A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A Canadian contends that a conspiracy covered up the true extent of the English explorer's voyage
There's nothing like a good conspiracy theory to spice up an account of an often overlooked period in history. In this spirit, add to a long list of paranoid, fictitious, Renaissance cover-ups what you could call the "Drake Code."
Samuel Bawlf's exceedingly well-illustrated The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake 1577-1580 (New York, Walker and Company: 2004, $15) takes as its premise that a conspiracy kept under wrap for centuries concealed one of the chief accomplishments of Queen Elizabeth's favorite privateer and explorer. Bawlf's idea, simply stated, is that Drake sailed much, much farther along the Pacific coast than historians and archaeologists have assumed. If we are to believe Bawlf, Drake should get credit for exploring most of what is today the west coast of Canada, all the way up to Prince of Wales Island, and in fact up to Alaska's southern margin. Conventional history puts Drake in southern Oregon and northern California during his famed circumnavigation of the globe. But Bawlf claims this ignores the possibility of a vast Elizabethan conspiracy aimed at concealing Drake's true route along the coast of Canada from the Spanish.
(Portrait courtesy Drake Navigator's Guild)
It's a bold thesis, but it rests on baroque reinterpretations of maps, ethnographic descriptions, and ignores convincing archaeological evidence that Drake's voyage was confined to the coast of what later became California and southern Oregon.
Bawlf, a former provincial minister responsible for among other things British Columbia's archaeological heritage, spends a considerable chunk of his book retelling the entire history of Drake's gutsy circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hind, which always makes for great reading no matter the spin an author might put on it. But the evidence Bawlf presents in the chapters devoted to recasting Drake's voyage up the Pacific coast as an exploration of Canada simply doesn't hold up.
At the heart of Bawlf's case is a group of islands that appear on maps showing Drake's voyage around the world. He identifies them as the great island chain off British Columbia's coast, including Vancouver Island and Prince of Wales Island. But the same islands first show up on a 1564 map, a couple of decades before Drake's voyage. It's extremely likely the islands were not based on any concrete observations of the Canadian coast, and were simply invented islands that were later copied on to maps depicting Golden Hind's great journey around the globe.
For archaeology buffs, there are two other serious problems with Bawlf's theory. In his descriptions of his voyage, Drake went to great pains to describe the native peoples he encountered. Often credited with being a remarkably straightforward chronicler, Drake describes a people who must be the Miwok Indians of northern California. Nowhere does Drake describe the great Northwestern cultures of today's British Columbia; people he surely would have encountered had he sailed the Golden Hind as far north as Bawlf would like to believe.
Perhaps most seriously, nowhere does Bawlf address the very real concrete archaeological evidence for Drake making landfall in northern California in the region of what we now know as Drake's Bay. Excavations in the area have uncovered porcelain sherds of the type an English ship would have carried in the 1570s. The pottery has turned up among other places in the excavations of a Miwok village.
Through no fault of his own, also add Bawlf to the long list of chroniclers of New World exploration who have fallen for what is perhaps a true conspiracy, although a fairly minor one. Bawlf makes use of sixteenth-century Flemish artist Theodore de Bry's illustration of Drake being crowned by Indians. The dubious authenticity of de Bry's portrayal of Native Americans was the subject of a recent ARCHAEOLOGY article. But here Bawlf finds himself in good company, since de Bry's wildly inaccurate depictions continue to be one of the primary sources for visual representation of this period of New World history.
Should we consign Bawlf to the company of Gavin Menzies, author of 1421, a book that purports to demonstrate that a Chinese fleet circumnavigated the globe, discovering virtually every landmass in the Western Hemisphere? Like Menzies, Bawlf tells a deeply improbable story vividly and well. But credit Bawlf at least with compelling us to take another look at Drake, who we often forget made the first English land claim in what became the United States.
There's a wealth of honest-to-goodness information on Drake out there that doesn't rely on conspiracy theories. For a start, take a look at the web site of The Drake Navigators Guild , an organization dedicated to the study of Golden Hind's voyage to North America. There's enough there to remind even the most casual observer that there's no need to crack a baroque conspiracy code to reacquaint ourselves with a historical figure as important and compelling as Sir Drake.
Eric A. Powell is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.