Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Oxenham, John

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OXENHAM, JOHN (d. 1575), sea-captain, of a good Devonshire family settled at South Tawton, was with Drake in 1572 at the capture of Nombre de Dios [see Drake, Sir Francis]. He is spoken of as the ship's cook, a rating which in a small privateer probably corresponded with that of the modern purser. In the march across the Isthmus, Oxenham, following Drake, mounted the tree at the top of the ridge, and in response to Drake's prayer that it might be granted to him to sail on the South Sea, which he had just seen, is said to have answered that, by God's grace, he would follow him. On their return to England Drake was for some time employed in Ireland; and when two years had passed away, Oxenham, whose reputation as a man of courage and ability stood high, resolved to make the attempt by himself. He accordingly fitted out a ship of 120 tons, with a crew of seventy men, and sailed for the Isthmus, where he drew his ship aground in a small creek, buried her guns and stores, and, with his men, marched across the Isthmus, till, coming to a stream which ran to the south, they built a pinnace '45 foot long by the keel,' and in it sailed down into the South Sea, having with them six negroes as guides. At the Isle of Pearls they lay some ten days, and then captured two small barks carrying gold and silver from Quito to Panama. With this treasure and some pearls found in the island they returned to the river down which they had come, stupidly dismissing the prizes near its mouth, and allowing them to see which way they took. Indians from the island had already given the alarm at Panama, and a strong party of men, commanded by Juan de Ortega, had been sent out to look for them. Searching along the coast, Ortega was directed by the prizes to the river the English had entered; and when in doubt as to the particular branch, he was further informed by the feathers of fowls, which the English, as they plucked the birds, had carelessly thrown into the stream. Ortega was thus able to follow them up with certainty, and coming on their camp, from which they fled at the first alarm, recaptured all the booty. Oxenham made an attempt to recover the property, but was beaten off with heavy loss. He then retreated for his ship, but this had been found and removed by a party from Nombre de Dios, whence also a body of two hundred musketeers was sent to hunt down the English. Some, who were sick, fell at once into their hands; the rest, including Oxenham, were handed over by the negroes. They were taken to Panama, and, being unable to show any commission or authority, were, for the most part, put to death there as pirates; but Oxenham and two others, the master and the pilot, were sent to Lima and there hanged. That Oxenham was a man of rude courage would appear certain, but the whole conduct of the adventure shows him to have been without tact or discretion. He excited the ill-will of his own men, and made them suspect him of intending to cheat them out of their share of the plunder; he failed to win the affection or loyalty of the negroes; and a succession of blunders, such as those by which Ortega was informed of the line of his retreat, could have no other result than defeat and ruin. The romantic story of his intrigue with a Spanish lady, which has been worked with advantage into Kingsley's 'Westward Ho!' seems to be a fiction of a later date.

[Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, iii. 526; Purchas his Pilgrimes, iv. 1180; The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins in The Hawkins's Voyages (Hakluyt Soc.), p. 322; Southey's British Admirals, iii. 108.]

J. K. L.