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During his voyage around the world in 1577-1580, Sir Francis Drake captained a ship named the Golden Hind. On this ship lived a woman named Maria, whose plight we only know about Because of a manuscript preserved in the British Library in London, in which an anonymous sailor records her existence. The line is short, but the history it references is immense. The line reads ““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.” Some commentators have wondered whether Shakespeare was inspired by Maria’s story when he created the character Sycorax in The Tempest, since Sycorax is also an African woman, abandoned by sailors on an island while heavily pregnant. Here today to share with us the history of Maria, her story, and how much we can learn about whether her plight overlaps that of Shakespeare’s play, is our guest, and author of On Wilder Seas, the book that imagines what Maria’s story might have been based on the history we can know about her, Nikki Marmery.

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Nikki Marmery is the author of On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind, a book that explores the story of Maria who sailed on the Golden Hind. In a former life Nikki Marmery worked as a financial journalist. She now writes fiction from a small village near Amersham in the UK, where she lives with her husband and three children. 

I’ll be asking Nikki Marmery about:

  • What do we know about the sailor who wrote this line recording Maria’s existence? 
  • Have there been archaeological discoveries since the 17th century that provide corroborating evidence for Maria’s existence? 
  • Was it standard practice for English ships to take on women as prostitutes for the sailors?  
  • …and more!

Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann – The untold history of Black Tudor lives. Includes a chapter on Diego, a major character in On Wilder Seas, and references Maria. 

Afro-Latino Voices, Edited by Kathryn Joy McKnight and Leo J. Garofalo – A fantastic collection of primary documents recording the testimonies of Africans living in Spanish colonial America, speaking in their own words. 

Spain’s Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century – by Pablo Perez-Mallaina- Fabulous account of the lives, dangers and hardships of the men who sailed the Indies fleets – the galleons that plied the Spanish Main in the sixteenth century. 

An Elizabethan in 1582 : The Diary of Richard Madox, by Elizabeth Story Donno. Account of a later voyage to the Americas, in which Drake’s cousin John Drake, a character in Nikki’s book, also sailed.

Sir Francis Drake alongside fellow privateers. More details inside!

The Atlantic Slave Trade in the 16th Century

During the 16th century in Europe, the Portuguese dominated the African slave trade. European ships were first exposed to African slaves when privateering vessels would find enslaved Africans packed alongside Atlantic trade goods in the hulls of the captured ships. Learn about the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade with our guest, Paul Lovejoy.

“..Aboard my galley I invite you all:.”

— Antony and Cleopatra (II.6)

Gheerhaerts portrait of Sir Francis Drake, 1591, Public Domain. Source

Maria as told by an anonymous sailor

A document called the “Anonymous Narrative” relays an account of Drake’s circumnavigation voyage, including the presence of Maria, a woman of African heritage, who was taken from a Spanish ship onto the Golden Hind, then, nine months later, set on an island while pregnant and left there to “take her adventure”. The account is anonymous because there’s no evidence to who the sailor was who wrote the narrative, but it is considered accurate because the details in the account overall match up with known eye-witness accounts of the events. Note from Nikki: the written record we have today was not made by the sailor personally – he was likely interviewed by the authorities for their own records. The account was never made public so could not have been read by Shakespeare… the only way Shakespeare could known about Maria was through oral accounts/gossip circulating London from sailors on board the Golden Hind.

Nikki points out that the account itself is revealing because it refers to Drake as a pirate, which is language Drake would not have used to describe himself. That descriptor suggests the author was hostile towards Drake. Other accounts, like Richard Hakluyt’s record of Drake’s journey and the account by Drake’s nephew called The World Encompassed, written 1628, make no mention of Maria at all.

English writer Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552 or 1553 – 23 November 1616) pictured in a stained glass window in the West Window of the South Transept of Bristol Cathedral. | Photo by Charles Eamer Kempe. | CCA3.0 | Source

Women are considered bad luck on voyages

It would have been tremendously difficult to have a woman on board ship with the sailors, and particularly dangerous. Drake famously forbade women on his ships.

Even if you were to bring a woman on board, there would not have been accommodations separate from the men. On the Golden Hind, there was only one private cabin – Drake’s. Even the aristocracy on board slept in the ship’s armory, while the crew slept below in the cramped gun deck.

Surviving the journey was a 50/50 gamble from the outset for anyone involved, but for women it would have been extremely dangerous. There are stories of young boys being sexually mistreated on board ships, one account of which is related in Nikki’s book based on actual accounts of shipboard members from this time period. Nikki’s book tells the story of a young boy who has to “knot up his britches” to guard against sexual assault in his sleep.  

“Master, there is a bark of Epidamnum That stays but till her owner comes aboard,.”

— Comedy of Errors (IV.1r

Replica of the Golden Hind, moored in London. Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SASource

Traditionally, sailors believed women on board ship was bad luck, because women angered the sea. Superstition, alone, would prevent sailors wanting women on board. It was very out of character for Drake to take a woman on board.

Nikki did not make this suggestion in our interview, but the nature of the story made me (Cassidy) wonder if the story of Maria was made up by the author of the anonymous narrative, who was identifiably hostile towards Drake, as a way to discredit him. When I asked Nikki about this false slander theory, she explained that we know Maria was definitely on board the ship (a corroborative account – by John Drake, Drake’s cousin – was found in the Spanish archives and published in 1914). It wouldn’t have made sense for the anonymous sailor to lie to the authorities when his account would have been easily exposed as a lie by the other 57 witnesses.

A drawing by Robert Anning Bell of Sycorax from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. c. 1900, Folger Shakespeare Library, ART Box B433 no.20, Public Domain, Source

“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother…”

— Caliban, The Tempest (II.1)

Maria and Shakespeare’s Character, Sycorax

There are remarkable similarities between what we do know of the account of Maria and the character Sycorax in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare writes that Sycorax is “hither brought by the sailors” and she is also abandoned on an island while pregnant.

Drake’s landing in California, De Bry, Theodor (1590) (in Latin) Collectiones peregrinationum in Indiam Occidentalem et Indiam Orientalem, Frankfurt: Becker; de Bry OCLC: 847832920., Public Domain. Source

The parallels between Drake’s voyage and Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, extend far beyond just Maria’s story, making for a fascinating theory that Shakespeare could have been influenced by the accounts of Drake’s voyage that were floating around England at this time. While the Queen officially asked Drake to keep mum on the voyage personally, it would have been hard to quench pop culture gossip. Drake was a major celebrity at this time in history, and his voyage was a momentous occasion in the life of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was 16 when Drake returned from this voyage and everyone thought Drake was dead since a ship report made it back to England as shipwrecked, and people thought Drake was dead. When he returns home with unbelievable amounts of treasure from the other side of the world, it would have been something not only memorable, but that makes complete sense for Shakespeare to be inspired by for a story.

There are other cultural indications that the Golden Hind, itself, was a tourist attraction during Shakespeare’s lifetime. We know that it was moored at Deptford, in London, as an attraction for people to visit. We have records that Shakespeare contemporary and friend, Ben Jonson, ate dinner on board the Golden Hind. There are several tantalizing links that make it seem very likely that Shakespeare had this voyage in mind when he wrote The Tempest

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!