Mistress of the Sea

My debut novel, writes Jenny Barden, is an epic Elizabethan romantic adventure set against the backdrop of Francis Drake’s first great enterprise: his attack on the Spanish ‘Silver Train’ in Panama.

Francis Drake, national hero

The focus of his campaign was the mule train loaded with bullion in transit from the mines of Peru to King Philip II’s treasury in Spain. Panama was the weak link in the long journey – the point where the treasure had to be transported by land across the isthmus dividing the Pacific from the Caribbean and the Atlantic, and the place where the might of the armada fleets could offer no protection. After more than eight months of failed attempts and set-backs, Drake and his allies, French Huguenot privateers and black runaway slaves called Cimaroons, together enjoyed a remarkable triumph. They captured the Silver Train near Nombre de Dios with little resistance and few casualties, and Drake was able to return home, with about thirty of the seventy-three mariners who had set sail with him over a year before, and a haul in treasure amounting to a sizeable fortune.

It was enough to swell Queen Elizabeth I’s coffers and establish his reputation as a national hero. His success was the first of many and seen as a blow for independence and religious freedom against the hegemony of imperial Spain; these sea-based victories ushered in the Elizabethan Golden Age, and they heralded the rise of England as a great maritime power.

The true story behind the book is remarkable not least because Drake’s achievement came after a succession of defeats and misfortunes including the loss to disease (probably yellow fever) of over a third of his crew and the death of his two younger brothers. Personally, Drake’s career had been undistinguished up until this point, tainted by the rout of John Hawkins’s fleet at San Juan de Ulúa over four years before, which seeded Drake’s lifelong determination upon vengeance against the Spanish for reneging on their truce and thereby catching the English unprepared. His two previous attempts to seize a haul of Spanish bullion in Panama had failed; he had even scuttled his brother’s ship in order to prevent his men returning to England. Drake had nothing to keep him going except grim determination and force of personality. His eventual ‘triumph in the face of disaster’ is one of the qualities that appealed to me most in wanting to write about it.

Mistress of the Sea

But Mistress of the Sea is much more than a retelling of the history, it’s also a love story and centres on fictional characters and the challenges they face, imagining them caught up in this real-life adventure. I’ve particularly enjoyed projecting what might have happened if a woman had been involved in this escapade of men.

The factors that drew me to this relatively little-known episode in history are quite complex. My writing began with a seventeenth century Dutch artist called Carel Fabritius who worked with both Rembrandt and Vermeer. I was entranced by his self-portrait in London’s National Gallery, and his tragically young death at only 32 after the explosion of the Dutch gunpowder arsenal in his hometown of Delft. The paucity of information about him led me from enquiry to research, and the results were so fascinating I thought they’d make a wonderful novel – one which I wrote largely in secret because I didn’t believe I could ever actually complete a book, never mind a book that might be published. In fact this last assumption has so far proved correct as regards my early writing, but with that book I found an agent and several publishers who were seriously interested, and it brought me to the path I’m on now.

Another book followed about the conquistadors in South America (also inspired by a painting), and when that was turned down in acquisition meeting because it didn’t involve English characters I thought I’d write about the same period a generation later but from the English point of view. An examination of the great English seafarers who were making forays to the New World at that time led me naturally to Drake, and when I dug a little deeper into his early career and the quest for vengeance that motivated him throughout his life, I found the thrilling raid on the Silver Train that forms the backdrop to Mistress of the Sea.

The story has evolved from close scrutiny of the original accounts, both English and Spanish, and from retracing Drake’s steps in Panama as far as I was able, by which I mean going there myself and walking along the Camino Real, so much of it as remains, this being the Royal Road along which the treasure was transported, as well as taking a boat to the San Blas islands where Drake had his hideout, and exploring the site of old Nombre de Dios and the probable location of the raid. From all this and more I was able to build up a picture and bring the story alive. It’s an amazingly exciting business, part detective work, part creative invention, and I’m now in the thick of a similar process with my next novel about the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke in early Virginia.

Jenny Barden
Mistress of the Sea is available for pre-order from Amazon here: http://amzn.to/PUavyS

More details from Jenny’s site: http://www.jennybarden.com/

For a little more about the aftermath of the raid there’s a blog post here: http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/carrying-away-booty-drakes-attack-on.html

Jenny is the Co-ordinator for the Historical Novel Society’s London Conference to be held over the weekend of 29-30 September 2012 at the University of Westminster, Regent Street: http://www.hns-conference.org.uk/