The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
Freedom’s Pilgrim: A Tudor Odyssey by Edward James
Reviewed by Rob Bayliss
See below for giveaway information!
Looking back on his life, the old man pondered. “I resolved to remember as much as I could… Scraps of memory floated up in my mind like gristle in my mug. None explained anything.”
Leaving Devon in 1568, 13-year-old Miles Philips joins Captain Hawkins’ third slaving expedition from Africa to the West Indies. The English ships are ambushed at San Juan in Mexico by the Spanish. Overloaded and short of supplies for the voyage home, Captain Hawkins maroons a number of English sailors on the Mexican coast; among their numbers is young Miles Philips. He needs to find his way home, but how?
Some of the marooned embark overland to the north, seeking the fishing grounds of Cape Cod, whilst others looked for mercy from the Spanish. I had previously read of this event so when I saw this book and its description I knew I would want to read it. From the beginning Edward James immerses the reader in the world of Miles Philips and you eagerly follow in his footsteps as his life story unfolds.
For a time the historical Miles Philips was somewhat of a celebrity. His tale was first written in The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation by Richard Hakluyt in 1589, although at the time relations between Catholic Spain and Elizabethan England were drifting towards open warfare and the tale of Miles Philips became a propaganda piece. It is interesting to note that the sufferings he described (as well as those of other English sailors trickling home after their abandonment by Hawkins) were enough to threaten Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt at establishing a colony in the New World. Mariners in West Country ports – the usual source of deckhands – were less willing to embark on such a venture and risk the same Spanish brutality. Richard Hakluyt painted Miles as the true Englishman, loyal to his queen, his country, and steadfast in his Protestant faith. Edward James portrays a more true representation perhaps, that of a pragmatic individual, pursued by the Inquisition and then initially enduring distrust from his fellow countrymen.
Freedom’s Pilgrim is told as an imagined grandfather relating his life story to his grandchildren. Miles, the narrator, is laying his soul bare, his tale told honestly with a healthy portion of cynicism. There are things he would have done differently, deeds done of which he is ashamed (he feels guilt about being a slaver as he is made a slave himself), but he is putting the record straight. Of course this has been written (purposely) from a 21st century viewpoint, so some might question its style. But if this book had been written using solely a 17th century mindset and language, could the modern reader empathise with the protagonist?
I very much enjoyed Freedom’s Pilgrim, although it doesn’t paint John Hawkins or his cousin Sir Francis Drake -one of my childhood heroes- in a particularly flattering light. In Freedom’s Pilgrim the undeclared war by English privateers on Spain and her empire comes under question. The narrator treads a neutral path, but living over half his life in the Spanish world, it is as much his home as England. Having the same red hair and Devonshire accent as El Draque proves both a help and a hindrance to Miles. It marks him out but also saves his life on numerous occasions as his captors feel he has value. Eventually of course he does succeed in returning to England, but even then his safety is not ensured. His journey (his Odyssey) home has taken him 17 years and in accomplishing it he has experienced hardship, enslavement, the Inquistion, battle and romance, but he has also lived a life to its fullest. Miles Philips is an everyman living in extraordinary times, his practicality and will in ensuring his and his families’ survival is a joy to read of.
It is perhaps expected that authors of historical fiction are influenced as much by modern events as the periods they immerse themselves within, and so it is with Freedom’s Pilgrim and the hateful and ruthless Spanish Inquistion, depicted here, mirroring the religious lunacy which fractures our modern world.
Our central character in Freedom’s Pilgrim is plagued by the Inquistion as a Protestant, a pagan heretic, a lover of a Converso, and then in the company of Moriscos. The Inquistion was used as a tool to establish Catholic orthodoxy and monarchal hegemony in the aftermath of the Reconquista. It later went to the Americas to cement the Spanish hold onto its colonies. The Inquistion became a byword for intrangient, state sponsored terror, and yet the tighter it sought to grasp, the weaker its grip ultimately became as common humanity and scientific advance asked more questions than its superstition could answer. Through the lens of history we see that the Renaissance was in full swing and the Enlightenment and Age of Reason was around the corner. Now perhaps, over four hundred years later, we see it more in the light of the famous Monty Python sketch, something to be quite rightly ridiculed.
Once more humanity is facing the demands of an intolerant and ignorant brand of religion but remember, one day they too, like the Inquistion, will be history. Read this book and you’ll experience the reality faced by our forebears; read it and be thankful and hopeful.
Would you like to win a FREE copy of Freedom’s Pilgrim? The author has so kindly offered a copy of this novel for one lucky winner. To get your name in the draw:
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Edward James is rather like his hero, the Tudor chronicler Richard Hakluyt; neither of them went to sea and both were fascinated by ships and seafaring from a young age. Edward blames it on growing up beside the Thames in the days when the big ships still came up river to the Royal Docks.
After a career as a lecturer and civil servant upon retirement he went back to history as a Review Editor for the Historical Novel Society and to writing about ships and the sea in the Age of Discovery. You can find more about him, including a selection of his short stories and interviews on his bloghttps://busywords.wordpress.com/.
Freedom’s Pilgrim: A Tudor Odyssey is also available from Amazon.
Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadowfantasy series. Book 1 The Sun Shard is available at Amazon.