On Wilder Seas was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African woman aboard the Golden Hind during Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe. Maria was the only woman on board, sailing the Pacific leg of the expedition as Drake attempted to find the fabled ‘North West Passage.’
Little is known of this woman; she merits a single line in an account by a sailor of a raid on a Spanish ship: “Drake took out of this ship… a negro wench called Maria which was afterward gotten with child between the captain and his men pirates and set on a small island to take her adventures”.
From these bare bones of detail, Nikki Marmery creates a courageous, intelligent and daring woman who survives by her wits. And she gives Maria a voice and a history, one that traces her capture in a small West African village, transportation on a slave ship to the ” New World” and her rescue from a Spanish ship.
Told in first person, On Wilder Seas depicts Maria’s experience of Drake’s tiny ship. It offers scant privacy and few comforts; men sleep wherever they can amidst the scratching rats and hens.
For Maria, these privations are not as bad as the fear of being surrounded by 80 lusty men. She defends herself and her honour, with the help of a young deckhand but her only real hope of safety is to wangle her way into Drake’s cabin and his bed.
This book started really strongly but it nosedived once Maria was ensconced in Drake’s cabin surrounded by fine paintings and books. Despite a wealth of detail about the appearance of the ship and the conditions on board, it was strangely lacking in atmosphere.
For sure we heard about the creaking of the ship as it rolls and pitches in tumultuous seas and the stench of so many unwashed bodies crammed into a small space. But I seldom believed I was there, on board, feeling and smelling it myself.
Overwhelmed by detail
Instead of atmosphere, we got detail in abundance. Maria’s back story is told in flashbacks in which she recalls the atrocities perpetrated upon her people and her treatment at the hands of men who bought and sold as a slave. These chapters are stuffed with names: ships, people and places. I got hopelessly lost particularly because the events are not chronological.
The shame was that we really didn’t need all this specificity to understand the brutal behaviour by both the Spanish and English as they fought for territory and riches. It just got in the way in the first half of the novel.
The Wilder Seas is at its best when it shows the true nature of Drake’s expedition. Forget what you were taught in school about his daring adventures . He was little more than a privateer and a pretty ruthless one at that. When he lands somewhere on the border of modern-day USA and Canada, his crew is welcomed and treated kindly by the native population. They repay this hospitality by treating them as savages, with tragic consequences.
If only the first half of the book had been as engaging and thought-provoking as the second.
On Wilder Seas by Niki Marmery: Footnotes
Nikki Marmery worked as a financial journalist for 15 years but that career came to an end because of the financial crisis. She then focused on raising her three children and began writing historical fiction. On Wilder Seas, published by Legend Press in 2020, is her debut novel.
Find out more about Nikki on her website https://nikkimarmery.com/