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Thursday, 6 December 2012

At Drake's Command - David Wesley Hill

In 1999 I was one of the winners of the Writers of the Future Contest. We were invited to Los Angeles for a week-long writing workshop conducted by Algis Budrys and Dave Wolverton.. One morning our group was let loose in the aisles of the LA Library to browse the shelves in search of inspiration. I was mildly interested in pirates and began reading a facsimile edition of The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake.

This was not written by Drake himself but published by a nephew thirty years after Drake's death in an effort to keep alive Drake's reputation. While thumbing through the book, I came across an interesting passage. On an island off the coast of Patagonia, Drake charged one of his crew with treason and mutiny. Forty men were chosen as jurors and a trial was held. The accused, Thomas Doughty, was found guilty. Drake gave Doughty three options:

1. To be returned to England to face punishment
2. To be left behind in South America
3. To be executed

Given these choices, Doughty replied: "Please, do not return me to England since I am a gentleman and do not want to be shamed before my queen. Do not maroon me here, either, since I am a good Christian and I do not want to lose my faith among the heathen. No, general, I ask you to exercise the third option."

Drake obliged and cut off Doughty's head. Then he held it up by the hair and said, "Lo, here be the end of traitors."

Upon reading this, I said to myself, "This is utter mendacity." So I embarked on a course of research  to uncover the real story of what had happened on that bleak island (Drake called it the "Island of Truth and Justice" but the crew had another name for it: "The Island of Blood").

During the next four years I studied all of the major accounts of Drake's life and the circumnavigation, starting with The World Encompassed and including Corbett's Drake and the Tudor Navy and Wagner's Voyage Around the World. An 8-volume edition of Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations was an invaluable resource, too, since it contained much about Drake. At one point I ordered facsimiles of source material  from the British Library so that I could examine the original text.  Google Earth has also been an amazing tool, allowing me to retrace Drake's route almost day by day.

Eventually, I succeeded—at least, to my own satisfaction—in understanding what had actually transpired on that awful day in 1578. My first inclination was to write a non-fiction book about the Doughty affair. I am, however, a fiction writer, so I decided to tell the tale in novel form while paying meticulous respect for historical accuracy.

Cover Art: "The Golden Hinde off New Albion" by Simon Kozhin


Tinney Heath said...

I love that line: "This is utter mendacity." I know that feeling, when you come up against something in the historical record that makes you say, "Whaaaa-?" You appear to be a researcher after my own heart; I think I'd like to read this book.

Julie K. Rose said...

I've lived in the SF Bay Area for almost 30 years, and in fact just stayed in Albion, CA on a holiday. I've often heard the stories about Drake and New Albion; looking forward to digging into your book to learn more about the man!