I bought this book second hand some time ago and it sat quietly on my shelves. It didn't look promising, dull with its shabby cover, written in the fifties and after all about a defeat. But after I picked it up I was entranced.
It tells the story of John Hawkins's third voyage to the New World via Africa, for alas he was slave trader, and then over to the Spanish colonies to sell his ware. He was one of the first to ply the Atlantic Triangle, from Europe to Africa, to the Americas and then home, hopefully making a profit on ever leg.
The book is written with so much detail that at first I thought it must be fictionalised. But apparently the voyage was very well documented, with everyone from captain down to ship's boy writing up their experiences, and so you can get a real idea of what life must have been like on-board.
They had wild adventures up uncharted rivers of Africa, taking sides in tribal conflicts and then sailing an ocean and convincing the Spanish governors they wanted to trade in slaves. This was illegal according to laws dictated by Madrid but Hawkins managed to convince them otherwise, usually by pointing a canon at them
They were on their way home when Hawkins's luck changed, and in a massive storm in the Gulf of Mexico his ships were damaged so badly they had to find a port to undertake repairs. But the only one available was Spanish, and not just any port, but the one where the flota was due to arrive.
He hoped to be in and out before they appeared on the horizon, but it was not to be, and what resulted was the Battle of San Juan de Ulua, which is not on the list of English victories.
Two boats from Hawkins's fleet escaped heavily overloaded, and 110 men were left behind to make their way by land. Most were captured by the Spanish and enslaved, though some were offered positions of responsibility. A recurring theme was of efforts to escape and make their way home, and some managed it, while others were caught.
And they those that were caught were faced with the Inquisition. Its worth remembering that this is not the buffoons of Monty Python fame, but legal minds trained in torture.
The most amazing story was that of David Ingram who claims he walked three thousand miles from Mexico to Nova Scotia in 11 months: in some minds too amazing and there doubts about how trust worthy his tale was.
In the end this voyage was a failure, many of the crew died or were captured. But it taught Hawkins much, and from these skills he and his fellows were able to lead the English fleet in later years against the Spanish Armada.
And one of those fellows was a surviving captain from that voyage, who too had first hand experience of how to battle the Spanish. His name: Francis Drake.
But that is by the by. The core of the story is the wild adventures they had, how unknown, wide and untamed the world was in those days. They were on their own, making rules up as they went, guts and glory.
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