The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf purports in the title to be about Francis Drake’s voyage around the world. However, a surprisingly small part of the book is about this three year long second circumnavigation, the most part being about the milieu in which this voyage takes place. Yet even 400 pages isn’t enough to begin to dislodge, and reveal the complexities and intrigues of the Elizabethan era. Even so great a personality as Shakespeare gets but a single mention on page 242 and that’s only because his The Comedy of Errors makes an allusion to the voyage. Queen Elizabeth gets a half a page in the index, almost as much as Drake himself, but at the end of this book you will not have much understanding or feeling for her or her problems or him and his problems. They are just messy complex, and really life threatening problems.
The book is founded on scholarship and facts, but a solid page of Ibids listing consecutive page numbers doesn’t indicate analysis or understanding of the material; it just recommends that you go read that particular book if you want to get the full consecutive facts and probably get them straight. I have spent a lot of sweat digging for Drake artifacts, digging in the soil that is, as well as in books, and when one is digging with a shovel, and you are off target by one inch the objects will not be found. This book doesn’t give anything like the kind of detail or direction toward where to find the details for my digging needs. There were some suggestive phrases of encouragement however. On page 204 there is mention of when Francis Drake’s young cousin John Drake was on a return expedition to the South Sea (Pacific Ocean) commanding a very small ship of seventeen men in a squadron of much larger fighting ships. They quit even before reaching the Straits of Magellan, but not John—he refused to quit.
In the meantime John Drake stubbornly continued southward in the Francis. What he hoped to achieve with only seventeen men and a few provisions is unclear. Whatever his motivation, the decision soon led to disaster.
John had been on the previous trip, and knew better than the Admiral of the squadron the dangers ahead, but still he persevered when the others turned back. Why? … Because he knew something all of the others did not know. He knew where Francis had laid up a cache of treasure so he didn’t have to take on the entire Spanish navy stationed in the Pacific. Once in the Pacific all he needed to do was sail well out to sea, to avoid being intercepted, proceed to the proper latitude, turn towards shore and then recognize where he had been before when he helped bury the treasure. He didn’t need a map, and he didn’t need a fighting force; all he needed was a decent ship, a few good seamen, a shovel, and some time. He had it all. And that’s why he proceeded on this dangerous journey when the others turned back. Also, that is why so much of Francis Drake’s voyage was kept secret. On page 210,
Chief among the rules was that there could be no hint of a northwest passage, and Nova Albion was to be placed, in latitude, ten degrees (6oo miles) south of its true position. No doubt the reason was to guard against the possibility that one of Mendoza’s informants might see one of the maps and realize Nova Albion’s strategic relationship to the possibility of a northern passage around America. As a result of these and other strictures, on each map the depiction of Drake’s route and Nova Albion formed a cryptograph—a carefully conceived representation that was fully intelligible only to those who knew the rules designed to conceal the true location of his northern discoveries.
If one is looking for an ocean passage the 600 miles buffer might have kept a secret for a few years from some nation not looking for a passage, but it would be excessive blurriness for a buried treasure. It wasn’t until Vitus Bering sailed from the Russian side that the Northwest Passage was finally discovered 160 years later. Even now with powerful special built icebreakers the Northwest Passage is barely passable. In a few more years of global warming perhaps that old dream will be realized for commercial shipping. The Elizabethans must have known after several attempts at the Arctic by Martin Frobisher that passage was going to be all but impossible if there wasn’t an immediate way back south, like the Hudson Bay, but connected to the Pacific , which there isn’t.
It is an easy reading book with a pleasing style, and for someone unacquainted with Drake a revelation about this pivotal historical person. But for a modern reader the constant reference to locations where Drake visited, but which are not located on maps is frustrating. Now days a simple latitude/longitude number permits a much fuller reading experience by allowing one to go there on Google Earth. On page 84 we can find the location called Maio island where Drake stopped for a few days. Fletcher was enthralled with the quality and abundance of the island’s produce; “We found … the fairest and most pleasant grapes I had seen in all my former travels in any kingdom.” If you go to Google Earth 15.190 -23.209, and look at the photographs you realize Fletcher was overstating a rather parched landscape. Now it is so easy to check up on facts that old lies are easily exposed.