The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake

by Samuel Bawlf
ISBN: 1550549774

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A Review of: The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580
by George Fetherling

The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake 1577-1580 is by Samuel Bawlf, a dedicated historiographic amateur and former Social Credit cabinet minister in British Columbia, where the book has ridden the top of the provincial bestseller list, an institution that is followed closely.
While suitably mysterious, Bawlf's title is self-limiting, for the book is first of all a new biography. As such, however, it's scarcely on the plane of one of the most important exploration books of the past few years, Sir Francis Drake, The Queen's Pirate by Harry Kelsey (whose most recent work, Sir John Hawkins, Queen Elizabeth's Slave Trader, is a worthy companion on a figure only slightly less daring and even less reputable than Drake, with whom he was engaged in the West African slave-trade). Yet Bawlf goes farther.
Just as Shakespeare has seven years sill unaccounted for by biographers, so Drake has seven missing months, from April to November 1579, between departing the Pacific Coast of Mexico and arriving in the East Indies. The standard interpretation has been that he charted the coast of California, north and south, which he named Nova Albion. (A plaque, supposedly planted by Drake in the Bay area, was discovered in 1937 but turned out to be a fake.) Bawlf's thesis, now as in an earlier privately published work of his on the same subject, is that for some of the cloudy period Drake was charting the area that Wilkes found so ticklish two and half centuries later. Bawlf's belief is that Drake sailed to Alaska, returning via the Inside Passage to the Queen Charlotte Islands, Vancouver Island and places farther south, making him the first European to see what's now BC.
The argument is complex but hinges on the theory that Drake, on his charts, purposely and consistently placed such geographical features 600 miles farther south than they actually are, in order to disguise where he had been. Bawlf believes he did so as part of a conspiracy to keep details of his voyage from the Spanish, whom he and Elizabeth, in Bawlf's view, feared might gain commercial advantage regarding the Northwest Passage. The Secret Voyage thus becomes a conspiracy theory book and cannot escape judgment by the standards applicable in that genre. In any case, it has pleased many British Columbians to consider that their links to Europe might predate the arrival of James Cook by such a gaping margin. In recent years, however, the whole question of European contact has been losing ground to the more interesting one of Chinese trade with the same area, generations before Drake, much less Cook: a field of enquiry in which the evidence is increasingly archaeological as well as textual.
Drake, however, will always continue to fascinate people for a number of reasons. There is his role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which adds such a countervailing heroic element to his general roguishness. Then there is the lunatic perseverance always associated with circumnavigators in the age of sail. Drake went round the globe twice and was only the second person to complete even one circumnavigation. The first, a hundred years earlier, was Ferdinand Magellan (in Portuguese, Ferno de Magalhes) who also accomplished the feat twice-or tried to. On the second voyage he was killed halfway round by indigenous people in the Philippines (a foreshadowing of Cook in Hawaii of course). The handful of companions who had survived to that point completed the expedition without him.

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