when he embarked on his plan to strike at the Spanish bullion supply from the New World as it was conveyed overland across the isthmus of Panama. He had undertaken two reconnaissance voyages and he had determined that the weak link in Spain's source of wealth from Peru was the point at which the treasure could not be protected by an armada, when it was on land at the poorly defended Caribbean port of Nombre de Dios, or in transit by mule train from the City of Panama through the rainforest clad mountains. But pinpointing the treasure while it was being moved about proved to be a mission fraught with difficulty.

The Las Cruces Trail - an extension of
the Camino Real, the Royal Road
Drake's first raid on Nombre de Dios in July 1572 left him seriously injured with a ball in his leg and without any spoils. His men took the town but could not break into the treasure house before a tropical storm, and heavy bleeding from Drake's wound, put an end to the attempt. Most probably there was no bullion in the city at that time because the treasure was only shipped overland from Panama after the armada from Seville had arrived in Cartagena, and only in the dry season (December to April) when the Royal Road was passable.*** But Drake did not know this - not then.

Months of frustration followed. Drake attacked shipping and settlements along the north coast of Panama all the way from the Chagres river to Cartagena but captured nothing of any great value. In one of the skirmishes his younger brother, John, was killed, shot in the stomach and no doubt dying in agony. Drake had achieved little apart from stirring up a hornets' nest. The Spanish were hot on his heels when he holed up at a secret island base in the 'Cativas', in what is now the San Blas archipelago.

A coral island in the San Blas Archipelago, known as 'the Cativas' in Drake's time
Here, Drake's men had built a stronghold on a coral island which they named Fort Diego after the Cimaroon (a runaway African slave) who had joined Drake as his ally (and was to serve him for much of his life). Months later, this place was renamed Slaughter Island because over a third of Drake's men lost their lives there - struck down by a mysterious disease they could not name or understand. Almost certainly that disease was the 'black vomit' or yellow fever. Amongst the victims was another of Drake's younger brothers, Joseph, who died in Drake's arms.

At this point Drake must have been close to despair, but he rallied his men (reduced from seventy-three to just over thirty) and, with the help of the Cimaroons, set out across county to attack the Silver Train near the City of Panama along the Royal Road. This also ended in failure when a Spanish outrider spotted one of Drake's men (reportedly drunk) and sounded the alarm causing the bulk of the convoy to double back. When Drake led his weary men back across the isthmus this was probably his lowest point. For all the ordeals he and his men had been through, for the loss of so many, including the death of his two brothers, he had nothing to show but cargoes of little worth and a catalogue of near misses and failures. His career thus far had been close to disastrous.

A view of the Panama shore near Nombre de Dios

To their fellow crewmen who had been left behind, those returning empty handed with Drake seemed 'as men strangely changed,' they recounted later*, '...and indeed our long fasting and sore travail might somewhat forepine and waste us; but the grief we drew inwardly, for that we returned without that gold and treasure we hoped for did no doubt show her print and footseps in our faces.' These were broken men; but Drake never gave up. The fortuitous arrival of French Huguenot privateers led by Guillaume Le Testu, a distinguished cartographer and explorer, provided Drake with the manpower he needed to have one final attempt on the Silver Train and seizing a fortune, this time near Nombre de Dios.

The masts of the Golden Hinde
In the critical foray only fifteen Englishmen took part, along with twenty Frenchmen and around forty Cimaroons - but what a triumph those men achieved! On 1st April 1573, Drake and his followers managed to capture a Silver Train of around 190 mules carrying almost 30 tons in silver and around half a ton of gold. Their difficulty then was carrying such a weight in treasure away, but eventually they managed to get back to their ships with most of the gold.****

Yet tragedy struck again at the very moment of Drake's victory. Captain Le Testu was felled by a blast of hailshot into his stomach, and his injuries were so severe he could not hope to make an escape. After burying most of the treasure, Drake had little choice but to leave Le Testu behind. The Spanish later found the French captain and exhibited his decapitated head in the market place in Nombre de Dios. They also tortured one of the mariners that Drake had left with Le Testu into revealing where the bulk of the treasure was buried. Drake must have mourned Le Testu's end; he was a man of singular talents who had become Drake's firm friend.

When Drake finally returned with a fortune to a hero's welcome in Plymouth, he left many brave men behind.

In my book, Mistress of the Sea, I have tried not to forget them.


Jenny Barden's Mistress of the Sea will be published tomorrow, 30 August 2012, by Ebury Press, Random House. It will be released first in hardback and trade paperback in the UK with the traditional paperback to follow.

The book is available through Amazon UK and other online bookshops, as well as bookstores throughout the UK.  Find it on Goodreads as well.

More about Jenny can be found on her website:



* compiled from the reports of the crew by Drake's preacher, Philip Nichols, later published as Sir Francis Drake Revived in 1626

** remarkably, some of these captives escaped or won their freedom and eventually returned to England with amazing stories of endurance and fortitude. Job Hortop, gunner, was marooned, marched to the City of Mexico, tried, imprisoned, sent to Seville to answer the Inquisition, condemned to serve as a galley slave for 12 years, survived to be sold into servitude, escaped, and finally returned to England after 23 years

*** there's a piece about the Royal Road, el Camino Real, here:

**** for more about Drake's escape with the booty there's an article here:


  1. Anonymous11:50 AM

    Another interesting guest post, Sarah - you really have a knack for presenting ones with substance :-) Thank to both you and the author of the post. I actually pre-ordered Mistress Of The Sea a while ago. This post makes me curious to see how Jenny Barden merges the conventions of a swashbuckler with the harshness of merciless reality. I am guessing the answer lies in the description "epic"!

    1. Yes, I also like these detail-rich historical essays - I learned a lot - and the photos Jenny sent were great. I have a copy of Mistress courtesy of her publisher and will be writing up a review in due course, though it may be a little after the conference because I have some (re)reading to do as prep for my session!

      Can I ask where you'd preordered from, if not Amazon UK? I was trying to find an additional online bookstore to list as a source for North Americans, but my usual go-to places don't have it available for ordering.

    2. Sarah - I pre-ordered my copy from Book Depository if that helps.

    3. Thanks, Melissa! Hopefully they'll have it back in their catalog again soon.

    4. Anonymous7:34 PM

      Sarah, I had the opportunity and a reason to splurge, so I ordered it via Amazon UK...

      Best of luck with the HNS conference preparations! Dare I hope you will blog a bit about your session after returning from London? In any case, my fingers will be crossed for you to have a splendid time :-)

    5. Good deal :) They're the one reliable place where I can find it now!

      And thanks! I hope to blog about the session once I'm back.

    6. When I look on the Book Depository site it says the book is available -- maybe it's not available to American customers?

    7. Hmm, nope, it isn't. But today I see US customers can get it from Book Depository via Abebooks - that's progress!

  2. Very interested in this. Thanks for this post.

    1. Glad you liked Jenny's post - if you read it, please let us know what you think!

  3. Great guest post! I received notice today that my copy of Mistress of the Sea has shipped. I'm looking forward to reading it as I love tales set on the high seas.

    1. Oh good - will you be doing a review eventually? Glad you liked Jenny's post!

    2. Yes, I plan on posting a review for this one. I haven't been very good at posting reviews this summer, but I do hope to get back in the swing of things once September rolls around :-)