The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
David Ingram, Richard Twide and Richard Browne.
You will find it difficult to find these names in the history books and they are not easy to find on the internet. They are not among the lists of the great explorers, although David Ingram has an entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography under the heading ‘Explorer’ (David Quinn, 1966). Nonetheless these three illiterate English sailors made one of the most amazing journeys of all the amazing journeys in the Age of Discovery.
David and the two Richards were among the one hundred English sailors deliberately marooned on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico, about 200 miles south of the Rio Grande, in October 1568, as described in my novel Freedom’s Pilgrim (Amazon Kindle, 2014). They were survivors from John Hawkins’ third slave-trading expedition, which had set out from England earlier in the year to trade slaves from Africa to the West Indies. The slavers found a ready market among the Spanish colonists around the Caribbean, even though the Spanish authorities had banned all trade which was not conducted via Spain by merchants registered in Seville. The little English fleet had the misfortune to be ambushed on his way home by a much larger Spanish fleet near Vera Cruz in Mexico (or New Spain as it then was). Two English ships escaped, one of which was the Minion, crowded with the survivors from the other ships, badly damaged by battle and storm and almost bereft of provisions. If she was to make it across the Atlantic there was no alternative but to dump some of the men on the beach.
There were fifty unsold slaves still aboard the Minion at the time and strangely they were not among the people discarded on the shore. In Freedom’s Pilgrim I have the ship seized by the slaves who maroon most of the crew and attempt to sail back to Africa. If this actually happened (which is not impossible) they merely exchanged one captivity for another when the ship had to seek shelter in Spain.
As for the men on the beach, they split into two parties, each about fifty strong. The hero of Freedom’s Pilgrim, a 14-year old boy named Miles Philips, was in the party which headed south, hoping to reach territory settled by the Spaniards and to trust to their mercy. It proved a dangerous mercy and it took Miles 17 years to get home after a series of improbable adventures which I have described as a Tudor Odyssey. The other party headed north, preferring the mercies of the Indians. Half of them thought better of the choice a few days later and turned round to rejoin the southbound party. The rest, now 25 strong, including David Ingram and his two companions, pressed on to the Rio Grande and beyond.
The Long Walk
Their objective was the French fort of La Caroline on the Atlantic coast of Florida where Jacksonville now stands, Hawkins had visited it on his second voyage, so several men in the northbound party would have known of it. They were unaware that the fort had been destroyed by the Spaniards two years previously.
Some of them, how many we do not know, at length reached the ruins of La Caroline, at which point they had to make a fresh decision. After the destruction of La Caroline the Spanish had established a presence at nearby St Augustine, but having gone to such lengths to escape the Spaniards none of the Englishmen wanted to surrender to them now. Instead David Ingram and an unknown number of others turned north once again, this time heading for the fishing grounds of Newfoundland in the hope of contacting a European boat.
The eastern seaboard of the present day United States had already been mapped by European seamen, although David and his comrades would not have seen any of these maps. For them it was unknown territory and they were the first Europeans to travel this coast overland. By the time they reached Nova Scotia, or maybe New Brunswick, there were only three men left in the party. Here they met a French boat, La Gargarine, whose crew were trading with the Indians. In return for helping the Frenchmen with their dealings and with a sweetner of some pearls collected en route, they were given a passage to Le Havre and from there returned to England. The overland journey of over 3000 miles had taken them eleven months.
Telling the Tale
David Ingram seems to have reported back to his old commander, John Hawkins, when he reached England. Hawkins clearly felt guilty about the men he had abandoned and went to great lengths, verging on treason, to gain the release of the prisoners who had been transported to Spain. We do not know if Hawkins believed Ingram’s story, but he did not deny it when it was eventually published.
Ingram and his shipmates were illiterate, so they did not publish their stories. David Ingram was nonetheless a great storyteller and for the next dozen years he told his story in the taverns of London, embellishing it with every telling. Eventually it reached the ears of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham and he sent one of his secretaries to question him. The transcript of this interrogation was published in 1583 under the title A True Discourse of the Adventures and Travails of David Ingram. The original of this work does not survive but in 1589 Richard Hakluyt included it is his Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Hakluyt did not include it in his second edition in 1600. By then the English were better acquainted with the east coast of North America and it did not correspond well with the rich and populous land described by David Ingram.
Why was Walsingham so interested in these tavern tales and so credulous? He was a keen promoter of colonial ventures and his friend Sir Humphrey Gilbert was currently preparing the voyage which led to the assertion of English sovereignty over Newfoundland, Gilbert’s failure to establish a colony further south and his death on the return voyage. Richard Twide and Richard Browne were both dead by 1583, so David Ingram was the only living European who had traversed the lands Walsingham, Gilbert and their colleagues hoped to colonise. They wanted him as a consultant and even more as a propagandist. Their commercial concerns shaped the questions Ingram was asked and he told them what they wanted to believe. It was all useful in encouraging investors.
After Gilbert’s death his stake in the colonial venture was taken up his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, who tried twice to colonise the land he called Virginia, In 1607 the first successful English colony was set up there at Jamestown, so it could be said that David Ingram played a not insignificant part in the establishment of English speaking North America. Ingram himself probably sailed with Gilbert’s fleet and, being the survivor he was, probably returned safely.
The story Ingram told his interrogators was not really a story but rather a travelogue or a book of marvels, reminiscent of the romances of Roger de Mandeville. It is remarkable not only for what it says but for what it leaves out. It is impossible to work out his route and there is no explanation about how he was able to travel so swiftly across unknown territory, except that he never stayed more then three nights in one place. There is quite a lot about the Indians but almost nothing about his encounters with them. Most surprisingly there is almost no mention of the 23 men who did not complete the journey, except a throwaway remark that they married among the Indians.
Miles Philips clearly read Ingram’s Discourse on his return to England, and in the course of his own story which was published in the Principal Navigations he criticises Ingram for not saying what became of his companions. Miles hints that he knows and that they were still living among the Indians and he promised to tell us more, but he never did.
Much of Ingram’s story is obvious nonsense. He reported seeing elephants in what appears to be New England, red sheep and ‘fire dragons’. There were pearls ‘as great as an acorn’ and the rivers contained gold nuggets ‘as big as a man’s fist’. The land was densely populated with big cities with streets broader than in London and banqueting halls with pillars of silver. Over the years Ingram had embroidered his stories and when Walsingham’s agents came to question him he knew what they wanted to hear.
But was there a germ of truth? After all he had set out on foot northwards from the beach in New Spain and he had reappeared in England less than a year later.
What really happened?
Several commentators have baulked at the idea that Ingram could have traversed such a huge area in such a short time. They have tried to abbreviate the journey by suggesting that he was picked up by a French privateer shortly after reaching La Caroline. Despite the destruction of their fort the French remained active in the area and counter attacked the Spanish shortly before the wandering Englishmen would have arrived in the district. It would still have been a long walk, but not nearly so long as Ingram claimed. The French ship could have made a landfall in Nova Scotia on the way home, inspiring Ingram to make this the end of point for his trek.
In 1999 an expatriate Englishman, Richard Nathan, set out to make the same journey on foot in the reverse direction, starting out from his home in Nova Scotia. Accompanied by his dog Ulisses he completed the walk in nine moths, two months less than David Ingram.
‘Ah, yes!’ you may say, but Nathan was travelling through settled territory, over known routes and among friendly people. But who is to say that the same was not true of David Ingram?
When the Pilgrim Fathers landed in New England fifty years later they settled on the site of an abandoned Indian village. It had been abandoned after a smallpox epidemic which had also emptied most of the surrounding countryside. The Pilgrims rejoiced that God had cleared the land of inhabitants to make room for them. They had arrived in the wake of one of the greatest demographic catastrophes in the history of the world, worse than the Black Death. In the late 16th and early 17th century North America was swept by waves of epidemic diseases originally brought by the Europeans and travelling ahead of them as they settled the continent. The worst was smallpox, but typhoid, cholera and other diseases, some from Africa, raged alongside them. Europeans had lived with these plagues for centuries, the American Indians had no natural immunity. We do not know how many Indians lived in North America before the European settlement, but it was many more than the sparse population the Europeans encountered.
But why were these defenceless sailors who set off into the unknown literally naked (the local Indians near where they were stranded had stripped then of all their clothes and possessions) not speedily annihilated? De Soto’s army of 600 men and 220 horses had landed in Florida in 1539 and after repeated battles only a handful escaped to New Spain in 1543. The answer is probably that the Englishmen were so obviously defenceless that they posed no threat. They did not kill and plunder, they did not want to be conquerors, Ingram and his two faithful companions simply wanted to go home and the others preferred to stay with the Indian girls. As Ingram said, the Indians were very friendly if they were ‘treated courteously,.
The co-operation of the Indians can account for the speed of the journey. Ingram mentions that at some of the rivers the Indians had to carry then across. We cannot excuse the elephants, but the land the English eventually settled may well have been very different to the one David Ingram witnessed. If only he had been a more reliable witness.