Book Review: The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 28, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

Book Review: The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake

ON SEPT. 26, 1580, Francis DRAKE arrived in Plymouth harbour aboard the Golden Hinde, completing one of the most famous voyages in world history - an epic 65,000-km circumnavigation of the globe. It was only the second such voyage ever made, and the first in which the captain himself - in this case, the greatest mariner of the age, in the opinion of friend and foe alike - made it back alive. Drake had been gone almost three years, long enough to have been given up for dead by many, including his wife, Mary, who had taken up with another man. No European had set eyes on Drake between April 1579, when he was off the Pacific coast of Mexico, and the following November, when a Portuguese galleon was astonished to find an English ship south of the Philippines. The whereabouts of the Golden Hinde during those seven months was immediately subjected to a royal cone of silence - by order of Queen Elizabeth I, Drake's sailors were forbidden to reveal their route on pain of death.

How far north Drake went along the Pacific West Coast before turning toward Asia has been hotly disputed ever since. Maps and accounts, many of them mutually contradictory, that began to emerge more than a decade after the voyage, seem to indicate Drake went no farther than northern California, which he named Nova Albion (New England) and claimed for Elizabeth. He then backtracked to spend five weeks repairing his ship in a bay somewhere near San Francisco. For more than a century, American Drake aficionados - bolstered by the 1937 "discovery" in California's Marin County of a brass plate ascribed to Drake - have been embroiled in a classic the-struggle's-so-vicious-because-the stakes-are-so-small fight over just which California bay was Drake's anchorage. The fact that none of the proposed candidates resembles a drawing found on a near-contemporary map hasn't dampened enthusiasm. Even the 1970s tests that proved the brass plate was a fake (the metallurgy is modern) barely caused a blip in the California dreaming.

Stepping bravely into these murky waters is Samuel Bawlf - geographer, developer, former politician, devotee of Pacific maritime history and, now, author of The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake (Douglas & McIntyre). Bawlf offers a compelling, rigorously argued case that Drake went much further north - as far as southern Alaska. Nova Albion, in fact, was at Comox on Vancouver Island, according to Bawlf, and Drake was the first European to visit British Columbia, two centuries before James Cook, who has that honour in the history books.

Bawlf's Drake is far more than a gifted seaman and a first-rate pirate - Queen Elizabeth's sharpest weapon against her mortal enemy, King Philip II of Spain. Drake was that, of course. He sailed through the treacherous Strait of Magellan and burst into the Pacific - a placid lake of wallowing Spanish treasure ships - like the first predator in the Garden of Eden. It took Drake's crew three full days to transfer bullion from one captured prize to their ship. A contemporary estimated that the plunder lugged home by the Golden Hinde would be enough to pay for seven years of war against the very Spaniards from whom it was stolen.

But Drake was also a key figure in England's ambitious master plan, a secret strategy to establish its own trade route to Asia. Just as other Elizabethan sailors, like Martin Frobisher, were seeking the Northwest Passage to Cathay from the Atlantic end, Drake was to search for the passage's Pacific entrance and - should the climate and natives prove welcoming - establish a safe refuge for English ships in need of supplies and repairs. The need to keep the Spanish in the dark was paramount. Hence the secrecy and deliberate misinformation, which persisted long after the plan was abandoned and its principal agents were dead.

Bawlf, 59, has displayed a Drake-like level of tenacity in his pursuit of the English explorer. Winnipeg-born, he grew up in Vancouver. "I started reading about the early exploration of the coast in my teens," he recalls. "My interest lay fallow a long time, but it really came back in focus during the bicentennial celebrations of Cook's 1778 arrival." The bicentennial probably had that effect on a lot of British Columbians, but Bawlf, who had gone from redeveloping Victoria's historic core to politics, was in a position to do something about it. As the cabinet minister in Bill Bennett's Social Credit government in charge of the celebrations, he stepped up underwater archaeology programs and ordered his officials to look for evidence of contact before Cook. Drake's name naturally surfaced, and has never since been far from Bawlf's mind.

In the mid-'90s a tip led him to some 16th-century Dutch maps that accurately depicted the Pacific northwest coast. Bawlf drew the conclusion that the official maps of Drake's voyage - which don't show those details - had been censored. Who else but Drake or his crew could have provided that information to the Dutch, close Protestant allies of the English in the struggle against Catholic Spain? On English maps, the explorer's journey had been deliberately shifted south by 10 degrees of latitude. By approaching the problem through the maps, rather than the texts, Bawlf felt he had made a crucial breakthrough. "Cartography has always been used as a secondary source, not a 'real,' primary, written record," he notes. "But in Drake's case the written record has been considerably messed about."

When the old Drake maps are compared with modern charts, not of the California coast they purport to show but of B.C.'s far more complex Inside Passage, recognizable features leap out - everything from Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes to the Fraser River. And that's true of not just one or two charts, Bawlf says, "but more than 20, all of which can be traced to Drake's expedition, and probably Drake himself, all of them misleading until you deduce the rules of encryption." Namely, the practice of locating landfalls 10 degrees south of where they actually occurred. "Then everything dovetails, the heavily edited written material and the altered maps."

The enduring mysteries cleared up by Bawlf's research include accounting for the seven missing months in mid-voyage and the puzzling point in the written accounts where Drake turns south because of biting cold. What Bawlf calls "the California mob" ascribes the frigid temperature to the Little Ice Age: unusually cool climactic conditions that affected the northern hemisphere at the time. But to have the kind of weather described - including freezing rain and floating ice - in California, Bawlf laughs, "would have required a real ice age."

Clearing up everything was Bawlf's plan for his enormously detailed book. "I didn't go through five years of research and two years of writing to have it treated as an interesting theory, something to go with all the ragtag garbage of the past century. I wanted a new, convincing explanation of all the evidence." Why was it worth so much time and effort? A matter of simple justice, Bawlf replies. "Drake's was arguably the greatest voyage of exploration ever," he enthuses, "from sailing 65,000 km around the world to mapping the coast of B.C. Shouldn't he get the credit for it?"


Maclean's July 28, 2003