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The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake
Samuel Bawlf
London, Allen Lane. The Penguin Press, 2003.
£20.00. 400 pages. ISBN 0-713-99589-0.

Jacques Coulardeau
Université Paris Dauphine


A very interesting book that reads like an adventure tale but is packed with clever insight and useful indications, assumptions, deductions and data. It retraces the whole maritime career of Sir Francis Drake, centering on his "secret voyage" that took him from England to the Strait of Magellan, then to the Pacific Ocean, up the coast of Chile and Peru, as far as Mexico, then up the coast of North America, as far as the southern limit of Alaska, and back along the present coast of Canada, Washington and Oregon, and finally across the Pacific Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and back to England.

The book describes this trip in great detail and discusses the reconnaissance of the coast of Canada, Washington and Oregon thoroughly, from the famous Strait of Anian in the north to the Bay of Small Ships or Bay of Fires (Portus Nova Albionis for Drake or Whale Cove for us) in the south, a territory he called Nova Albion and of which he took possession in the name of Elizabeth I.

The book is very rich in details about this trip and Drake’s discoveries. Sir Francis Drake was the first to state that south of the Strait of Magellan lay a set of islands and not an extension of the antarctic continent. He was the first to explore and map the various islands, particularly Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada and north-west coast of the US. He also determined the longitude of this west coast and the width of the North American continent, reducing it drastically and approaching the real size. He did his measurements through the observation of the moon in what he calls the "Point of Position" whose name today is Nehalem Bay, where the various stones used for these calculations were found rather recently.

The author’s method is to bring together all the information he can gather and to compare and discuss all the sources to get some believable deductions from them; then, he confronts this knowledge to the reality of the various sites along the coast and is thus able to come to some geographical conclusions that are realistic, hence acceptable.

But the book is a lot more interesting than that. First the author analyzes the policy of Queen Elizabeth I in real perspective. He considers what preceded her and the policy she developed. He shows how her maritime and colonial policy was entirely under the influence of the menace that Philip II of Spain cultivated around England with the war against the Dutch rebellious protestants, the capture of the Portuguese Crown, the building of an enormous fleet and army with the clear intention of invading England and imposing Mary Stuart on the throne. The author shows how Elizabeth tried not to provoke the King of Spain and yet how she helped the protestants in the Netherlands. He shows how she even tried to get into an alliance, even a marriage, with the French royal family, to counterbalance Philip. But she essentially tried to keep under control the maritime and colonial ambition of Sir Francis Drake and other navigators to pacify the King of Spain, at least to prevent him from feeling provoked. Yet she used the skill and power of English navigators to seize a lot of riches, gold and silver, spices and other goods, from Spanish ships and colonies, to pay for her expenses—which makes an essential difference with Spain. She did not cover all the expenses to enhance England’s defenses and prepare against the attack of the Spanish Armada. She looked for a working alliance with London merchants who provided her with ships, sailors and equipment. She resorted to piracy—Sir Francis Drake being one of the most important captains to work along that line—when she wanted to get some quick load of gold or silver, or when she wanted to slow down the building and preparation of the Armada, even, when necessary, by attacking Spanish or Portuguese harbours. But this constant menace from Spain prevented her from realizing, maybe not understanding but definitely starting, the vast conquest of American territories that would come later. That is why Drake’s voyage and discoveries are very badly known: because she prevented the publishing of Drake’s notes and maps, to keep some issues and locations secret. In other words, Elizabeth appears as a very cautious—even if very courageous too—sovereign who could probably not achieve, because of this, what was within grasp. At times we could even think the Queen was unstable in her decisions and irresolute in her goals. Sir Francis Drake’s discoveries were going to lay unknown and unused for at least two centuries as a result of that.

Secondly, and it is important to emphasize this element, from the very start, her initiatives in the field of maritime and colonial conquest were joint ventures ("joint-stock compan[ies]" [226]) between the crown, the navigators and the merchants. The risks were shared, the profits too. It never was a national or state initiative. The merchants of London and the sailors and captains of Plymouth were always associated and they paid for a good share of the cost in exchange for privileges in the conquered territories and the ensuing commerce. The Queen got part of the profit, but only in proportion to the part of the cost she had paid. She was in no way different from the other investors. This will in great part explain the type of colonial ventures England would launch into later: the colonies would not be the property of the Crown but of commercial companies that would pay taxes to the Crown after somehow buying special permission or license to take possession of an area and start exploiting it. This approach of the colonization of America produced, at the same time, the big private plantations in the southern colonies and the desire of the plantation owners to remain independent and free from Crown control. They had paid for this freedom. In other words we can understand further events like the War of Independence and even the Civil War with reference to this colonizing method.

Thirdly, Sir Francis Drake was a gentleman in his political and human even humane behaviour in his voyages. He always treated his opponents with fairness and elegance, never resorting to violence when it was not necessary, never destroying ships or cities or killing people when it was not indispensable. He treated his enemies and prisoners with grace and good will. But he also showed a great sense of compassion and patience with the natives he found and met everywhere. He would rather stay away from those who were hostile and he befriended those who were welcoming. This was dictated to him by his understanding of the longer and greater historical interest of England, viz. to make friends among these natives in order to facilitate the opening of colonies and the establishing of commercial relations with them later. He was able to consider such a long historical perspective. He never doubted these territories would be English sooner or later but he never envisaged getting rid of the natives. He even seems to have at times envisaged some commercial alliance with those who would be politically organized and strong. He seemed to understand that the people living in these territories were an asset and not a disadvantage. This position is in fact the long-running result of a "feudal" vision that makes people define a property not only from the value of the earth, woodland, water ways, game, all natural resources, but also from the very people living on this earth, hence working, cultivating or exploiting it. It is this consideration that enabled slavery to be replaced by feudalism and serfdom. It is also this dimension, which sees the value of man in his work, in his activities and production, that will survive and become the ferment of modern humanism, economics and philosophy. Never, I think, is Sir Francis Drake shown as considering these natives as nothing else but cattle or game. Much evidence exists showing how Drake gave presents to the natives, not only useless "decorations" but also useful implements. We can even think that in some cases he provided some of these natives, when they were not hostile of course, with tools, even tools he produced on the spot, to enable them to improve their work and life.

And yet there is a fourth remark to be made. When contact with those natives was established he never forgot that they were, let us say, primitive and had strange beliefs and practices. He never forgot that one of England’s aims would be to spread the Christian faith, the true one, the protestant religion, the religion of "the God we did serve and whom they ought to worship" [318]. This will be the source of long lasting problems later on when the puritanical faith arrives with its desire to survive in a hostile world and convert this world to the true God of theirs; and when this blend of survival instinct and conquering imperialism gets associated with the enterprising spirit of merchants or plantation owners, it will lead to extremes that still have consequences in our modern history. Sir Francis Drake did not seem to be keen on engaging in any slave trade; he even seemed to be willing to associate with ex-slave escapees here and there or even help slaves to escape, taking some under his protection on his ships (even a black woman who seems to have been his mistress; yet he abandonned her on some island when she got pregnant, showing both that he had compassion for the mother and the child who would have been obliged to live and survive in drastic conditions on the ship from the Pacific Ocean to England, and that he probably thought of what would be said and done when he returned to England). But later on the logic of the plantations and the greed of the free entrepreneurs would lead to the development of slavery as an economic system, just as the desire to survive and conquer that came from the puritan protestant faith would lead to pushing away or even destroying all obstacles. Sir Francis Drake did not seem to carry in his mind and behaviour these extremes and he gave many signs of a gentlemanly and humane approach, though we don’t know what he would have done if confronted to hostile native populations. He generally avoided them as much as he could, but his aim was not to stay and open a colony; it was only to discover and evaluate new territories. He was not a conqueror but a maritime trailblazer.

The last remark I will make concerns the author of the book himself when he says, "Although each major group was linguistically distinct from the others, their social organization, technology, and methods were very similar [282], speaking of the natives Sir Francis Drake met on the coast behind Vancouver Island. It might very well have been a remark from the Europeans in Drake’s ship. But this remark, endorsed by the author, is surprising: what is this linguistic distance between the various tribes? Is it the distance that exists between various dialects of a same language, between various languages of a same linguistic family, or between languages from different linguistic families? We would like to know more about it. But this has nothing to do with the rest. The difficult, maybe even extreme, surviving conditions in this territory at the time, the precarious lives these Indians were forced to live would necessarily have a great homogenizing effect on "social organization, technology and methods." What is more, the times when these various Indian tribes arrived might have been different. This would have enabled the first ones to establish some realistic living organization that would be copied later on by tribes arriving later. Housing depended on the weather conditions and materials available, and these two elements tend to impose some general conception or design. It is the same thing with technology—the invention of tools made with whatever materials were available, in order to hunt, fish or cultivate the earth in one particular place under some particular conditions. The languages spoken by these tribes, even if they were from different linguistic families, would be of little influence on these material elements. What is more, in a deeper back-looking perspective, these tribes were all coming from the same original migrating route. Migration and surviving in new hostile conditions would be a strong force to impose some concrete solutions perfectly adapted to the terrain, be it through sharing knowledge and experience or through copying those that had come first or had been faster in adapting to the area. In other words this remark may seem to be anachronic and totally unfounded; however, and this is remarkable, this anachronic remark is probably the only one in the book—at least the only one I found, and that made me react intellectually. As a whole, the book seems to be very respectful of the time distance between today and Sir Francis Drake’s living period.


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