Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

28 January 2020

Sir Francis Drake: the deluded history of an English Hero

The anniversary of Drake’s death on 28 January 1596 seems an appropriate time to share news of an interesting heritage acquisition, a 16th-century Italian 'avviso' (newsbook), New and Latest Report from Portugal concerning the success of the English Armada led by Dom Antonio and Drake

This newly discovered account of the calamitous English Armada of 1589, co-commanded by Drake and Sir John Norris, is likely the unique surviving example of the report.  It appears to be entirely unknown to bibliography and scholarship.

Pages from 'New and Latest Report from Portugal'Nuovo et ultimo avviso di Portogallo, per il quale s’intende il successo dell’ Armata d’Inghilterra, condotta da D. Antonio, & dal Drago in quei paesi. Con altri particolari d’importanza. ['New and Latest Report from Portugal concerning the success of the English Armada led by Dom Antonio and Drake in those countries. With other important particulars']. Ferrara: per il Baldini, 1589. [British Library shelfmark pending].

'Avvisi' news media circulated by letter or in print have a reputation for being factual, concise and reliable.  They did not seek to exaggerate, impress, or sensationalise for effect.  This avviso is an eyewitness account from a Spaniard in Lisbon with the English at its gates.  It describes the frustrating wait for Spanish or Portuguese reinforcements and the losses suffered by their enemy.

The objectives of the English Armada were to hammer home the advantages gained from the failure of the Spanish Armada the year before.  Elizabeth sought to facilitate Dom Antonio’s claim to the Portuguese throne and so undermine the Spanish Monarchy and its Empire.  The largest English expeditionary force ever assembled - 25,000 men - would finish off the weakened Spanish navy left in port.

The ragtag English forces, largely made up of jail birds and beggars were more interested in pillaging than military glory.  They lacked proper funding (as usual), organisation and discipline.  With no baggage train or cavalry, Norris needlessly marched an army across country instead of sailing up the Tagus to take Lisbon.  Sickness and starvation began to deplete their vast numbers.  Frustrated by the absence of a Portuguese rising in favour of Dom Antonio, the English waited for Drake to sail up the Tagus; but Drake’s ships did not turn up instead busying themselves taking rich prizes from ships in the Roads off Lisbon.  The approach of Spanish reinforcements led the English to retreat.  Sick, starved and dying of wounds, no more than 5,000 returned to England.

The Queen was furious; it was clear that Drake’s and Norris’s thousands had failed.  Disgruntled demobbed survivors brought only plague back and the recently emboldened reputation of the Tudor State was in peril across Europe.  Drake’s reputation eclipsed with accusations of cowardice added to his well-known avarice.

The main contemporary English source describing the expedition was written by a participant, Captain Anthony Wingfield, immediately upon the survivors’ return to England.  It is an expert piece of spin and propaganda.  Written in a heroic literary style, it played down the heavy losses and amplified the ‘glory’ of taking the fight to 'offend' the King of Spain 'in his neerer territories'.

Page from A True Coppie of a Discourse written by a Gentleman, employed in the late Voyage of Spaine and Portingale Wingfield’s apology spent much time condemning “false prophets gone before us”, “telling strange tales” and “sectaries against noted truth”.  Page from A True Coppie of a Discourse written by a Gentleman, employed in the late Voyage of Spaine and Portingale [under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris]: sent to his particular friend, and by him published, for the better satisfaction of all such, as, hauing been seduced by particular report, haue entred into conceipts tending to the discredit of the enterprise, and Actors of the same. British Library shelfmark 292.e.7.

 

Illustration from a 1590 Frankfurt edition of Ephemeris Wingfield’s account in English (for influencing opinion at home) formed the basis for Latin translations printed in Frankfurt and Nuremberg designed to affect informed opinion further afield on the continent.  Illustration from a 1590 Frankfurt edition of Ephemeris (based on Wingfield’s True Coppie of a Discourse) Brevis et fida Narratio, et continuatio rerum omnium a Drako et Norreysio (post felicem ex Occidentalibus insulis reditum) in sua expeditione Portugallensi singulis diebus gestarum. British Library shelfmark G.6516


It is significant that Wingfield’s account has prevailed. Drake’s posthumous reputation steadily revived.  The self-congratulatory, self-exonerating poltroonery of Wingfield’s ‘true’ copie makes for a deluded national history.  The existence and discovery of this Italian newsbook shows the importance of paying attention to wider sources.  Its acquisition adds a new source from a traditionally reliable genre - the avvisi - a counterbalance to facts concealed from English historiography and perpetuated national mythologizing of the Drake Legend.
 

Illustration from The English Hero; or, Sir Francis Drake, reviv'dThe English Hero; or, Sir Francis Drake, reviv'd. was first published in 1681 by Nathaniel Crouch, updating The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake (Drake’s nephew) written in 1625 in an attempt to revive his reputation and status.  Published in many editions, a 1750 edition can be seen online.

Christian Algar,
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

We are very grateful for the contribution made by the British Library Collections Trust towards the cost of acquiring the avviso.

Thanks to Stephen Parkin for providing a translation of the Italian newsbook.

Further reading:
One of the best accounts of the 1589 English Armada can be read online The year after the Armada, and other historical studies by Martin Hume (1896)

A reliable English language biography of Sir Francis Drake is Sir Francis Drake: the Queen's pirate by Harry Kelsey (1998)

A stimulating examination of the English treatment and understanding of the events is given by Luis Gorrochategui Santos in The English Armada: the greatest naval disaster in English history (2018)

 

23 January 2020

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part One

Imagine you’d left your home in London to establish a new life on the island of St Helena.  You begin a trading partnership with your fiancée’s uncle, and the Governor writes to the East India Company’s Directors singing your praises.   As a result, you become the island’s schoolmaster, and later the Company’s naturalist. You send out to England for your fiancée to join you and eagerly await her arrival…. only to find that she has transferred her affections to the ship's Captain and no longer intends to marry you.

This unfortunate turn of events happened to the naturalist and explorer William John Burchell (1781-1863).  During his time on St Helena (1805-10), his travels across South Africa (1810-15), and his expedition to Brazil via Portugal, Madeira and Tenerife (1825-30), he collected tens of thousands of animal, plant, and insect specimens and a variety of ethnographic material.  A talented artist, he made many drawings and paintings, including landscapes, specimens, and the people he encountered.  Burchell has a zebra, several birds, a lizard, fish, butterflies, a plant genus, and even the army ant Eciton burchellii named after him, yet he is not generally well known.

Portrait of William John BurchellWilliam John Burchell by Mary Dawson Turner (née Palgrave), after John Sell Cotman etching (1816) NPG D7805 ©National Portrait Gallery, London

William was born in Fulham in 1781 to the nurseryman Matthew Burchell and his wife Jane.  His early life was surrounded by plants from all over the world, and he came into contact with many of the day's leading botanists.  He worked for a while at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and by 1803 had been elected a fellow of the Linnean Society.  However in August 1805 we find Burchell signed up as 4th mate on the East India Company ship Northumberland.  What made Burchell leave his blossoming botanical career in London?  The answer seems to be a young woman named Lucia Green.  Burchell’s family objected to the match, presumably making him determined to succeed on his own terms.  He arranged a trading partnership with Lucia’s uncle William Balcombe, who had permission ‘to proceed to St Helena for the purpose of exercising the business of an Auctioneer and Appraiser, to the said Island’.

List of the ship's company on the NorthumberlandIOR/L/MAR/B/141 O List of the ship's company on the Northumberland Noc

How Burchell was able to join the Northumberland is not clear.  He did not have the required maritime experience, so perhaps there was a friendship with Captain George Raincock, or a connection with one of the ship’s principal managing owners, Henry Hounsom, William Masson or William Sims.  The ship arrived at St Helena on 13 December 1805.  The ship’s journal notes that Burchell “Left sick at St Helena 28 Jan 1806”, but the presumption is that he never intended to travel further.

 View of Diana's Ridge, from the summit of Sugar Loaf. from Burchell's Saint Helena Journal  View of Diana's Ridge, from the summit of Sugar Loaf. Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810. Dated 8 December 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Burchell was appointed schoolmaster in June 1806 and asked to focus on educating the young men of the island in the light of Company regulations for cadets.  In November 1806 it was proposed that Burchell develop and look after a botanic garden in James’s Valley.  In 1808 Burchell was appointed as the Company’s naturalist, to “ascertain and investigate the natural productions of the Island… in the hope that something valuable for the purposes of commerce or manufacture might be brought to light”.  He was asked to send back samples of “coloured earths” and “sea fowl guano”, to look after plants destined for England, and investigate the cultivation of cotton. 

Sketch of Mr. Burchell directing Charles - St Helena JournalSketch of Mr. Burchell directing Charles: Burchell - 'There's a famous big one down there Charles; Charles - Yes Sir, I'll soon have that down'. Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810 – Dated 8 December 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

And all the while, he awaited the arrival of his fiancée Lucia Green.

To be continued…

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/141 O: Journal of the Northumberland
IOR/L/MAR/B/181 F: Journal of the Walmer Castle
IOR/G/32/70-75: St Helena Consultations
IOR/G/32/136-138: St Helena: Original Letters &c from St Helena to the Court
IOR/B/141, 146 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors
Susan Buchanan, Burchell’s Travels. The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell, 1781-1863 (Cape Town, 2015)
William J. Burchell, Travels in the Interior of southern Africa  (London, 1822-1824)
Buchell’s St Helena drawings, and his manuscript notes on the flora and fauna of St Helena (together with other archival material) are held by the Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Burchell’s original St Helena diary, together with other papers and correspondence, is held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.  It has been published by Robin Castell in William John Burchell (1781-1863) [on] St. Helena (1805-1810) (St Helena: Castell Collection, 2011). The diary is quoted in Buchanan, op. cit.
Other Burchell papers, and papers relating to Burchell can be found at the Linnean Society (Correspondence with William Swainston), and the William Cullen Library, University of Witwatersrand (including copies of material at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the papers of Helen Millar McKay in connection with her research on Burchell). Further drawings and paintings by Burchell can be found in the collections of Museum Africa in Johannesburg.

 

21 January 2020

George Orwell and the Strange Case of the Three Anarchists Jailed at the Old Bailey

In 1945 George Orwell signed up as a sponsor of the Freedom Defence Committee in defence of three anarchists who had been jailed at the Old Bailey.

List of members of Freedom Defence CommitteeList of members of Freedom Defence Committee from pamphlet 1899.ss.4.(29.) Noc

It was just before the end of the Second World War, and a small group of anarchists in Britain had been publishing anti-war articles in a publication called War Commentary since 1939. The anarchists believed that governments with a strict top-to-bottom hierarchy were to blame for war and that Britain’s mistreatment of colonies in the empire was unjust. They didn’t approve of borders, and thought that private property caused conflict.

The intelligence service MI5 had been aware of the anarchists’ subversive publications for many years, but it wasn’t until the end of the war neared in 1944 that MI5 began to be concerned.  They feared that returning soldiers might try to overthrow the British government, and that the anarchists were telling servicemen to hold on to their guns for the revolution!

Freedom is it a crime? Header from pamphlet about trial of anarchists at Old Bailey 1945Freedom - Is it a Crime? Header from pamphlet 1899.ss.4.(29.) Noc

Eventually, four anarchists—Marie Louise Berneri, Vernon Richards, John Hewetson, and Philip Sansom—were charged on 22 February 1945 with dissemination of seditious materials.  Only three anarchists were prosecuted, however, as Marie Louise Berneri was married to Vernon Richards and technically could not conspire with her husband.  Outside their trial, art historian Herbert Read gave speeches in support of their cause: ‘I speak to you as an Englishman, as one proud to follow in the tradition of Milton and Shelley –the tradition of all those poets and philosophers who have given us the proud right to claim freedom of speech and the liberty of unlicensed printing’.

In addition to Herbert Read’s speeches, the Freedom Press Defence Committee was set up to help raise funds for legal fees.  George Orwell was a part of this committee which stated its aims as existing as a ‘vigilance’ against cases ‘concerning the infringement of civil liberties’.  While MI5 were worried about revolutions, many well-known writers and politicians were worried about the British government keeping military law after the war was over.  Famous sponsors of the committee included Aneurin Bevan (who would go on to establish the NHS) and Alex Comfort (who would go on to write The Joy of Sex).

A copy of the speeches was kept by Orwell in his collection of political pamphlets which is now held at the British Library.  He himself would go on to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel about a government suppressing the free speech of citizens in England.

Claudia Treacher
University of Brighton PhD candidate on conscientious objection during WWII
@ClaudiaTreacher

Further Reading:
Read, Herbert. Freedom, Is It a Crime?: The Strange Case of the Three Anarchists Jailed at the Old Bailey, April 1945. London: Freedom Press Defence Committee, 1945.
Honeywell, Carissa. ‘Anarchism and the British Warfare State: The Prosecution of the War Commentary Anarchists, 1945’. International Review of Social History 60, no. 2 (2015): 257–84.
George Orwell 
Collection of pamphlets, mainly political, formed by George Orwell 
Pamphlet literature by George Orwell