April 1579: When two ships meet off the Pacific coast of New Spain, an enslaved woman seizes the chance to escape. But Maria has unwittingly joined Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage as he sets sail on a secret detour into the far north. Sailing into the unknown on the Golden Hind, a lone woman among 80 men, Maria will be tested to the very limits of her endurance. It will take all her wits to survive—and courage to cut the ties that bind her to Drake to pursue her own journey. How far will Maria go to be truly free? Inspired by a true story, this is the tale of one woman’s uncharted voyage to freedom.
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Book One NOVA HISPANIA MARCH-MAY, 1579 MARCH, 1579 ACAPULCO 16º50’N On the day the treasures of the East are unloaded in the harbour of Acapulco, the feria begins. When the cloves, cinnamon and nutmegs, musky sandalwood and camphor oil, the silks, porcelains, ebony-wood and elephants-teeth carvings – when all has been weighed, taxed and released to the merchants, the husks of the galleons inspected for contraband and sent on to the shipyard for repairs – when the scurvy-sore crew are released at last to pray thanks for their lives: only then can the Fair of the Manila Galleons begin. Now, the scorched and dusty town doubles in size. Here come the arrieros, three-legged with their staffs, leading mule-trains down the treacherous mountain path. In iron-wheeled carts come the merchants of México and Jalapa, shaded under rich awnings. Soldiers to protect the cargo, and the Viceroy’s officials to inspect, oversee and record. On foot come the Indio hawkers and begging friars, the gamblers and the whores. By sea, the masters of the Lima ships, come to fill their holds with silks to cover the calves and perfumes to scent the temples of lusty Limeños. And here too, come I, borne here on a Lima ship, unwilling and unasked. I slip through the crowd, among these knaves and sinners, past prodding elbows and bony knees, squeezing myself wherever there is space, to bid and barter, as they do, for the cargo laid out upon tables, rugs and stalls. Yes, I will fight for these treasures too, because only a fool sees the sun and does not ask why it is there. My grandmother was right in this as in most things. I know the sun is there to warm and delight me, as I know what can be bought here for ten pesos may be sold in the ports of Guayaquil, Paita, and Lima for twenty. If I am careful, that is. For it is not permitted. Everything I earn belongs by right to Don Francisco, since all that I am, my labour and my body, are his, may the Virgin spit on his sword and the Devil shit in his face. But if I am not discovered, it gains me some few pesos to put with the little I have in my pouch. One day it will be enough to pass to an agent to buy my freedom. And I must be quick about it, for soon we sail. The bell of the Cacafuego rings out from the harbour. Already, her banners and pennants are raised and kicking at the wind. The red and white cross of the King of Spain flutters from the topmast. The marineros leap like monkeys about the rigging. I run. To the back of the plaza, beyond the Hospital de Nuestra Señora de la Consolación. I push past merchants snatching, haggling, outbidding – past porters and slaves stumbling under the weight of their parcels, the painted women weaving their way, bold-eyed, through the crowd. Past the children squealing with delight at the acrobats tumbling on the wooded hill, and the Indio musicians, whose song of harps and flutes floats above it all. But the scaffold stops me. Two slaves await there today. Both men at least – not children. Chained by collar and cuffs, ready for boiling fat to be poured upon their naked flesh. Runaways, then. Caught running for their freedom in the hidden places of the mountains. Their eyes are fixed there now: on the steel-grey rock rising behind the town and beyond; to the unseen narrow passes and secret valleys that would have shielded them. I will not look. I fly. Past the torture of the slaves, to the alley where the meanest merchants linger. To the stall of the mestizo Felipe, who will keep some offcuts for me. I see him through the crowd from afar. Fuller in the belly than when I saw him last: he prospers. Bales of Chinese silks, cottons of Luzon and muslins from India overflow from three full barrel tops. “Maria!” He welcomes me with outstretched arms and I fold into him. He still smells of the long voyage from Manila: the sour sweat crusted into his linen and the pitch that can never be got out of canvas. I pull away from the stench of his armpit. “What have you for me?” “Nothing, moza, I thought you dead. Where were you last year?” I do not wish to think of where I was last year. I reach out to feel a beautiful silk of emerald green. “God has been good to you, Felipe.” “I have been good to me.” “How much for a piece of this?” He snatches it away. “I cannot discount that,” he shakes his head. “I have a family.” He raises his brow and I realise I have not asked. “How is Nicolás?” “Well,” he nods. “He misses you.” He looks both ways to see who is about. “Come back with the ship,” he urges. “Give your master the slip.” I fold my arms. Four times I have made the crossing to or from Manila and four times I made my peace to die. Twice I sailed in a fleet that lost a ship and all who were in it. Twelve weeks or more of the eternal grey sea and unblinking horizon. And what is the point? Nicolás is all very well. He is a dear sweet child but he is not my own. And Manila is no different from Acapulco, or México, Veracruz or Valperizo. I am a slave in every corner of this New World. Felipe shrugs. “This one I can give you for eight pesos.” He offers me a bolt of black silk. “A little embroidery, make a mantle of it. You can sell it in Lima for fifteen.” I scowl at him. “Four.” “Five,” he smiles. “And this – for your hair.” He shows me a length of calico. I eye it greedily. My hair has been uncovered, at the mercy of every marinero who would tug and grab at it, since Gaspar the cooper pulled off my silken wrap and threw it in the sea. I take it and gather up my salt-stiff curls into a fine double-knot at my forehead. Such relief. I fish out five coins from the pouch at my waist, poking about to check how many remain. Some forty, or thereabouts. One hundred and twenty I will need, this far from the North Ocean ports — and that is if Don Francisco will take the money for my freedom, which I cannot think likely. I fold the silk and put it inside. On second thoughts, I tuck the pouch inside the waist of my skirt and arrange my camisa to hide it. The bell rings out again from the Cacafuego and I embrace Felipe. I hold his head to my breast as if he were dear Nicolás, and I run. Into the back alleys, between the crude fishermen’s huts of mud and straw. Past the marineros waiting outside the whorehouse. Around to the harbour – battling through the soldiers on patrol and the custom-men signing off each bale and package that leaves the port – to where the shipsits, laden and heavy in the water. I watch her awhile. She rides close to the harbour wall, moored to an ancient ceiba tree. A tall ship: so high is the forecastle she looks like she will fall into the sea. Don Francisco is on the maindeck – I can tell his gait anywhere. He walks slowly, head down, as if he picks his way through a mess of dripped tar. Every now and then he raises his eyes to look about: behind the gallery, down the hatches. He is looking for me. If I had the courage of the men on the scaffold, I would race the other way. Up the path to the mountains. To find the Cimarrones who live out their lives freely in hidden jungle forts. Or I would sail with Felipe, back to Manila, where there is at least dear Nicolás to caress and spoil. But I am short on courage, as I am of most things. “Well there, negra!” I freeze as I am pulled back into the alley from behind. A filthy hand over my mouth, and the stench of fish-breath and wine in my face. By all God’s whores, it is Pascual, the pilot of the Cacafuego. “What do you here?” he sneers. He releases my mouth to push my head back sharp by the chin, searching with his other hand inside my skirts. He cannot resist the opportunity to force his fingers hard inside me, bending me double with the pain. I close my eyes and bite down on my tongue. “Ay!” he brings out my pouch. “You keep two treasures inside your skirts.” Pascual takes out the silk, and pours the coins into his palm. “I wonder,” he says. “Does Don Francisco know of this? Is it possible you trade on his account? For these small and paltry sums?” I hum to block out his noise. I know what is coming. “Or, more likely, you steal from him. Withholding from your owner his rightful earnings.” He pockets my forty pesos, folds the silk inside his doublet and hands me back my empty pouch. “But do not fear. I will save you the whip, negrita. I will not tell him.” He leads me, pulling hard by the wrist, deeper into the maze of huts and stables. He pulls me into a storehouse through a door that creaks on one hinge. I take in the room in one glance. A donkey roped in the corner. Empty mule-packs stacked by the door. Straw covers the floor, where he pushes me now, my cheek cracking against the stone. The donkey blinks at me, his long lashes sweeping lazily. His tail switches backwards and forwards, shooing away the flies. Behind me, Pascual, drunk and stumbling, struggles with his breeches. I count in my head. Not the Spanish numbers. My own tongue. Kink, cherink, chasas. The only words I have left. Yaunaleih, chamatra, chamatrakink. Everything else is gone into the fog, with the face of my mother and many other things. I am up to cubach, and much vexed that I cannot remember what comes after, when I notice the hook of an arriero’s staff poking from beneath the straw. I do not think. I respond in the instant. As the ass’ tail dispatches a fly. With one move I grasp the staff and swing it back to meet with a pleasing crack the side of Pascual’s head. He is knocked to the floor, curled and howling like a baby, and I am up, wielding the staff in my hands, before he can raise himself. He moans, a trail of blood pouring from his temple, and pooling into the straw. I back out towards the door. The donkey screeches. Pascual looks to it in surprise, and I rush in and strike him hard across the back for good measure. I run, as fast as the wind, out of the storehouse, back through the narrow alleys, not stopping until I am at the harbour, by the gnarled and lizard-like roots of the old ceiba tree. Beside its spiny trunk, I collect my breath. I watch, still panting, as the last porters leave the loaded ship. A black-frocked inquisitor follows them, carrying off the forbidden books he has found. So it will be a dull voyage. No tales of Orlando beneath the mainsail after prayers. No Araucana sung to the strings of a guitarra. Two thousand leagues of Lives of the Saints and Histories of the Popes. I cast my eyes one last time to the mountains: to the steep and narrow path leading out of Acapulco. Already, the first mule-trains have started, rising from the fields of hemp, through wooded slopes thick with brazilwood trees, on the long road back to México. But it cannot be helped. I have no choice. Dizzied, holding tight the rope, I climb the swaying ramp onto the maindeck of the Cacafuego. “There you are,” says Don Francisco when he spies me. He looks me up and down. “Clean yourself, what’s happened to you?” He does not wait for an answer. I put my hand to my face and realise I am bleeding, where Pascual threw me to the floor. Around me, the men scurry into action. The maestre’s whistle shrieks across the deck. The marineros chant as they haul aboard the anchors. The great sails are unfurled from the yards above. They roar as they fill, full-bellied with the wind. The ramp is hoisted, then lowered, as Pascual comes running from the storehouse just in time, red of face, and bloodied of the head. The mooring rope is coiled aboard. In Don Francisco’s cabin in the sterncastle, I wash the blood from my cheek and elbows with stinging sea water. I check to see if a solitary peso remains hidden in my pouch, but it is flat. Empty as a virgin’s womb. What God has seen fit to provide, that vile cabrón has taken away. I fold it back into my skirts. As we glide past Isla de la Roqueta in the bay, a pair of black-necked geese dance on a flat grey rock by the water’s edge. They hiss and bark at each other. A mating pair. Not mountain nor sea can contain them. They arrive in Acapulco every October, in time for Día de los Muertos, as if they return with souls from the grave, to visit the living and feast. And every springtime they return – to wherever it is they go – soaring as one arrow-headed flock. Into the north, where the Spaniards hold no power. Soon it will be time for them to leave. Would that they could take me with them. But here I am. Shut up in the creaking prison of the Cacafuego, under the watchful eye of Don Francisco and these other vicious men, bound once again for Lima. Wretched Lima: the place of my worst and most lasting misery.