The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580
Review By Christon Archer
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 146 Summer 2005 | p. 101-3
This book represents an expanded form of the much debated revelations of Samuel Bawlf concerning the Pacific Ocean explorations of Francis Drake during his 1577–80 voyage of circumnavigation. Parts of the voyage account are well known, such as the trial and execution of the nobleman Thomas Doughty, the difficult passage through the Strait of Magellan, and the plundering of Spanish commerce on the Pacific side of the Americas from Chile to Huatulco on the coast of New Spain. However, from this point onward, until the Golden Hinde completed the Pacific Ocean crossing, Bawlf argues that Drake’s movements were shrouded by state secrecy con-nected with the desire to suppress information about the Northwest Passage. Most previous historians have limited Drake’s northward advance to the California or Oregon coasts.
Bawlf developed the novel conclusion that Drake undertook a remarkable voyage northward in search of the western entrance to the Northwest Passage. Without repeating all his detailed arguments, the key elements concerned deciphering coded details that appeared in otherwise imaginary coastlines depicted on maps and globes. For example, on the 1597 globe produced by Emery Molyneux, Bawlf recognized an indentation illustrating the continental coastline lying inside of Vancouver Island, which, for unknown reasons, was not depicted. While the actual details on the map were shown crudely and were extremely small in scale, Bawlf recognized Prince of Wales Island, the Queen Charlotte Islands, Vancouver Island, and the Olympic Peninsula. He identified Cape Flattery and concluded, without apparent evidence, that Drake landed near fifty degrees latitude on Vancouver Island. Sailing north to the Queen Charlotte Islands, Drake traced the Inside Passage east of Prince of Wales Island, visited the delta of the Stikine River, and worked his way north again to view an ice-filled Chatham Strait that he believed must be the entrance to the Strait of Anian. This remarkable voyage left the present reviewer in a state of advanced incredulity. How could a seaman of Drake’s intelligence and experience ever have contemplated such a voyage with the Golden Hinde in need of careening and freighted with an enormous treasure captured along the coasts of Spanish America? Moreover, it seems unlikely, given the time available, that Drake could possibly have completed such a demanding detour to his voyage of circumnavigation.
While on the Northwest Coast Drake set up heavy posts with inscribed metal plates that Bawlf notes might have been in imitation of totem poles. He reports that, in 1954, a prospector on Kuiu Island (close to Chatham Strait) who visited a Tlingit burial cave found a small metal plate whose Latin inscription mentioned Drake. Like other will-o’-the-wisp evidence cited in The Secret Voyage, that pertaining to the plate was lost in a robbery and never recovered. Drake headed south to the eastern side of Vancouver Island and cruised through the narrows of Johnstone Strait, with its dangerous rip tides. Bawlf has Drake selecting a site for the future colony of Nova Albion at today’s Comox Bay. He continued through Georgia Strait, viewed the mouth of the Fraser River before entering Puget Sound, and then sailed back through Juan de Fuca Strait to the open sea. If this was not enough, Drake was said to have visited the mouth of the Columbia River – possibly taking his pinnace across the treacherous bar. Any knowledgeable reader of Northwest Coast literature will be left almost breathless by Bawlf’s version of Drake’s progress.
Without the existence of any journals or charts and with only crude maps to guide him, Bawlf’s conclusions are imaginary, to say the least. He states repeatedly that Drake “would have seen,” “would have been,” “would have traveled”; and he employs similar phrases that are designed to flesh out what Drake might have seen and done had he managed to make such a trip. After all, the much better equipped eighteenth-century explorers experienced enormous difficulties in their Northwest Coast explorations, which slowed the acquisition of cartographic evidence. Did Drake not fear narrow passages, hidden reefs, swift currents, treacherous storms, lee shores, thick fog, and other dangers that, at the very least, could have left his men permanently marooned upon a most inhospitable coast? As Bawlf notes, in 1741 the Russian explorer Alexi Chirikov lost two boats on the southern Alaska coast, probably due to treacherous rip tides rather than to Aboriginal attacks. Similarly, the Comte de la Pérouse lost two boats and the lives of all aboard in plain sight of horrified witnesses who were helpless to lend assistance. Even George Vancouver faced the danger of losing the Discovery on submerged rocks – rocks that, according to Bawlf, Drake passed almost 200 years before on the way to his planned settlement at Comox Bay. The author fails to take into account that the presence of English intruders would have provoked the coastal peoples to protect their lands, resources, and possessions. At the least Drake would have suffered innumerable incidents with Aboriginals anxious to possess iron and other metal items. Although the Elizabethan explorers had matchlock arquebuses, these weapons were by no means as effective as were eighteenth-century flintlock muskets.
With his well designed and at-tractively illustrated book, and his strongly expressed convictions, Samuel Bawlf may lure some less knowledgeable readers into accepting his fantastical account of Drake’s visit to the Northwest Coast. However, Bawlf clearly permits his imagination to overreach the thin shreds of evidence contained in his sources. He does not take into account the work of many well-known historians who contradict his views, and he fails to turn up startling new archival evidence to defend his hypotheses. Historians will continue to accept the view that Drake followed the navigational instructions captured from Spanish pilots and sailed from the coast of New Spain for Asian waters without deviating northward. Though Bawlf’s study is not good history, by identifying Comox as the site of Drake’s proposed Nova Albion settlement, it might well enhance that town’s value as a tourist destination.