Journeys in South and Central America led to the inception of ideas for a book set at the time when the New World was still little known to Europeans and when England barely featured as a player on the global stage.
Before oil made nations rich…
Over four hundred years ago, when Spain was a superpower determined to uphold Catholicism throughout the world, her wealth derived largely from gold mined in Mexico and silver from Peru.
In what is now Bolivia I saw the mountain that was a principal source of those riches in silver – Cerro Rico – the ‘Rich Mountain’ of Potosí, once both the highest and most prosperous city in the world, now almost dead and entombed in dust.
From Cerro Rico the silver was mined and then transported over mountains and by sea, eventually arriving in Panamá on the Pacific coast for carriage by mule train across the isthmus to Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean. This was the ‘silver train’ that Drake attacked in his first great enterprise. The success of the raid was to set the seeds for the growth of England as a naval power which would change the balance of world domination forever…
But what if a woman had been there?
Read the history books and it might be supposed that below the ranks of royalty and the nobility, women took no active part in events of any significance. They were invisible. Yet they must have existed, and they must have been influential, then, just as now.
When I first contemplated the idea of including a woman in a novel based on Drake’s early exploits, I thought it was too improbable to be viable. But after putting aside initial scepticism, it soon became apparent that this scenario was by no means beyond the bounds of possibility. Women did travel to the New World. The presence of Spanish women in sixteenth century South and Central America is well documented as are the English women who formed part of the first attempt to found a permanent English colony in Virginia (the subject of the sequel to Mistress of the Sea). There are even reports of women stowing away aboard ship to go on adventures, such as the wife of a German mercenary who was smuggled aboard the San Salvador in the Armada campaign (for which see Neil Hanson in The Confident Hope of a Miracle Ch 5).
What if a woman had sailed with a merchant on one of Drake’s early voyages? She might not have been on the voyage that Drake made leading to the attack on the silver train, but perhaps on one of those earlier voyages about which little is known…
Why feature a woman in an adventure of men?
I want to write the sort of historical novels that I like to read – intelligent adventures that provide a passage to another time and place – stories that are exciting and engaging, amusing and poignant, and, most importantly, that are peopled with characters with whom I can relate. So I want strong female characters as well as men in my stories, and I want to be in the thick of what’s interesting and important. I don’t aspire to be a queen or a duchess, but neither do I want to be confined to the bedroom and the hearth!