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Join me on (virtual) tour!


With the great help of Amy Bruno at Historical Fiction VBT, I’ll be flying around the web this month. Hope to meet up with you here and there! (Continued)

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Galicia: Songs of Love

Miniature from Cantiga 120 (Alfonso X), from via Wikimedia Commons

Miniature from Cantiga 120 (Alfonso X), from via Wikimedia Commons

In Chapter Eight of The Spanish Patriot, Louisa translates some lines from a troubadour song as it is being played. It’s a small note in the scene, but comes from a deeper place: my discovery of this beautiful song and my search to learn more about it and about the Portuguese-Galician troubadour tradition. Cantigas are medieval monophonic melodies, songs of love and songs of friendship, or of satire, or of faith. In one of the cantigas de amigo, a father warns his daughter to listen to him and not her boyfriend (!), but most are in the female voice.

Lovely daughter, look what I’m telling you:
Do not talk with your boyfriend
Without me, o lovely daughter.

And, daughter, if you want my love,
I ask you that you never talk with him
Without me, o lovely daughter.

And there’s something else you’re careless about:
You lose every word you talk with him
Without me, o lovely daughter.

Of course I fell for a cantiga de amor, attributed to King Dinis of Portugal, “O que vos nunca cuidei a dizer.” Here’s one version of the lyric: (Continued)

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Corunna: Musical notes

Vilanova dos Infantes, Celanova, Ourense, Galicia. Romería Etnográfica Raigame. 17 de Mayo de 2008. "Gaiteiros em romaria galega" by Dario Alvarez - originally posted to Flickr as HPIM8811. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Gaiteiros [pipers] in a Galician pilgrimage, Ourense, Galicia, 2008. By Dario Alvarez via Wikicommons

Part of choosing to write a story set in Spain was my love for the work of classical Spanish guitarists (Andres Segovia, Paco Peña, and many more). Turns out that was NOT the popular music of Galicia, where The Spanish Patriot is set. In addition to the dulcet tones of the acoustic guitar and intimate songs steeped in saudade (see below), people in Corunna in 1808 were likely to hear whistle-sharp flutes—and bagpipes!


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Prelude to Corunna: A beach landing

Riazor beach, since the port of La Coruña's beach is no more.

Riazor beach in La Coruña, since the port of La Coruña’s beach is no more. The surfing is good here, I’m told. Photo by me.

Schaumann-coverI could not find a description of the British troops departing the transport ships for the beach of Corunna harbor to use in The Spanish Patriot, but I did find one for a similar — rather eventful — embarkation a few months earlier, in Portugal.

This is from the memoir On the Road with Wellington: The Diary of a war commissary in the Peninsular campaigns, by August Schaumann. (Schaumann, with the King’s German Legion, also was one of a couple of models for my Capt. Smith):

Perilous Disembarkation in Maceira Bay

At about ten o’clock on Sunday morning the 28th August, 1808, we were given the signal to land. In five minutes all the troops were under arms. Parties were told off, and at the command, “March!” with my portmanteau under my arm, I climbed with a portion of my cousin Plate’s company into one of the flat-bottomed boats supplied by the men-o’-war. Preceded by two sloops, we rowed rapidly towards the rocky, sandy shore of the bay, which the huge breakers had converted into a sheet of raging foam. The men sat four by four on the thwarts, all pressed closely together, with their packs and muskets between their legs. None of the officers was allowed to take more than a valise with him.

Right and left the coast formed two lofty headlands of rock, on one of which stood the ruins of an old Moorish castle. On both of these headlands English signalling flags were flying and directing the landing-that is to say, informing the fleet of the ebb and flow of the tide, and of the state of the breakers, so that the debarkation of the troops might be properly timed. Between these two headlands, which were about 1,000 yards apart, lay about 300 yards of sandy beach enclosed by a lofty chain of rocks. Upon this stretch of sand the raging breakers, raising their heads houses high when they were still some considerable distance from the land, rolled in from the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay, and, hemmed in on either side by the two headlands, pressed forward in lofty walls of water, that swept in a roaring storm of foam far over the beach.

With beating hearts we approached the first line of surf, and were lifted high up into the air. We clung frantically to our seats, and all of us had to crouch quite low. Not a few closed their eyes and prayed, but I did not close mine before we were actually in the foam of the roaring breakers on the beach. There were twenty to thirty British sailors on the short, all quite naked, who, the moment the foremost breakers withdrew, dashed like lightning into the surf, and after many vain efforts, during which they were often caught up and thrown back by the waves, at last succeeded in casting a long rope to us, which we were able to seize. Then with a loud hurrah, they ran at top speed through the advancing breakers up the beach, dragging us with them, until the boat stuck fast, and there was only a little spray from the surf to wet us. Finally, seizing a favourable opportunity, when a retreating wave had withdrawn sufficiently far, each of them took a soldier on his back and carried him thus on to the dry shore. At last it was my turn to be carried, and thus it came about that at eleven o’clock on the morning of the 28th August, 1808, with all my earthly belongings in my portmanteau under my arm, I stood with wide-open eyes on Portuguese soil, on the sandy shore of the Bay of Maceira, hale and hearty, and muttered to myself: “Here I am, now what next? God help me! Amen!”

What a teeming multitude there was on the beach! I sat down on my portmanteau in the shade of the cliff, and watched the troops landing. It was funny to see a boat coming in through the breakers with its load of horses, which, by the bye, were unsaddled. They would all dash helter-skelter out of the reeling vessel into the surf, and then swim to shore, while the hussars, who had released their bridles, had to thank their lucky stars that they were not pulled overboard with them. Think of the feelings of the poor brutes! After having been confined for four months in the stuffy hold of a ship, to be suddenly thrust into the light of day and into the middle of foaming breakers in the bargain! As soon as they reached the shore they galloped wildly along it, to and fro, snorting, panting, neighing, and biting and kicking one another, to the great danger of all those gathered on the beach; and then they would roll over on the sand.

—pp 1-2

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Field Trip: Printer’s shop


One of the two presses at Colonial Williamsburg. All photos by me; click to see them bigger.

I decided that the Wakefield family in my novel The Spanish Patriot would be printers after reading this passage, from Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff (boldface type is my highlighting):

Wells had dismantled his family’s printing press in Charleston (used to print Charleston’s leading prewar newspaper) and brought it with him to St. Augustine. There he successfully reassembled it—thanks to the invaluable diagrams in a book called The Printer’s Grammar and ‘the assistance of a common negro carpenter’—to publish Florida’s first newspaper in early 1783. — p 97

I’d never heard that colonial presses could be taken apart and put back together. Imagine, people traveling the world with their own “portable” printing press — and a ton of extra luggage allowance. I couldn’t resist sending my Wakefields all over the Atlantic with their press. I had to see one up-close, so early last year we spent the day at Colonial Williamsburg, which has a working printery. (Continued)

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Now in audio – The Spanish Patriot

My new historical The Spanish Patriot is now available as an audiobook–and it sounds wonderful! Narrator Derek Perkins had quite the challenge, with a tricky point of view as well as characters from London, the midlands, America, Galicia, Madrid, and more. His distinctive voices and great phrasing bring my words to life. The audiobook is at Audible/Amazon and iTunes.

Spanish Patriot audio excerpt     


A few of my relatives prefer the audio versions, and they’ve been clamoring for this one. I hope you enjoy it, too.

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A tour of La Coruña, in search of Corunna 1808

Between the second and third drafts of The Spanish Patriot, I traveled to its main setting, Corunna (A Coruña in Gallego, La Coruña in Castilian), in the region of Galicia, on Spain’s northwestern edge. Whenever possible, I like to go to the places I write about, especially to get a sense of the place. Here, it was the roar of the surf, the sound of the wind, the easing of my skin because of the humidity, and the steepness of the hills that I’d missed in all my reading about the town. Of course, it’s a modern city today, rather industrial, and far larger than it was in 1808, but I did find traces of what it might have felt like in the early 19th century.

Most obvious, remnants of the old Roman walls and other fortifications still shore up some of the blocks in Old Town. Here’s a bird’s eye view of Corunna in 1808, thanks to the diorama makers at the military museum in Old Town.

all photos by me; click to see bigger

all photos by me; click to see bigger

The town is on an unusual spit of land: a peninsula, its neck pinched between the cove of Orzán and the port of La Coruña. Old Town is at the southern tip, ringed by a stone wall; above it and into the neck is the “modern” part of town, including the fish market, with stretches of walls as well. Some of the walls were built by the Romans, who marauded through starting in the 2nd century BCE; they erected the Farum Brigantium (lighthouse, now called the Tower of Hercules) at the northern tip around then. The lighthouse, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still works. (Continued)

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Loyalists: American Refugees


“A black wood cutter at Shelburne, Nova Scotia,” 1788 watercolor by William Booth, is the earliest known image of an African Nova Scotian. He probably lived in Birchtown, the largest free settlement of Africans in North America in the 18th century. Source: National Archives of Canada

[See first post: Road to Corunna — American Loyalists]

Of course, the British lost the American War of Independence. Of the white Loyalists, about 15 percent fled the colonies after the British surrender, many to Canada or Florida. As historian Maya Jasanoff says in her book Liberty’s Exiles:

Confronting real doubts about their lives, liberty, and potential happiness in the United States, sixty thousand loyalists decided to follow the British and take their chances elsewhere in the British Empire. They took fifteen thousand black slaves with them, bringing the total to seventy-five thousand people—or about one in forty members of the American population. –p 6

Among the more famous departures was that of William Franklin, the former governor of New Jersey and son of founding father Benjamin Franklin. William, who had been imprisoned during part of the war, left for England, never to return to America nor reconcile with his father. (Continued)

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Road to Corunna: American Loyalists


United Empire Loyalist monument, unveiled on Empire Day, 23 May 1929, at Prince’s Square on Main Street East in Hamilton, Ontario. Source Saforrest (see words from memorial below)

One of the strong influences on my novel The Spanish Patriot was learning about the American colonists who did not wish to separate from Britain during the revolution and civil war of the late 1700s. From what I’d learned in school, I assumed there were maybe a few grump-headed Loyalists, some of whom joined the British to fight against the rebels (Benedict Arnold!), but then after peace was declared everyone quickly fell back into happy coexistence.

Not so.

Not a sliver, but some 15-20 percent of all the white people in the colonies were Loyalists, also called Tories or Royalists. In fact, according to Robert M. Calhoon in A Companion to the American Revolution:

Approximately half the colonists of European ancestry tried to avoid involvement in the struggle—some of them deliberate pacifists, others recent immigrants, and many more simple apolitical folk. The patriots received active support from perhaps 40 to 45 percent of the white populace, and at most no more than a bare majority. — p 235

Not all loyalists were white Europeans, either. Thousands of slaves escaped to British lines, especially after Lord Dunmore’s “Emancipation Proclamation” in November 1775. Dunmore, fighting to hold the power of his position as royal governor of Virginia and bolster his 300-man army, declared all revolutionaries traitors to the Crown and promised freedom for slaves of American revolutionaries who left their owners and joined the royal forces. From 800 to 2,000 slaves of all ages and genders are thought to have joined with Dunmore. Some 300 men were enlisted into what was called Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment; others served in guerrilla units and other services. Later some would form the Black Pioneers mulitary unit, including Henry Washington, who had fled the plantation run by George and Martha Washington. (Continued)

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Prelude to Corunna: Campfollowers

Detail from ‘Soldiers Cooking,’ 1798. Source: National Army Museum

In Lisbon in October 1808, British General John Moore knew he was getting a late start on marching over mountainous country to assist the Spanish armies against Napoleon. Many roads could not support artillery trains, not nearly enough wagons could be found, and an untried commissariat already was having trouble keeping the troops fed.

At this time (and into the 1900s), quite a few families traveled along with the troops, usually as part of the baggage train, which could stretch miles along narrow roads. Each British company on active service in Portugal was allowed to bring a maximum of six wives “on the strength of the company,” though in practice some had fewer and some far more. Wives on the strength were expected to serve the company doing cooking, washing, and the like, and drew half-rations; their children drew quarter-rations. Wives and others not on the strength had to fend for themselves. (Officers’ wives who traveled to war did so mainly on family money, and usually stayed far behind the lines, often in hub cities like Lisbon.)

The life of “the baggage” was hard at all times, and a winter march would take a large toll, especially for an army that did not even have tents. (Tents weren’t issued to all British units until 1813.) Trying to forestall trouble ahead, Moore issued a General Order on 10 October:

As in the course of the long march which the army is about to undertake and where no carts will be allowed, the women would unavoidably be exposed to the greatest hardship and distress, commanding officers are, therefore, desired to use their endeavours to prevent as many as possible, particularly those having young children, or such as are not stout, or equal to fatigue, from following the army.

Those who remain will be left with the heavy luggage of the regiments. An officer will be charged to draw their rations, and they will be sent to England by the first good opportunity; and when landed, they will receive the same allowance which they would have been entitled to, if they had not embarked, to enable them to reach their homes.

This was more generous than usual: free transport, rations, and passage all the way home (not just to shore) were rare. But often the reason British women traveled with their men was there was no work at home; there are many stories of the wives who lost the “go with the regiment” draw and had to stay behind, ending up in poor houses, on parish charity, or worse.

Only a few families took up Moore’s offer. Hundreds (perhaps a thousand, records are frustratingly unclear) stepped out with their companies starting 11 October 1808.

Nor did the wives stay behind when General Baird’s forces arrived in Corunna on 13 October, despite a similar offer. For them, their children, and their men, it was to be a long haul.

Next month: The story of the Pullen family in 1809 after Corunna campaign ends.

Read more:
8 Fast Facts about Camp Followers at All Things Liberty focuses on British wars in America, but true for Peninsular war, too

Catherine Exley’s Diary: The life and times of an army wife on the Peninsular campaign, edited by Rebecca Probert (no online edition, but my review on Goodreads includes some quotes)


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