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Doubting Drake? 7 Reasons Why Drake Didn’t Reach B.C. in 1579

September 04th, 2012

Edward Von der Porten, a museum director and the President of the Drake Navigators Guild, is one of many naval scholars who have taken extreme objection to Samuel Bawlf’s The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake (D&M 2003). Its marketing leads one to assume Francis Drake was the first European to reach British Columbia.

“Bawlf’s book is fantasy on the same plane as 1421, Vikings in Minnesota and ancient astronauts,” says Von der Porten. “Serious research has long resolved the issues of where Drake traveled in the Pacific, and British Columbia could not have been a place he visited.”

Given that Bawlf’s book received ample coverage in B.C. BookWorld and won a B.C. Book Prize, here is Von der Porten’s rebuttal to the book, originally published in the Autumn 2004 issue of the newspaper.

1. Bawlf brings Drake to the Northwest Coast from Guatulco, Mexico, by using distances in leagues given in the accounts of the voyage. The measurement of the league used by Bawlf is the modern league of 18,228 feet, which would place Drake on the coast in southern Washington, not Vancouver Island. However, Drake used the Elizabethan league of 15,000 feet, which would put him on the coast in southern Oregon, the latitude accepted by a broad consensus of modern scholars. Drake never reached the coast of British Columbia.

2. Bawlf states that Drake sailed 2,000 miles in 44 days along the shores of southern Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and made discoveries that later explorers took 20 years to work out. He allows 10 days for stops, leaving 34 days of sailing time. Traveling day and night, his average speed would have had to be 2.45 knots, or 58.8 miles per day. The Golden Hind averaged three to four knots in the open ocean in good conditions with favourable winds. Along the shore, Drake could have operated only in daylight. Allowing for contrary winds and currents, unpredictable tide races, unknown shoals and pinnacle rocks, fog, rain, and all the other vicissitudes of sailing along complex and dangerous unknown coasts and in narrow waterways among islands and peninsulas in one of the coldest years of the Little Ice Age, his average speed could not have reached one knot in daylight—well under 20 miles per day. Bawlf ’s idea that Drake explored 2,000 miles of the northwest coast in 34 days is impossible.

3. Bawlf gives Drake 44 days to explore the coast by accepting the date Drake arrived on the coast which is given in the surviving Elizabethan accounts of the expedition. This is June 3, 1579. Bawlf, however, changes the date when Drake ended his exploration and arrived at his Port of Nova Albion from June 17 to July 17. Then he changes Drake’s departure date from the port from July 23 to August 23. However, Drake visited a group of islands just after leaving his port, according to the accounts, and named them the Isles of Saint James. Saint James’ Day is July 25. So Drake did not leave the islands on August 25 as Bawlf claims, but on July 25. The calendar as given in the contemporary accounts is the correct one. This leaves Drake 14 days—not 44—to carry out his explorations between his arrival on the coast and his arrival at the port. With no stops, his day-and-night speed to travel 2,000 miles would have had to be 5.95 knots average, or 142.8 miles per day in a three-to-four-knot ship capable of less than one knot in daylight along an unknown shore. For Drake to explore 2,000 miles of the northwest coast in 14 days—the amount of time he had available to spend on exploration—is impossible.

4. The Native-American peoples Drake met were described in great detail in the accounts. Bawlf claims Drake met the peoples who inhabited the shore from southern Alaska to central Oregon: northwest-coast peoples with huge cedar canoes, split-plank communal houses and totems. No such peoples or artifacts are mentioned in the accounts. Ethnographers have shown that the people Drake met at his port were the Coast Miwok People, a California group living at and near latitude 38 degrees north who had a completely different lifestyle than the northwest coast peoples. Drake’s chroniclers could not have described the costumes, ceremonies, artifacts, words and lifeways of a people they had not seen. Bawlf cannot move a Native-American people north 400 nautical miles.

5. Drake’s port of Nova Albion is given by Bawlf as Whale Cove, Oregon. This site does not have the Native Americans, the prominent white cliffs, the offshore Islands of Saint James, the beach-level fortification location, explorer-period artifacts, an open-bay anchorage adjacent to the sheltered careening port, the characteristics shown in Drake’s drawing of the port, a safe location to careen the Golden Hind, or reasonable safety of entrance or exit. Whale cove is not even mentioned in the modern Coast Pilot. Whale Cove could not have been Drake’s port.

6. Bawlf ignores most of the evidence in the accounts and early maps and claims those few pieces of evidence he deems ‘true’ have been changed following a series of ‘rules’ created by an Elizabethan conspiracy which he has decoded. Yet the accounts of Drake’s voyage have long been shown to be remarkably straightforward, detailed and accurate—notably by English scholar Michael Turner, who has located and confirmed by personal field work more than 95 locations visited by Drake. Bawlf provides no evidence to support his claim of a vast Elizabethan conspiracy.

7. Bawlf apparently is not aware of much of the modern research about Drake in the North Pacific, as his bibliography does not mention numerous publications known to most scholars of the field. These publications analyze much evidence that Bawlf does not even mention in his books. Bawlf does not deal with a large body of evidence and analysis about Drake’s voyage to the west coast of North America.

Essay Date: 2004

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