The best books about historical sea voyages

Who am I?

I am a historical fiction writer living in a landlocked village in the Chilterns, UK. I became obsessed with long sea voyages while researching my debut novel, On Wilder Seas, which is inspired by the true story of Maria, the only woman aboard the Golden Hind during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage in 1577-1580. I immersed myself in the literature of the sea, in early modern sailors’ accounts of their terrifying voyages, in their wills and diaries, in maps and sea-logs. A ship is the perfect setting for a novel: the confined space, the impossibility of escape, the ever-present danger – and the hostile, unforgiving sea is the ultimate antagonist.


I wrote...

On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind

By Nikki Marmery,

Book cover of On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind

What is my book about?

Inspired by a true story, this is the tale of one woman's uncharted voyage to freedom. 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 eighty 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?

The books I picked & why

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Middle Passage

By Charles Johnson,

Book cover of Middle Passage

Why this book?

“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” 

So starts this classic American novel, winner of the 1990 National Book Award, which tells the tale of Rutherford Calhoun, a loveable rogue and newly-emancipated slave in 1830s New Orleans. In an attempt to escape his matrimonially-minded girlfriend, he stows aboard the Republic and finds himself on a voyage to traffic captives from a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri.

What follows is part adventure novel, part slavery narrative, part fable – and a disastrous sea voyage of epic proportions. But what can you expect when you kidnap and enslave a real-life African god?

Middle Passage is brutal and gruesome, featuring cannibalism, rape, murder, and pedophilia alongside the misery of human trafficking. (As Captain Ebenezer Falcon says: ‘There’s not a civilized law that holds water once you’ve put to sea.’) 

It’s almost too memorable. Some of these characters and images will never leave you - however much you want them to. Above all, it’s a dazzling, wild ride; a novel of big ideas about morality and responsibility and an inventive commentary on the creaking American republic itself.

Middle Passage

By Charles Johnson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Middle Passage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Celebrating Fifty Years of Picador Books

Winner of the National Book Award 1990

The Apocalypse would definitely put a crimp in my career plans.

Rutherford Calhoun, a puckish rogue and newly freed slave, spends his days loitering around the docks of New Orleans, dodging debt collectors, gangsters, and Isadora Bailey, a prim and frugal woman who seeks to marry him and curb his mischievous instincts. When the heat from these respective pursuers becomes too much to bear, he cons his way on to the next ship leaving the dock: the Republic. Upon boarding, to his horror he discovers that he…


The Sea Road

By Margaret Elphinstone,

Book cover of The Sea Road

Why this book?

The ‘sea-fiction’ literary canon is very male-focused. But in the real world, women put to sea too, and were sometimes at the forefront of exploration. Maria, the heroine of my novel, was the first non-native woman to set foot on the northwest coast of America, when she arrived with Francis Drake during his circumnavigation voyage in the summer of 1579. Five hundred years earlier, on the other side of the continent, another female pioneer, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, explored and settled the Newfoundland coast. 

Gudrid, the ‘Far Travelled’ of Icelandic sagas, is brought to life in this beautifully written and vividly imagined novel. Rich in historical detail and steeped in the mythology and worldview of the Vikings, it’s a thoroughly convincing portrait of an extraordinary woman at the edge of the known world.

The Sea Road

By Margaret Elphinstone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sea Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A haunting, compelling historical novel, The Sea Road is a daring re-telling of the 11th-century Viking exploration of the North Atlantic from the viewpoint of one extraordinary woman. Gudrid lives at the remote edge of the known world, in a starkly beautiful landscape where the sea is the only connection to the shores beyond. It is a world where the old Norse gods are still invoked, even as Christianity gains favour, where the spirits of the dead roam the vast northern ice-fields, tormenting the living, and Viking explorers plunder foreign shores.

Taking the accidental discovery of North America as its…


Rites of Passage

By William Golding,

Book cover of Rites of Passage

Why this book?

Lord of the Flies – at sea. Golding won the Booker Prize in 1980 for this novel about a tragedy that unfolds aboard a ship sailing to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Edmund Talbot narrates the tale in lively, entertaining letters to his godfather and benefactor, an English lord. 

Talbot is a thoroughly unpleasant character – an entitled, self-serving snob, whose pursuit of a woman, portrayed as a jolly jape, would earn him an assault charge today. 

The first part describes Talbot’s impressions of his fellow passengers, including the laughable Reverend Colley; his coming to terms with the stench and discomforts of ship life; his commitment to learning nautical terms – the ‘tarry language’ of the sailors. The second half veers off into such a surprising tangent that it is hard to describe without giving the game away. Through Colley’s diaries, we understand more clearly what has been going on below the surface - ‘tween decks’ so to speak – that which Talbot, in his self-interest, has not seen. 

The ship, isolated by the indifferent sea, becomes the stage for a study of English pretension and class; of the damage wrought by shame and cruelty.

Rites of Passage

By William Golding,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rites of Passage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sailing to Australia in the early years of the nineteenth century, Edmund Talbot keeps a journal to amuse his godfather back in England. Full of wit and disdain, he records the mounting tensions on the ancient, stinking warship, where officers, sailors, soldiers and emigrants jostle in the crammed spaces below decks.Then a single passenger, the obsequious Reverend Colley, attracts the animosity of the sailors, and in the seclusion of the fo'castle something happens to bring him into a 'hell of self-degradation', where shame is a force deadlier than the sea itself.


The Walrus Mutterer

By Mandy Haggith,

Book cover of The Walrus Mutterer

Why this book?

In 325 BC, Pytheas of Massalia travelled to northern Britain and beyond, becoming the first writer to chronicle the midnight sun and describe the distant land of Thule (possibly Iceland). His account, On the Ocean, was lost to history and is now known only through references by other writers. But we do have The Walrus Mutterer, a brilliant fictionalization of those travels, to make up for it.

Rian is a young woman from the Scottish region of Assynt who is being trained as a healer when she is enslaved and forced to join Pytheas’s dangerous voyage of discovery. In poetic, lean prose, Haggith details Rian’s trials at sea, her endurance and strength, and the search for the eponymous walrus-hunter, which takes them into the far north.

The writing about the weather and landscape of this lost world is exquisite. The beliefs and practices of this distant way of life so convincingly rendered, it is a surprise to discover Haggith actually resides in the 21st century.

The Walrus Mutterer

By Mandy Haggith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Walrus Mutterer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Northern Britain, Iron Age. Rian, a carefree young woman and promising apprentice healer, is enslaved by a spiteful trader and forced aboard a vessel to embark on a perilous sea voyage. They are in search of the fabled hunter known as the Walrus Mutterer, to recover something once stolen. The limits of Rian's endurance are tested not only by the cruelty of her captor, but their mysterious fellow passenger Pytheas The Greek - and the merciless sea that constantly endangers both their mission and their lives. A visceral evocation of ancient folklore and ritual, The Walrus Mutterer introduces an unforgettable…


The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters

By Adam Nicolson, Adam Nicolson,

Book cover of The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters

Why this book?

Not a novel, but it reads like one, as Nicolson tells the story of how the greatest sea voyage tale of all time – The Odyssey, and its sister epic The Iliad – came to be, with a cast of characters including the Greek heroes, gods and goddesses crossing the land and seascapes of Ancient Greece. 

Nicolson argues that these poems emerged not in the 8th century BC, when they were first written down, but a thousand years earlier in the oral tradition. In them, he sees the origin myths of the people who became the Greeks – the fusion of the native people of the Eastern Mediterranean and invaders from the northern steppes. 

But it is Nicolson’s personal investment in his subject that is so beguiling. A sailor himself, he brings his deep knowledge of the sea, of sailing, navigation, the capriciousness of wind, the knife-edge between peace and the furious waves, the danger of the reefs, the battle between man and the forces of nature, to his understanding of these epic poems.

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters

By Adam Nicolson, Adam Nicolson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mighty Dead as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Complex, personal, and profound ... a brash and brave piece of writing ... filled with the swords and spears that inflict the carnage of the Iliad." -The Wall Street Journal

Why Homer Matters is a magical journey of discovery across wide stretches of the past, sewn together by the Iliad and the Odyssey and their metaphors of life and trouble. Homer's poems-transmitted orally across the generations, shaped and reshaped in a living, self-renewing tradition-occupy, as Adam Nicolson writes "a third space" in the way we relate to the past: not as memory, which lasts no more than three generations, nor…


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