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Did Sir Francis Drake visit Southeast Alaska?

Author/historian contends Drake was here long before Bering 



November 11, 2013
Monday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska - History tells us that Vitus Bering “discovered” Alaska in 1741.

And by the 1790s, English explorers (Cook, Vancouver), French explorers (LaPerouse) and Spanish explorers (Malaspina. Caamano) were also exploring the Alaska coast, primarily in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. No one argues with that.

jpg Did Sir Francis Drake visit Southeast Alaska?

Francis Drake, nicknamed “my pirate” by Queen Elizabeth I, was among the so-called “Sea Dog” privateers licensed by the English government to attack Spanish shipping.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia

But, what if European explorers had actually arrived nearly a century and a half before Bering?

What if the famed English explorer and pirate Sir Francis Drake had made a secret trip up the coast during his global circumnavigation in the 1580s?

That is the belief of Canadian historian and geographer Samuel Bawlf and it led to a 2001 book called “The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580”

Actually, Drake’s voyage of 1577-1580 was not very secret. It was the second circumnavigation of the world, following Ferdinand Magellan’s 1519-1522 voyage.

At a time when England’s Queen Elizabeth was looking to assert her nation’s authority (the famed English battle with the Spanish Armada would come in 1588), Drake’s circumnavigation heightened England’s prestige as a growing world-wide power.

In 1579, during his circumnavigation, Drake reported that he had landed along what is now Point Reyes on the California coast, north of the territory then claimed by Spain. Drake claimed the northern territory for England, calling it Nova Albion.

Shortly thereafter, according to the official records, Drake set out across the Pacific to continue his round the world voyage.

But Bawlf says the official story that Drake told was actually a ruse to hide the fact that he had sailed much further north in search of territory to claim for England and that his landing at Point Reyes was after he had sailed north, as far north as the central Southeast Alaskan Panhandle.

Why the ruse? Why didn’t the English just announce the new discovery?

Bawlf says it was tied up in the complicated European politics in the latter part of the 16th Century. And Drake’s own complicated reputation as a seafarer also played a role.

Drake was considered by many, even in England, to be little more than a “pirate.” The official term for his actions was “privateer” in that he often sailed as a “pirate” under the official seal of the English government.

In the decade before his circumnavigation, Drake became a wealthy man attacking Spanish ships and towns in the Americas and the Caribbean. John Cummins in his 1996 book, “Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero,” wrote that King Philip II of Spain was so upset by Drake’s “plundering” that he put a bounty of 20,000 Ducats on the English captain’s head. That would be the equivalent of a more than $6 million in today’s dollars.

Although many English hailed Drake for his harassing of the Spanish, there were many in the English establishment who felt differently. Indeed Queen Elizabeth herself took part in a vacillating foreign policy toward the Spaniards, considered the European superpower of the age, as she worked to increase English influence without triggering a war, according to Cummins.

Others like Lord Burghley, the Queen’s most powerful advisor, were openly disdainful of Drake. According to Bawlf, Burghley refused any gifts from Drake stating that Drake had “stolen all he had.”

But all that was of little importance to Drake when he left Plymouth, England in November of 1577. His stated mission, sanctioned by the Queen, was to sail south around the tip of South America and then up the coast and to harry Spanish interests on the Pacific side of the Americas.

By September of 1578, he had crossed underneath South America. An interesting sidelight in Bawlf’s book is that he notes that Drake never reached either Cape Horn or the body of water between South America and Antarctica that is now known as Drake’s Passage. Instead, he most likely passed through the islands off the coast where Magellan had passed half a century before.

Drake then moved up the coast, plundering as he went, taking several million dollars worth of booty from Spanish treasure galleons in the area. The amount Drake returned to England in 1580 would double the English crown’s income for the entire year and that was only a half share of the plunder, Drake was allowed to keep the rest.

After swinging seaward to avoid the Spanish fleets  in Central America, Drake made plans to land along the coast of North America, north of the Spanish holdings in what was then called Alto California.

That’s where the historical record gets squirrely and that’s where Bawlf says that Drake made a run further up the coast than generally believed.

Bawlf says that, although the official record shows Drake going from “New Albion” directly across the Pacific to Asia, there are quite a few clues in other documents that indicate otherwise.

For example, one of the earliest surviving maps of the voyage, by Abraham Ortelius in the early 1590s, shows Drake’s northern track as high as 57 degrees latitude, the latitude of Sitka.

Another contemporary map of the voyage made in The Netherlands based on information provided indirectly by Drake, shows a series of islands in the New Albion area that do not match anything along the northern Californian coast, according to Bawlf. But they very clearly resemble the Inside Passage between the Washington and Southeast Alaska.

“What is striking about Drake’s long chain of islands is that he appears to have formed a comprehension of the great coastal archipelago northward from Cape Flattery that the later eighteeth-century explorers acquired only after numerous explorations,” Bawlf wrote in 2001.

Bawlf has visited Southeast Alaska in order to pursue more evidence for his theory.

In 2001, he joined several archeologists and historians in Petersburg and Kake. During that investigation, several Alaska historians and archeologists expressed support for Bawlf’s idea.

"Bawlf has an impeccable reputation, and what he says bears serious consideration,”  National Park Service historian Frank Norris of Anchorage, told the Juneau Empire in 2001. "I went into this with a healthy skepticism. But I largely agree with his supposition. When Sir Francis Drake was sailing around the world, there was a huge amount of duplicity going on in the courts of Europe. In the maps that were drawn up and the journals written, information was deliberately misrepresented to throw off spies. For example, Drake told people he was sailing for Alexandria. He wasn't about to say he was going to steal ships off the Peruvian coast or search for the Northwest Passage."

Norris said he believes that Drake sailed as far north as parts of Chatham Strait before he encountered significant ice floes from the “Little Ice Age” that then still gripped that portion of Alaska.

In the 1950s, an unnamed Alaskan prospector, reportedly found a metal plate in a bay on Chatham Strait, according to the National Park Service. The plate was “inscribed” by Francis Drake and claimed possession of the land for Queen Elizabeth. The prospector also reported what were thought to be ballast stones with pre-Columbian markings on them. The prospector approached both the Alaska State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution but both believed the plate to be a fake. The plate has since disappeared.

Researchers have also investigated a report of a second plate in a cave not far from Kake, but have been unable to find any evidence of it.

Bawlf’s theories are not without detractors. Several other scholars have disagreed with his interpretations of the old documents, most notably Edward Von der Porten of the Drake Navigators Guild. Von der Porten has estimated that the Golden Hinde would have had to sail an average of near 6 knots an hour to have completed the “northern voyage” in the time available. Overall speed estimates for the rest of the circumnavigation were less than a third that speed, according to Von der Porten.

But, more than a decade after publishing his book, Bawlf remains convinced that Drake did visit British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.

In 2012, he told the Victoria Times Colonist that he is hoping to more closely examine a late 16th Century globe in London which reportedly shows a fairly accurate representation of the British Columbia coastline, which would have been unknown to explorers at that time.

Bawlf says the globe needs to be “digitized” in order to compare and properly analyze. That process could cost up to $30,000.


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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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