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Friday 24 July 2015

The start of Caribbean Piracy and the 1715 Spanish Fleet

(Tuesday Talk - on a Friday :-) 

On 24th July 1715 twelve heavily laden galleons set sail from the New World (Mexico) heading home to Spain after many months of delay. They never made it.

The Flota de Nueva España (the New Spanish Fleet) had initially sailed to Veracruz in Mexico carrying mercury which was an essential substance for refining silver cobs. The intention was to return to Spain, rendezvousing in Havana, Cuba, with a second fleet, the Esquadron de Terra Firme which sailed from Spain to South America and back again. The returning ships would be carrying Peruvian and Colombian treasure from Panama and Cartagena. The entire fleet was a floating treasure chest of magnificent proportion: chests of silver and gold coin, gold bars, gold dust, jewellery, tobacco, spices, indigo and cochineal as well as emeralds, pearls and Chinese porcelain. It is possible that the combined value of the registered cargo (not including any contraband that was also more than likely to have been aboard) nears something like a modern equivalent of about £1,500,000,000.

The Squadron of Tierra Firma was under the command of Captain-General Don Antonio de Escheverz y Zubiza, and the New Spain Fleet by Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla. The flagships were both called Capitana, one being a captured English ship formerly named the Hampton Court. Other known ships (although some names have been disputed) were the Almiranta, the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, Urca de Lima, San Miguel, the El Ciervo, the Refuerzo. and a smaller merchant vessel. Sailing with them, a French ship Griffon, under the command of Captain Antoine Dar.

All of them were overloaded, top-heavy, and clumsy – and had delayed too long. More delays occurred in Havana, and the convoy of twelve ships did not weigh anchor until well into the known hurricane season. The route was the usual tried and tested one up the Bahama Channel: follow the Florida coast making use of the Gulf Stream, which eventually veers across the Atlantic not far from where the fleet was lost.

Seven days after departing from Havana in the evening of July 30th, a hurricane blew in, wrecking the fleet along the Florida coast, with the single exception of the Griffon which sailed on unscathed. Over one thousand people lost their lives, including Ubilla and his officers.

Some of the ships sank in deep water, some broke up in the shallows. The more fortunate ran aground close to the beach. About 1,500 reached the safety of shore by swimming or floating on wreckage. The survivors improvised makeshift camps while a party was dispatched to fetch aid from St. Augustine, but many of those who had scrabbled ashore succumbed to exposure, thirst, shock and hunger before help could arrive. When the terrible news reached Havana, salvage ships were dispatched. Probably not for the immediate benefit of those wretched survivors, but out of concern for the lost cargo.

The first task was to initiate a salvage operation. Much of the treasure was recovered from the holds of the ships which had run aground in the shallows. The salvage encampment grew and a storehouse was erected among the dunes behind the beach bordering unexplored jungle.

Various wars and skirmish between Spain, Holland, France and England – in different combinations with different allies and enemies – had ground to a halt. In the Caribbean, Port Royal, Tortuga and Nassau, and along the North American coast of the Colonies, men sat idle, with no money to spend in the brothels and taverns, with nothing to do. In the harbours, ships lay at anchor slowly rotting.

Word spread of the disaster off the Florida coast, and many of those bored men suddenly had the same idea: get a boat, get rich quick. Like moths to a flame they surged to the shallows in the hope of picking up a fortune – literally.

And then, in 1716, Henry Jennings appeared on the scene.

Captain Jennings (died circa 1745) first appeared as a privateer based in Jamaica, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), a major European conflict which had been triggered by the death of childless Charles II, the last Habsburg King of Spain.

He figured that scrabbling around in the shallows, risking sharks or drowning, was a silly game. He had the better idea of letting the Spanish do the work, then taking between one-hundred-and-fifty to three-hundred men to raid the warehouse at the salvage camp. He returned to Jamaica carrying an estimated 350,000 pesos (a lot of money!) En route he attacked another Spanish ship, amassing more loot, and met up with "Black Sam" Bellamy, committing more acts of piracy together against French ships.

Jennings was declared a pirate and fled to New Providence in the Bahamas. In  Nassau he became the unofficial mayor of the expanding pirate colony, taking the King’s amnesty declared by the newly appointed Governor of the BahamasWoodes Rogers, and eventually  retired to Bermuda as a wealthy plantation owner.

It is the sinking of the Spanish Fleet and Jennings’ daring-do along the Florida coast that inspired my initial idea for Sea Witch. ‘What if’ I thought, ‘it wasn’t Henry Jennings’ idea to raid that warehouse? What if my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne was the brain behind the scheme?’ The idea took flight and became a central part of the first Sea Witch Voyage. You can read an excerpt here:

As for the treasure ships, the Spanish continued salvaging what they could until 1719, then gave up. It is possible that around £300,000,000 still remains on the sea floor, the occasional haul being found by professional marine archaeologists and treasure-hunter, or by lucky holiday-makers.

images: Stock Images via courtesy Cathy Helms 

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Tuesday Talk - The Internet is a Wide World...

I was going to talk about my recent fabulous US trip, but something has irritated today, so I'm going to write about that instead.

OK a bit of a personal moan, I suppose, but one I have repeatedly come up against when I see authors doing it over and again  - and it annoys me every time.

Or am I just being a  stuffy, picky Brit?

The Civil War.
Place Names...  like Falmouth and Boston...

I can see you shrugging, is that a puzzled frown on your brow as well?
'Just what,' I hear you complaining, 'is she muttering about?'

Authors use the Internet to promote their books, right?

We Blog and Tweet and Facebook in subtle ways to draw attention to our epic tomes, usually in the format of 'interesting articles'. For us Historical Fiction authors these often relate to our research. And our readers (we hope) find them interesting, educational and entertaining ... except for me personally when this one little irritation pops up every now and then.

I don't always know if the author is US or UK - and even if I did, that is not always helpful: many US writers pen novels about English history and vice versa.

Here he or she is promoting their book (let's give it a title: 'Brother against Brother - a novel of family conflict during the Civil War'

Sounds interesting doesn't it?


The Civil War?

Are we talking Roundheads and Cavaliers, or North v the Southern Confederate States?

Then we have a novel about shipping: here's another made-up title: 'Fire at the Helm - a thrilling nautical adventure based around the famous Falmouth Fire'

Falmouth  - are we talking UK harbours or US harbors?
English Navy or US?

Boston MA. US

Or how about 'Time for Tea in Boston''
 Is this about THE famous tea party, or an entertaining novel about Sunday afternoon tea and biscuits with a charming British family?

Boston, Lincs, UK
I once contacted an American author and mentioned 'Why don't you say US Civil War, not just Civil War?' He answered 'Why would I need to? What other one was there?"
That did not exactly fill me with confidence for his general knowledge of history. I didn't read his book.

So authors, here's a suggestion:

If you are only going to sell your books in your own country, on your own branch of Amazon - then no, I don't suppose this picky viewpoint makes the slightest bit of difference,

but if you are going to market your book on the World Wide Web... maybe it might be an idea to be  that little tiny bit specific?

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Walking around Williamsburg

Williamsburg Fifes and Drums
Following the Historical Novel Society Conference at Denver (and apart from visiting my graphics designer Cathy Helms) the other reason for flying to the USA was to visit Colonial Williamsburg, a vast re-enactment come historical reconstruction site. In this 301-acre Historic Area there are hundreds of restored, reconstructed, and historically furnished buildings. Costumed interpreters tell the stories of the men and women of the 18th-century city—black, white, and native American, slave, indentured, and free—and the challenges they faced. 

Apart from being interested in the history, my own Captain Jesamiah Acorne is connected to Williamsburg in the Sea Witch Voyages.

I particularly wanted to visit the Coffee Shop (its construction not finished when I was last there and for Cathy Helms to take some photographs for use in my forthcoming Pirates in Fact and Fiction non-fiction book which I have been commissioned by Amberley Press to write.

Refreshment and Gossip
the ideal Coffee Shop
What has Williamsburg to do with pirates? Well quite a bit as it happens. 

Heard of Blackbeard? That dastardly pirate who met his end off the Ocracoke, North Carolina in 1718?  (read my Bring It Close, the third Sea Witch Voyage for a good yarn about this historic event). Several of Blackbeard's crew were arrested and taken to Williamsburg gaol to await trial - and eventual hanging. Also, not many people are aware that the Williamsburg College of William and Mary was built funded by pirate loot.... but you'll have to wait for my book to read all the facts!

I was a little uneasy about my very British Accent being noticed on the Saturday. After all, this was the 4th July, the celebration day for when The Colonies officially became Independent from Britain. I couldn't resist a cheeky toast at the King's Arms Tavern though 'God Bless King George!'

God Save the King!
The Governor's Palace
Although I did admit I do not much care for the House of Hanover, and us Brits didn't want the Colonies anyway.... I mean, you drink your tea iced, eat strange things like corn grits and leave the 'u' out of so many words!

Colonial Hats
(photos except for the gaol by Cathy Helms)

Wednesday 1 July 2015


 I had intended to write my blog on Tuesday, but somehow my dippy blonde brain got muddled between US and UK time. So I am now writing this on Wednesday, except it is almost 2pm here in Cathy Helm’s living room in hot and humid North Carolina (thank goodness for efficient air conditioning). Back home in the UK it is now nearly 8pm. By the time I get to post this I’ll have no idea what the time is where-ever you (the reader) happens to be reading this. So I give up. It might still be Wednesday, it could be Thursday – it could be, well, whenever!

I think suffice to say I am having a great time. (Although missing home, family and animals very much.)

BleeBear in his holiday bed
The flight over was somewhat bumpy. In fact I think it might have been smoother by sea…. Even before I got on the plane I hit problems. No one told me I needed a Visa to enter the US. Not even the airline website said so. In fact I DID look it said ‘Visa not necessary if visit under 90 days or as vacation only.’ Turns out I did need one.

The airport staff were very helpful (which makes me think they know perfectly well that there’s no information saying a visa is needed) apparently they have to deal with this issue on a regular basis. All I had to do was fill in a form, pay $x and hey-presto I would have my Visa. A really nice young man assisted me –unfortunately he was also on duty at baggage check-in so couldn’t give me his undivided attention. It was a task that eventually took us a mere 20 minutes to accomplish. Pity my flight had already taken off.

Again, the Heathrow staff were helpful they booked me into a hotel and re-arranged the same flight for the next day. No idea how I kept cool and calm. I just kept telling myself that my flight had been delayed for a reason.

Missing home - Devon on the morning I left
Sunday, everything went fine and there at Charlotte Airport was Cathy, her mom-in-law Julianne and mom Lynn to meet me. First stop: the ladies restroom.

Jet lag didn’t seem to be a problem, and BleeBear gave his approval to our guest bedroom bed. (Yes he came with me. Ideal neck-rest cushion for long flights.) (see photo above)

Hot and humid here in North Carolina. I do miss sitting outside in fresh, cool, Devon for morning coffee, but better to enjoy indoor air conditioning rather than frizzle outside.

Wednesday, Cathy and I set off for the Historical Novel Conference in Denver, Colorado (sound of John Denver singing in my head ‘Rocky Mountain High! Colorado….!’ 

Very disappointing to discover that although Denver is the ‘Mile High City’ it is also quite a few miles from the mountains. I could just about see them. Never mind, on one of my previous US trips I took the train from Salt Lake City to Chicago – which involved going alongside the Colorado River and up through the mountains. Incidentally, we also stopped for about an hour at Denver Station.

First night, TV were announcing a tornado warning. I was interested (all good research and the hotel looked safe and solid enough). Well I guess the storm was on the other side of the hotel because beyond a few half-hearted lightning flashes and a couple of low thunder grumbles nothing much happened. (I think there was severe flooding in downtown Denver) From where I stood at the window though – Devon beats Denver as far as thunderstorms go. It didn’t even rain on our side of the building. There was a super rainbow afterwards though. Sadly not a very super photo to go with it :-)

Denver Rainbow from our hotel window

Thursday and most of Friday Cathy and I ensconced ourselves at a table in the hotel’s outdoor café, nice and cool, and we could see all new arrivals – including Geri Clouston and husband Bob of Indie B.R.A.G the main Conference sponsor, and Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage – and several other treasured Facebook friends.

Breakfast: l-r Alison, Johan, (waitress)
Anna, me, Cathy, Geri
Friday evening – the reception and buffet dinner. Probably a very little thing to most people but the delightful author and actor C.C. Humphreys (read his books, they’re good!) opened the Conference with a poem…. Which is hereWe are Historical Novelists, Fiction is our Game” 

The lovely (and somewhat handsome) C.C. Humphreys
 (now unashamedly my favourite author!) 

Saturday: in between meeting so many wonderful people (mostly Facebook friends -fabulous to now put faces to names) I was co-speaker for one of the panels  talking about the brass tacks of indie publishing with Geri Clouston, Alison Morton, Anna Belfrage and Dan Willis. We had a rapt and interested audience – hope we managed to answer most questions. Our main emphasis was ‘if you are going to publish as indie/self-publish do it properly and professionally’.

Alison, Geri, Anna, Me
I made mistakes when I first went indie - Big Time mistakes, which is one of the reasons I want to help new writers who go down the indie line with 'lessons learnt' advice. It saddens me (and frustrates) that there are still those who sneer at or mock indie writers - especially those who use the derogatory "they are only indie because they can't get a traditional contract".
 For a kick-off I am what they term 'hybrid' : traditional in the US, indie in the UK. I was traditional in the UK but because of a useless agent I was dropped by Heinemann. My choice? Give up writing (not an option) or go indie. Thank goodness I DID have that choice! 

I know quite a few well-known traditional authors who are turning to indie for their mid- and back-list novels which have been dropped by their (short-sighted) mainstream publishers. And maybe one of the main reasons many of us go indie is because, yes the publishers do not want to publish our books but quality of writing has nothing to do with it... traditional publishing houses like to put their square-peg books into square-peg holes because of marketing. Many indies are cross-over subgenre - my own Sea Witch Voyages are historical fantasy/ nautical adventure.  I received rejections because the publishers said the books would be hard to market as they were not clearly one genre or another. When I took over as Managing Editor for Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews I was determined to ensure we only review the better books (sadly there are some not very good indies... but there are also more than a few not very good traditionals!) and this is one of the reasons I introduced the HNS Indie Award. As far as I am aware we are the only genre-specific group to have such an award - very few even review indies, let alone give awards. I do not want the award to be a competition, I see it is as a goal to achieve where all historical fiction authors have a chance of being longlisted/shortlisted. All a writer has to do to be considered is to write a darn good story and produce a quality novel.

Anna and me (and other authors) signing books
that's Stephanie Dray on my left

It saddened me that there were a few, shall I say, ‘unpleasant’ remarks about Indie authors at the conference. I bit my tongue and smiled sweetly. I put these remarks down to authors who feel threatened by us though! I would have liked to have turned round and said ‘look what Indie has done for the music industry. No one sneers at the many, many top groups who produce albums independently because the record companies were not broad-minded or far-sighted enough to produce material that fell outside the normal market.’ Well, the same applies to us indies.
My only caveat to all that is Indie writers MUST prove we are just as good as traditional mainstream – if not better!

Anyway, for the HNS award, congratulations to runner-up A Day of Fire by E Knight, Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter and Kate Quinn, (some of whom are mainstream authors. Does the ‘not good enough for mainstream apply here?) and our winner, unanimously agreed by our judges, Vivien Crystal and Amy Bruno – Anna Belfrage’s Revenge and Retribution  the sixth book in the ‘Graham Saga’.
Commiserations to our two other finalists Marschel Paul’s theSpirit Room  and Tristan and Iseult by J.D. Smith  Both judges said it was very hard to choose between the four books.

HNS Indie Award
Amy Bruno and Anna Belfrage
Sunday morning I had a very brief chance to chat with a few lovely people, but I had a plane to catch and the cab came early: I promise I will be emailing you all soon but
Tomorrow (Thursday) I’m off to celebrate us Brits giving the Colonies away. 4th July in Williamsburg! Looking forward to it!

See y'all next week! (Hopefully on TUESDAY!)