The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
It’s here! My adventure novel Freedom’s Pilgrim has been relaunched by Endeavour Press, still at £2.99 for the ebook but you can get a print version via Print on Demand. Here is the new cover page. You’ll find the Prologue below plus other bits and pieces. For the rest you can sample it on Kindle and then please buy it and then please, please review it. Reviews matter.
There really was a 13 year old boy named Miles Philips who sailed with John Hawkins and Francis Drake on their third slaving expedition to Africa and the West Indies in 1568. He really was marooned on a desert beach in Mexico and spent the next 17 years finding his way home. He would never have found his way into History but for the fact that he was interviewed by Richard Hakluyt, the chronicler who published his story in his multi-volume work The Principal Navigations, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation in 1589. It is a fascinating story, told in the first person, but at only 40 pages there must have been far more to tell. Also Hakluyt was a propagandist, presenting Miles as a role model, the English youth who never forgot his national identity or his Protestant faith, even in the severest trials. I have imagined finding a manuscript written by Miles as an old man (say I found it in a house clearance on a family farm in Devon) in which he sets out a far fuller story with themes Hakluyt did not wish to explore and which Miles could never make public- an adventure story and also a story of forbidden love and the struggles of a boy to find himself and be his own man. Obviously I could not set out the story in Elizabethan English, so I have written it in modern English which tries to reflect some of the cadences of Miles 1589 narrative.
‘There! there! See them!’
I swear that saw them first, a row of tiny puffs of smoke across the water on the hillside opposite, lingering for a moment like twists of wool on a hedgerow. Two or three seconds later the boom of cannonfire reached us and shot began hitting the beach, kicking up a spray of shingle.
Will Cook and I threw ourselves behind the breastwork we has been heaping up to shelter ourselves and our gun.
‘Satan’s Arse’’, growled Will, ‘I said not to trust those Spaniards.’ Will was always angry about something, but now, I suppose, he had reason. ‘At least the waitin’s over. The waitin’s always the worst.’
‘I prefer waiting’, I muttered.
‘Yes you would, wouldn’t you, Master Miles Know-it-All Philips? Well you don’t know nuthin, see!. You’re just a kid and you keep your trap shut. Waitin’ never did any good.’
‘I’ll be fifteen this summer’, I answered, ‘and I’ve been all around Africa and the Caribbean with our Admiral and he’s talked his way out of worse than this. You said yourself John Hawkins could talk his way out of his tomb.’
‘That was with African kings and Spanish settlers. These are Viceroy’s soldiers and they’re meant to kill and be killed, not to make deals.’
‘Why should they want to kill us? it’s no sense. We never did them any harm. We’ve traded peaceably all about the Indies, selling them the blacks they needed to do their work. We came into this harbour because of the storm and all we want is some vittles and cordage to see us on our way. We can pay for it or let ‘em have some of the blacks we ain’t sold yet.’
‘Like I said, you don’t know nuthin and you won’t be fifteen this summer ‘cos you’re going to die this afternoon. And the new Viceroy and his fleet from Spain, they don’t know nuthin neither. They’re all stupid people who know nuthin about the Indies, only about the King of Spain’s laws and he don’t know nuthin. He starves the Indies of the things his people here need for the sake of a few rich merchants in Seville and calls us free-traders us interlopers.
By now we could scarce see the hillside opposite for puffs of smoke and there was gunsmoke all along the decks of the ships crowded in the harbour. At this range the Spaniards couldn’t hope to hit our English guns dug in on the beach, except by chance, but they could kick up enough shingle to keep our heads down while their boats came ashore, if that was what they intended.
‘Papist bastards’, screamed Will, shouting at the sky as another load of stones splattered the gun-pit. ‘Wait ‘til we get our hands on you.’
I crawled lower into the pit and remembered pretty little Isabella, back in Cartegena. She was the only sort of Spaniard I cared to get my hands on. The locals had always been decent enough. Like Will said, everything would have been fine, but for the fleet which arrived from Spain the day after we reached San Juan. Well, as my brother, Ned, used to say, what cannot be won by love nor money needs be taken by force. Our Admiral had moved our five ships to the far end of the bay, clear of the Spaniards, and occupied the island that sheltered the harbour from the sea. It was more a bank of shingle than an island, scarce three foot above high tide at its highest, two bowshots in length and less in breath. Even so it stoppered up the port and John Hawkins said would unstopper it only when he had the stores and victuals he needed.
I noticed Will peeping over the breastwork. ‘They’re coming, boatloads of ‘em. Light the fusees’.
‘I’ll light ‘em in five minutes’, I said. ‘The gun’s set to fire at 200 yards, so if we light the fusees now they’ll burn down needlessly before we can use ‘em.’
‘Anything you can do later you will, won’t you Master Miles Know-it-All Philips, even killing Spaniards. You don’t want to kill ‘em, do you? You’re soft on Spaniards. You believed in ‘em, believed their promises, thought it was good to exchange hostages, thought it was good to send Master Barrett to their city, because he talks their lingo. And all the time they was gatherin’ their men, getting ready to murder us. Well, being soft on Spaniards won’t do you much good when they comes ashore to get you, will it now?’ I swear he would have liked to have killed me, but he needed me to crew the gun.
Another shower of shingle stopped his ranting and he bent down into the pit to light the long coils of cord soaked in saltpetre that we had to keep burning as long as we fought, much a gunners still do, to touch off the cannon. He lit both ends to make sure we always had fire.
When we reckoned that if there were any boats the leaders must be coming up to the mark that we’d set to open fire, we both stood up to train our piece and touch it off, if need be. There was little we could do to train the gun, other than to drag the end of the carriage a few inches to right or left. It was a ship’s gun with a carriage made for work on a smooth deck, not in shingle.
But aiming wasn’t our problem. The bay was crawling with boats. They really did look like a swarm of ants with their beating oars sticking out at either side like insect legs. It was only then that I really understood what was happening. Will was right! They were coming to murder us, all of us, whatever the price.
I knew we couldn’t win. I went cold with fright, for all we’d been working for hours in the Mexican sun. Of course I had known their cannon balls would kill us if we stood in their way, but we’d been safe enough in our pits and it was only to be expected that the Spaniards would shoot at us to dispute the island. I thought we’d fence around another couple of days until we agreed a price for our victuals and rope and tar and then we’d be able to go back ashore and meet the senoritas again. But we were used to dealing with farmers and merchants and African kings. This Viceroy fresh from Spain was a soldier whose trade was killing and his soldiers were there to be killed.
It was Will who touched off the cannon and I nearly lost my foot with the recoil. My God! we hit one of the boats clean on the point of the bow and it split like a filleted herring. All the men spilled out to either side and I supposed they drowned, because they were still in deep water. Boy though I was I’d been in battles before, although never big ones, but I never did get used to seeing men die.
Now we had to get the gun back, load the powder, the tampon and the shot, run it out again and fire. No time to cool it between shots and we didn’t have the water. But fire as we might and even with these lucky shots we were dead men. The Spaniards were still firing over the boats at the beach, although they’d have to stop soon, and broken shingle was flying about our ears. I turned to look at Will and as I did so half his face flew away. All his teeth, what he had of them, were laid bare like a Death’s Head. And the ghastly thing was that didn’t seem to notice! He just carried on cursing God and Spain and serving the gun. It was too horrible to watch.
After that I kept my eyes on the Spaniards and the gun until there was too much smoke to see anything. I fancy our other cannon were firing as frantically as we, but we were in a world of our own and, as I said, we were soon blinded by our own smoke. It may surprise those of you who have never seen firearms used in battle to know that oft-times the gunners and even the musketeers can’t see the enemy or their own people. They rely on orders when and where to fire, which can be difficult when one is deafened by the noise of one’s own piece as well as blind. But there was no one to give us any orders, so after a few shots we knocked the wedges out of from under the cannon and fired at the water line. The shot would kick up the shingle to make more shot, just like was happening to us.
We managed about one discharge a minute, double-shotted. There was no point in sparing either powder or shot and before long the gun was getting too hot to touch. By all the rules we should have stopped to cool it, but how could we? I became frightened that the powder would discharge itself before we could load the shot, but it was not that which was our undoing. In those days we mostly used brass cannon, not cast-iron, that oft-times twisted and split when they were hot. Well, you can guess what happened.
There was no great roar or flash of fire, or not that I remember. The world just vanished and that was the last I saw of the island.