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No Mercy for Martin

The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventures, and the Dawn of Empire

By Susan Ronald
Harper Collins, 2007

Even fifty years ago, it was possible for schoolchildren to read about the heroic exploits of Elizabethan sea-dogs like Francis Drake or Walter Raleigh, circumnavigating the globe or prowling the Spanish Main in search of treasure ships, all in the valiant service of their virgin Queen. Cloaks are thrown over mud puddles, courage is displayed under fire, and at the end of the day the Armada gets repelled every time.Well, the Armada still gets repelled, but these days it’s a far grubbier sort of figure doing the repelling. Looters. Freebooters. Slavers. The bad guys.
 
This is a better, if duller, way to teach schoolchildren their history. A century ago, tales of sea-dogs featured no villains but the dastardly Spanish and no victims but them as well (a neat double bank-shot for the anti-Catholic bias that has for five hundred years pervaded the pedagogy of both Great Britain and the United States). It’s important to remember, in these times perhaps moreso than in others, that a nation that launches peremptory and unprovoked violence upon others can be—must be—considered rogue.

 
Such was the England of Elizabeth, a bustling, rapacious England bursting with ambition and thirsty for cash. Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII built a treasury out of caution. The tectonic phenomenon that was her father spent the treasury and knocked the whole Western world off its axis in the process. It was left to Elizabeth to do something more remarkable than either: to make a nation. And to do that, she needed money.

She had the ships—Henry VIII had instigated a vigorous program of naval increase, and Elizabeth continued it. And she had the mariners—England, an island nation, never lacked for expert seamen. And she had the political will, including a gift for indeterminacy that her grandfather would have deplored and her father would have found utterly incomprehensible; she could wink and then deny winking. She could, in short, look the other way.

This was a necessary talent in the period under discussion, because virtually everything done by any of her sea-dogs would have been an act of war if she’d officially approved it. Open war was an idea any Renaissance prince (Elizabeth was the last of them, and the greatest) in his right mind hated—not for the goals but for the rending cost, both in world opinion and in resources. But covert war, now that was a different matter. Covert war was the particular fad of the sixteenth century, and Elizabeth excelled at it in a way her father, given his nature, couldn’t conceivably have.

The object of that war was Spain’s hugely increased traffic in treasure, some of it from the New World. These treasure-ships traveled with minimal armaments and no armed escorts, like fat green apples floating across the oceans of the world. Elizabeth sending warships to pluck any one of these apples would have been an act of war. Elizabeth putting her name to a charter containing many other names and in any case not a baneful official thing at all was just a business venture, perhaps one gone horribly wrong. Horribly, but most importantly deniably wrong.

In 1494 at Tordesillas, the hemisphere-straddling naval empires of Spain and Portugal had agreed to split the world’s waterways and anchorages between then, to the despite of the rest of the world. The rest of the world included the nascent English empire, full of ships and enterprising men but forced by the agreement of Tordesillas to choose between the seemingly barren shores of places like Newfoundland or the evergreen myth of the fabled Northwest passage. English mariners, faced with these maddening restrictions on their expanding livelihood, and the English monarch, faced with the temptation to risk everything for the better placement of her country … their position was largely the same, which might account for the weird extent of loyalty her sea-dogs afforded Elizabeth (either that, or the fact that she represented the only deep pocket in the realm).

Into this sordid and sweaty arena steps Susan Ronald in her new book The Pirate Queen, Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire (Harper Collins, 2007). Her goal is to tell the whole panoramic story of Elizabethan piracy: the landlocked politics, the international maneuvering, and the missions and expeditions themselves, from the circumnavigating heroics of Francis Drake to the moral (and often monetary) shortcomings of slave traders like John Hawkins. It’s a large, forbidding task, and given its subject matter (and, alas, its execution), aquatic phrases like “washed up,” “all wet,” and most especially “out of her depth” come unbidden to mind.

The warning signs (that troubled waters might lie ahead, as it were) appear early in The Pirate Queen, starting with the central word itself. The author lays her schema before us:

‘Pirate’ is a word at the heart of the book. The word ‘privateer’ was not coined until the eighteenth century, and I had a terrible objection to using a word that had not yet been invented, and then to describe someone with that word used for the first time two hundred years into the future.

This is disingenuous at best, as any relatively alert reader will see in an instant. Regardless of its date of coinage, “privateer” is the more accurate description of Elizabeth’s sea-dogs, connoting as it does (and as “pirate,” to modern ears, does not) tacit official sanction. This is not a case of a newly coined word distorting our understanding of an older phenomenon (as would be, for instance, a writer calling Alexander the Great “gay”)—it’s a case of an author wanting to use a word readers will associate with Johnny Depp as opposed to one they’ll associate with Johnny Hancock. After all, every Elizabethan merchant in London was engaged in entrepreneurial capitalism—are we not allowed to say that, just because, as they’d have put it in their own time, they wouldn’t have connied un makins? What then should we call the pirates who bedeviled the Mediterranean in Julius Caesar’s day, so many inconvenient centuries before the coining of “pirates”? Sailors with attitude? Maritime robbers? Ferguson?

But even a reader willing to grant Ronald her linguistic druthers and move on would be brought up short by her potted description of her setting:

In her time, the English Renaissance took root and flourished, spawning the great talents of Sidney, Gascoigne, Spenser, Kyd, Marlowe—and killing three of the five in ‘service of the realm’ prematurely. Great poets like Raleigh, the embodiment of courtly love and adventuring, as well as Dyer, a gentleman adventurer, too, help us glimpse behind the curtain of time into Elizabeth’s court. Chettle, Nash, Lodge, and, of course, the remarkable Shakespeare, all found their voice in Elizabeth’s England.

Quite apart from the jarring prominence of Gascoigne (so far in front of the “remarkable” Shakespeare! What did this Shakespeare fellow do, one wonders? Juggle?), there’s the mystery of those hemi-quotes hovering over ‘service of the realm’—what can they mean? Is the phrase an allusion to some original document (our author: “I have a passion for sources”)? Or are they meant to excuse the phrase from any kind of accuracy? In light of the fact that Spenser, Kyd, and the mighty Gascoigne (presuming here that Ronald is referring to courtier George and not non-courtier George) all died in their beds, ‘in service’ to nothing at all and that Marlowe died in a rooming-house brawl possibly in the service of spycraft but certainly not in the service of the realm, the reader will wonder. In a world where Walter Raleigh is called a great poet and our juggling Shakespeare “remarkable,” the reader will doubtless wonder about a great many things.

At least our author wants to be clear about one thing, which she writes at her book’s beginning: “For those readers looking for a bodice ripper about Elizabeth’s loves, I fear I would disappoint you in The Pirate Queen.”

And it’s true, no bodices are ripped in the course of the book. But the quote’s wider implication, that what follows will not be romantic fiction but rather sober history … well, that claim is, to put it mildly, at odds with Ronald’s rather obvious intent. She writes with considerable energy, yes, and she knows how to keep a narrative moving along, but all throughout there’s a breathless, confessional intimacy that no amount of original documents could possibly authorize.

Take the example of John Hawkins’ voyage to San Juan de Ulua, the port of Veracruz. He leads his ships into harbor and sends a request through Anthony Delgadillo to the port’s viceroy, Don Martin Enriquez de Almansa, asking that his ships be allowed to restock and repair. Here’s Ronald on the outcome: “When Enrique learned from Delgadillo that it was Hawkins who occupied the port, he was incandescent with rage. How dare this rover order him around?”

Leaving aside that hithertofore undocumented human capacity for bioluminescence, there remains the fact that the obvious natural setting for that invented last line is in a historical novel, as a line of dialogue.

Likewise her descriptions of her characters, which always sound like passages from Georgette Heyer’s minor works:

Drake had an uncanny genius for sensing his enemy’s weakness and, without the need for huge numbers of men and artillery, was able to achieve his nefarious aims. What’s more amazing, as with any real genius, he made it all look so easy. San Juan de Ulua had been etched into his soul, and the resultant hatred for Philip, the ignominity of the encounter, and the fire against Catholic injustice in his belly would be stoked by further perceived wrongs until the day he died.

Etched souls and belly-fires, not to mention “nefarious aims,” are the very stock and trade of bad historical romances (sometimes known as bodice rippers); one so seldom encounters them in the works of Macaulay.

Certainly the reader of bad historical romances would feel right at home with the level of prose Ronald’s book provides. Spurs are always earned; hope is always hoped against; orders are barked with canine frequency; feet are always sprung to; tides are forever turning; hogs are lived high on; sailing is never separated from smooth; deeds are dastardly; nails are invariably hit on their heads; eyes are feasted; smithereens are blown; a thousand slow deaths are died; gears are stepped up; unawares are always blissful; points are dear and sometimes near and dear to hearts; shots tend always to ring out; whole cabinets of Holy Grails abound; tracks are always stopped in; quite non-Hebraic things are made or kept kosher; people often have other fish to fry; life is always risked in conjunction with limb; ruling is always done with an iron fist. It’s enough to make the reader of legitimate history see red.

As in any self-respecting historical romance, heroes and villains are necessary to keep the reader’s attention. Since John Hawkins was for most of his adult life actively engaged in slave trading—and since Elizabeth supported his efforts despite knowing with Tudor exactitude the evil they represented—they would seem to be prime candidates for the role of villains. But Ronald can’t have that, gracious no. Hawkins was a dashing figure, dressed exotically and sporting rakish red hair, and Elizabeth? Why, she can’t be the bad guy—after all, she’s the Pirate Queen! Despite the iniquities they perpetrated in the name of cash, they come off quite well in Ronald’s book, as do, of course, the more conventionally heroic Drake and Raleigh.

Enter poor hangdog Martin Frobisher, from the B-list of sea-dogs. Frobisher was a dog-loving no-nonsense Yorkshireman whose ‘service to the realm’ was unexceeded by any of his contemporaries, and yet Ronald never misses a chance to let fly a broadside at his expense. She says, without any of her precious original documents to back her up, that he was “well known for his tall tales,” that he was “ignorant,” “deceitful,” and “unable to understand the importance of even the simplest mathematical exercise.” Most scandalously, she claims Drake had to rescue him off the Isle of Wight during the battle of the Spanish Armada.

When bigger targets than one single person are required for villainy, Ronald is equally able to supply them. Take, for instance, her account of troubles in Ireland during Elizabeth’s reign:

To make matters worse, many English colonists, or ‘planters,’ as they were called, had gone native, adopting Irish traditions and customs, the most unacceptable of which was ‘coyne and livery.’ ‘Coyne’ from the Gaelic coinmeadh, meaning the right of a great lord to demand hospitality of whatever nature for his person, had been coupled with the English ‘livery,’ by which the lord could demand whatever he needed for his horse … It was a uniquely Irish invention, grounded in extortion and intimidation that ran like a sixteenth-century protection racket.

The author rollicks on from there, without pausing to enlighten her readers as to how greed and the abuse of power are ‘uniquely Irish’ offenses. Must be in some original document somewhere.

All this would be bad enough but marginally salvageable if the book’s history were sound, and given the author’s loud protestations about being enamored of original sources, the naive reader—except for those kneecapping Irish, perhaps—would think this point at least was secure. But that poor reader has reckoned without nefarious aims and fires in the belly. Everywhere in her book, Ronald demonstrates one thing foremost: she will not let the facts get in the way of a rattling good yarn. And whenever she sniffs out such a yarn, the reader will look in vain for original sources to document it.

Take as one illustration an incident that took place during Hawkins’ fourth slaving voyage. Two of his officers, Edward Dudley and George Fitzwilliams, fell into an argument and decided to settle by rowing ashore and fighting a duel. With apologies to the reader for the sheer amount of Ronald’s prose they’re about to endure, here’s our author’s account:

Despite being ordered to behave themselves, the confined spaces aboard ship and perhaps their ordeal led two of Hawkins’s closest companions, Edward Dudley (captain of the soldiers of the fleet) and George Fitzwilliams, into a violent disagreement. When the men set off to row ashore and fight a duel, Hawkins rushed after them to stop it at once. He wasn’t about to allow the Spaniards to have ‘entertainment’ at his men’s expense. When Dudley was confronted by his admiral, he struck Hawkins above the eye with his sword in the heat of the moment, and Dudley was clapped in irons on the spot. Striking a superior officer was mutiny even then, and mutiny was punishable by death.

When Dudley heard his death sentence, the hapless captain of the soldiers fell to his knees and begged Hawkins to spare his miserable life. Hawkins told him to say his prayers, and when Dudley babbled to be forgiven yet again, Hawkins helped him to his feet, saying that would be the end of the matter. The men were relieved, and a thankful Dudley walked away a free, if chastened, man. There would be no rowdiness countenanced on this voyage.

If the curious reader consults the documentation for this dramatic little incident, they’ll find not the slightest scrap of an original document. Instead, she provides two modern works, Hazelwood’s The Queen’s Slave Trader and Sugden’s Sir Francis Drake. Hazelwood’s account of the incident is, amazingly, entirely undocumented—and as such, Ronald should have ignored it as irrelevant. That leaves Sugden’s version, which reads as follows:

Two of his officers, Edward Dudley and George Fitzwilliam, quarreled and resolved to go ashore to settle their differences by a duel. Hawkins only heard about it after Dudley had left, but he intervened, and, refusing to countenance Fiztwilliam quitting the ship, he recalled Dudley forthwith. No display of disunity would entertain the Spaniards while he was in command. Dudley was a hot-tempered man, and he stormed back to the Jesus, where he fell into so violent an argument with his commander that the two resorted to blows and then drew swords. In a brief altercation both Dudley and Hawkins were wounded before they were separated. Dudley had overstepped the mark, as he must have known as soon as he calmed down, and he found himself placed in irons and hauled before Hawkins. The penalty for mutiny was death, and attempting to kill or wound the commander of the expedition admitted of no less a charge. Everyone knew it, and yet there was much sympathy for Dudley among the spectators, a feeling that if he had acted wrongly it had been in temper rather than malice and that he should not suffer the ultimate penalty. While Dudley pleaded for his life, Hawkins menaced him briefly with a loaded arquebus. Then, as tension mounted, the captain suddenly pardoned him. It was a humane gesture which greatly enhanced Hawkins’s standing with his men, reinforced the point he desired to make, and saved him a valuable officer.

So which is it, the reader wonders? Did both men leave the ship, or not? Did Hawkins rush after them, or not? Did both Hawkins and Dudley get hurt, or not? Did Hawkins threaten him with a gun, or not? Did Hawkins help him to his feet, or not? Sugden is Ronald’s only legitimate source, and he doesn’t clarify where he gets any of his details—presumably in bulk from Hawkins’ own account of the voyage, but without reading that account, even the most industrious reader won’t know what comes from where. All Ronald does with Sugden’s version is jazz it up and dumb it down. That hardly qualifies as respect for scrupulous documentation.

The differences between the two accounts are immediately obvious, abundantly numerous, and extremely troubling. The whole point of venerating original documents is that they provide an invaluable foundation for trying to determine what really happened. Someone willing to overlook or actively distort what really happened is by definition writing fiction, not history.

(Then again, maybe what’s going on here is just plain old incompetence in the handling of sources. For instance, when documenting the Inuit legends spawned by their contact with that rat Frobisher, Ronald’s note #7 reads: “As part of local folklore, the Inuit verbally passed down from generation to generation that the Englishmen built themselves a kayak, and rowed away.” In note #11, about two inches down the page, she writes this: “An Inuit legend handed down from generation to generation that the five lost Englishmen built themselves a boat, and sailed away.” Rowed or sailed? Her source for one or the other is Kenneth Andrews’ Trade, Plunder, and Settlements, round about page 177, but if the reader wants to know what Andrews says on the subject, they’ll have to check for themselves; this reviewer is simply too tired).

In the meantime, it looks like the days of breathless, romantic writing about Elizabethan sea-dogs aren’t entirely over after all. All those miserable slaves crammed into Hawkins’ ship holds would not be pleased.

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Steve Donoghue used an early inheritance to build a powerful observatory in the Rhineland, which, after Tycho Brahe’s sudden death, was the most significant source of astronomical data in Europe. He met Kepler once in a beer hall in Prague and begged him to abandon the flawed Ptolemaic system, though to no avail. Presently he stargazes for fun and, just as fun, hosts the literary blog SteveReads.