British Empire Books

The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577 - 1580

AuthorSam Bawlf
PublisherHarper Perennial

Samuel Bawlf has written a highly accessible account of Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the World. He makes it clear that the event was not intended to be a Circumnavigation but became one when the 'secret purpose' of the voyage failed in finding the North-West Passage from the Pacific Ocean. Although, as the author is at pains to point out, it was still a remarkable voyage in all that it managed to achieve.

The author does give a useful pen portrait of Drake before and after this voyage and highlights many of the essential and important factors that led to his remarkable rise and why Elizabeth came to appreciate his skills and tactics even if she did have to keep him at arm's length at times in order to maintain plausible deniability to the Spaniards for his escapades and shenanigans.

Where Bawlf deviates from many other historical accounts of Drakes' life and eploits lies in his depiction of Drake's search for the North West Passage and relaying what may have happened in the Northern search for this passage that the English hoped would spell an end to Spanish and Portuguese domination of trade from the Americas and the Orient. Necessarily, Bawlf speculates on just where Drake may have landed and where his claim for 'New Albion' might have been planted. Bawlf believes that Drake had every intention of returning to New Albion as the basis of a colony that could disrupt Spanish trade in the Pacific but also act as an entrepot to organise the goods traded from the Orient through the hoped for North-West Passage. Again, the author speculates that Drake may have convinced himself that he found this passage through the myriad of islands and waterways from Vancouver Island northwards. Perhaps though, Drake had to cut short his exploration due to the expected onset of winter and the fact that he had a restless crew who wanted to get all the treasure taken from the Spanish returned to England forthwith so that they might live to enjoy their bounty. Still, Bawlf wonders if Drake may have encouraged a party of 20 to continue its search for the North West Passage through the use of one of their remaining pinnaces. If this did occur, the crew was never seen again and the voyage surely failed - particularly as there was no navigable North-West Passage to pass through!

Bawlf tends to credit Drake with having gone much further north than many other historians would credit. He does provide some interesting research, corroborating maps and contemporary sources to justify his claims but they are still very much speculation. As the author points out himself, the navigational equipment of the time was just too inaccurate to get a reliable fix on where he may have been and much of the amendments and tweaks to his locations may well have been due to the fixing of these errors rather than some insidious plot to hide the purpose and aims of his journey. It is interesting to speculate, but there are still many who believe that San Francisco and its environs may have been a more likely location for New Albion.

The one thing that the book does do admirably is capture the humanity and chivalry of Drake. Sir Francis Drake was very much one of the new men who found Elizabethan England providing a meritocratic system that allowed for his expertise to raise the son of a sheep shearer and lay chaplain to become one of the most formidable military men of the era. And, despite his hatred towards Catholicism and dislike towards the tyranny of Spain, as he saw it, he still treated captives, women and children remarkably well. The author gives countless examples of how Drake would laden his enforced captives with gifts before setting them free. He would force his men to treat enemies and native peoples that they came across on their journeys with a degree of humanity that was highly unusual for the era. it is no surprise that many Spanish writers had a sneaking admiration for El Draco and certainly for his exploits.

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by Stephen Luscombe