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Parnassus Book Reviews

The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake by Samuel Bawlf
Book Review by Mary Guss


November 15, 2006

Ever since sixth grade geography, the tales of the early circumnavigators of the globe have grabbed and held our attention. Their stories are as exciting and unlikely as any fiction that could have been written about the times. Of course we remember that Magellan was the first to sail around - inconveniently getting himself killed before returning home to Portugal by meddling in local politics in the south seas. The second circumnavigator, and a much more likable character, was Sir Francis Drake. He spent three years making his voyage around the globe and did it in a vessel that was not much larger than today's salmon seiners.


Samuel Bawlf, a geographer and former minister in the British Columbia provincial government, has written the story of what he calls Sir Francis' secret voyage. His theory is that Drake sailed all the way north to Kuiu Island on the directions of Queen Elizabeth I, and there he left one of his famous metal plates:

Seventeen miles up Chatham Strait an inlet, now
called Port Malmesbury, penetrates the rugged
coast of Kuiu Island. In 1954 a prospector named
Donald MacDonald spent the summer exploring
the geology of the inlet.

Inside a cave, "partway up a high vertical cliff" MacDonald found "[a] small, rectangular piece of metal, and carrying it out to daylight, found in its corner holes containing rust indicating that it had once been nailed to something." He made a rubbing of the plate and sent the rubbing to the Smithsonian. The was a Latin inscription on the plate which, MacDonald said, read that "Francis Drake had named some place 'Port Discovery' and had taken possession of the surrounding country in the name of Queen Elizabeth. However, MacDonald said that he was told the plate must be a hoax, as there was no record of Drake being anywhere near Alaska."

Bawlf's book reads like a grand and suspenseful adventure story. He clearly finds Drake to be an intriguing individual and conveys the charm and breadth of his character to the reader. You will meet Sir Francis Drake the privateer (the very next thing to a pirate), the world class sailor and navigator and the hero of England's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. That alone would make this a fascinating book. But add the author's theory that Drake visited Southeast Alaska in the late 1500's and it becomes a book that's very difficult to put down.


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