Sir Francis Drake and the Llamas

By Oliver Seeler; first published in the periodical Llamas, Vol. 7, No. 5, July/August 1993. Copyright Oliver Seeler 1993.

This drawing of an "Allocamelus" was published in England in Edward Topsel's 1658 History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents, but it was taken from a Dutch work of 1558. This "Indian Sheep, out of the region of Peru" had a neck "as white as any swan" while "the colour of his other parts was yellowish." The "most gentle and meek beast" was brought to Antwerp and "afterward given to the Emperor." Along with this reasonable patter is the comment that "it is probable that it is conceived by a Camel and a Mule."

... we met with a Spaniard and an Indian boy driving 8 Llamas or sheepe of Peru ...

In 1577 Francis Drake set sail from England with a handful of small ships on what became one of best known but least understood circumnavigations of the world. The primary destination was the Pacific coast of South America, the private and incredibly rich domain of Spain. The little fleet crossed the Atlantic to a Brazilian landfall; while running down the coast, storms, dissension, and a fatal ambush by Patagonian natives slowed but did not stop the expedition. Before leaving the Atlantic Drake disposed of two unfit ships and renamed his flagship, previously the Pelican, the Golden Hind. The three remaining vessels passed through the deadly Strait of Magellan with ease and speed, only to encounter tremendous storms upon entering the Pacific. The smallest ship, the Marigold, went down with all hands; the Elizabeth, separated from the fleet, found herself back in the strait and turned tail for England. The storms abated and the Golden Hind, now alone, cruised up the Chilean and Peruvian coasts. For nearly half a year Drake raided the unprepared Spanish settlements and shipping, leaving panic, chaos, and a confused pursuit in his wake. In one of their adventures he and his men encountered a strange animal never before seen by Englishmen - the llama. Finally, loaded with booty including twenty-six tons of silver, the English left Spanish waters. Sailing northward, the leaking Golden Hind next neared land high along the northwest American coast, somewhere above California. Unable to continue north in what was probably a search for a shortcut home - the fabled Northwest Passage - Drake turned south and ran along the coast until he found a "convenient and fit harborough." (The location of this "lost harbor," almost certainly somewhere in Northern California, has been the subject of intense controversy for well over a century; it remains elusive.) Drake stayed in the region he named Nova Albion (New England) for about five weeks, repairing the Golden Hind and enjoying extensive and peaceful contact with the Native Americans. Next he set out across the vast Pacific; the crossing was smooth and landfall was made in sixty-eight days. The next few months were spent in the Indonesian Archipelago, where difficulty in finding a route through the thousands of islands nearly ended in disaster when the Golden Hind ran hard aground on a reef, escaping only because of a change in the wind. Sailing on to the west across the Indian Ocean and rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Atlantic was regained without further incident. After sailing up the length of Africa the Golden Hind arrived triumphantly in England late in 1580; some three years and 36,000 miles had passed beneath her keel during this most famous circumnavigation of the globe.

On Drake's return home, the Golden Hind's logbook and charts were tucked away - never to reappear - by Queen Elizabeth, who was anxious to keep English discoveries secret and to avoid irritating increasingly hostile Spain; a blanket prohibition against revealing details of the voyage was issued as well. Following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 this secrecy was relaxed somewhat and a series of narratives of the journey were published, based not on formal reports but on the notes and comments of various men who had been with Drake. Both the published accounts and their surviving sources are fragmented, contradictory, enigmatic, difficult to read, largely of unknown or at least of disputed authorship and often not readily accessible.

The first published narrative of the circumnavigation was compiled by Richard Hakluyt and issued in London in or shortly after 1589 as part of his Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Hakluyt's sources included now lost shipboard notes kept by the Golden Hind's preacher, Francis Fletcher, who, while not a naturalist in any modern sense, concerned himself more with observations of native peoples, plants and animals than with nautical and geographical matters (to the ongoing dismay of many who are pursuing Drake's path). Hakluyt condensed the material he acquired from Fletcher and others; the heavily edited result, known today as the "Famous Voyage," is only twelve pages long.

In 1600 Hakluyt published a new and much larger edition of Principal Navigations; the "Famous Voyage" was again a mere twelve pages long but in the new edition a short paragraph, probably derived from Francis Fletcher, was added; this describes an incident that occurred in late January of 1579 near the port of Arica, which lies close to the modern border between Chile and Peru. Within this is the first use in an English publication of the Peruvian Indian word "Llama." But Hakluyt's abbreviated rendition of Fletcher's description of the strange new beast leaves much to be desired:

Not farre from hence going on land for fresh water, we met with a Spaniard and an Indian boy driving 8 Llamas or sheepe of Peru which are as big as asses; every of which sheepe had on his backe 2 bags of leather, each bagge conteining 50 li. weight of fine silver: so that bringing both the sheepe and their burthen to the ships, we found in all the bags 800 weight of silver.(1)

Fortunately, another compiled narrative of the voyage was assembled before Francis Fletcher's notes vanished. In 1628 the World Encompassed was issued by a nephew of Sir Francis Drake, with a much more detailed account of the same episode:

Our search for water still continuing, as we landed againe not farre from thence, we met a Spaniard with an Indian boy, driving 8 Lambes or Peruvian sheepe: each sheepe bare two leathren bagges, and in each bagge was 50 pound waight of refined silver, in the whole 800 waight: we could not indure to see a gentleman Spaniard turnd carrier so; and therefore without intreaty, we offered our service, and became drovers: onely his directions were not so perfect, that we could keepe the way which hee intended; for almost as soone as hee was parted from us, we with our new kinde of carriges, were come unto our boates....

Amongst other things which we had of them, the sheepe of the countrey (viz. such as we mentioned before bearing the leatherne bags) were most memorable. Their height and length was equall to a pretty cow, and their strength fully answerable, if not by much exceeding their size or stature. Upon one of their backes did fit at one time three well grown and tall men, and one boy, no mans foot touching the ground by a large foot in length, the beast nothing at all complaining of his burthen in the meane time. These sheep have neckes like camels; their heads bearing a resonable resemblance of another sheepe. The Spaniards use them to great profit. Their wooll is exceeding fine, their flesh good meate, their increase ordinarie, and besides they supply the roome of horses for burthen or travell: yea they serve to carry, over the mountaines, marvellous loades, for 300 leagues together, where no other carriage can be made but by them onely.(2)

The word "Lambes" is interesting. It seems probable that this was the creation of the compiler of the World Encompassed who, in transcribing Fletcher's words from the often unclear handwriting of the day, stumbled over the unfamiliar "Llamas." The evidence for this, aside from the ludicrous picture presented by cow-sized lambs and the redundancy of "lambes" preceding "sheepe," lies in the capitalization of the word. "Llamas," if Hakluyt is any indication, was capitalized by Fletcher; that the compiler of the World Encompassed capitalized "Lambes" but not "sheepe," "camels," or "horses" would seem to indicate that he was looking at the same word that was read correctly by Hakluyt. It would appear from all of this that the Elizabethans did not affront the dignity of llamas by referring to them as lambs, except by accident. ("Sheepe of Peru" while perhaps having the potential of being insulting at least has a nice ring to it, reminiscent of, if not as dramatic as, the popular "Ship of the Andes." This last term is of uncertain origin, although it would seem to have sprung from references to camels as "Ships of the Desert," which in turn can be traced to 1615: "These are the ships of Arabia, their seas are the deserts."(3) The coincidence of the phonetically similar "sheepe" and "ship" both being first applied to camelids within a few years of one another might be just that - coincidence - but it just might indicate a more happy accident than the llama-lamb confusion.)

That one llama's dignity was offended by Drake's men is learned from a manuscript today called the "Anonymous Narrative," which was written in 1580 but not published until 1854 (although there is evidence that Hakluyt used information from it in parts of the "Famous Voyage"). The unknown and often grouchy narrator was not as effusive as Fletcher about Auchinia llama:

... Drake went on land & founde there a spaniard and an Indian boy and found with him eight sheepe laden with vij [seven] or eight 100 li. weight of fine silver and brought both the sheep and silver away with him on boorde, and he eate the sheepe but hee brought home the silver, these sheep had long neckes like camells and are very great and will bere eche of them 150 lb. weight if they be loded they are smooth bodyed somewhat like a stag in body tom moone riding uppon one of these sheep the sheep turned his mouth toward moone & spued full in his face a very lothsom stincking vomyte.(4)

This was not the first time the bespattered "tom moone" had created difficulties; perhaps he was getting his due.

Three more sparse mentions of these first llamas seen by the English are found in the Drake literature, and are included here for the sake of completeness. Drake was accompanied for much of the voyage by a captured Portuguese pilot, Nuna da Silva; finally set ashore in Mexico he was interrogated several times by his Spanish hosts. From one of his declarations, made in 1579:

... and there he found three thousand pezos of silver (every pezo being the value of a ryall of eight), and seven Indian sheepe and henns, and tooke all ...(5)

Also accompanying Drake around the world was his young cousin John Drake, who had the later misfortune of being captured by the Spanish in South America. Declarations were extracted from him by his captors in 1584 and 1587. Young Drake clearly wanted to minimize the extent of the robbery he had participated in; from his first declaration:

They ... went to a port ... where they took two men, four bars of silver and six sheep.(6)

In John Drake's second declaration the silver disappears altogether and the llamas are reduced to one:

They ... seized two Spaniards and a certain kind of native sheep or cow ...(7)

Also for the record, the first appearance in an English text, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, of the names of the other three South American camelids - vicunas, guanacos, and alpacas(8) - all came in 1604, in a translation from the Spanish titled D'Acosta's Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies, where they are called "Vicugnes," "Pacos," and "Guancos." From there the names, each slowly changing into its current form, found their way into various English works, but the terms "Indian Sheep," "Peruvian Sheepe," and the like were also sometimes applied to all of these camelids.

All of the complexities and apparent contradictions related here in tracing the history of Francis Drake's encounter with the llamas reflect in miniature the difficulties facing investigators of the voyage as a whole. But while there are not many things that can be said about the circumnavigation with absolute assurance, it is safe to say that the men with Francis Drake were the first Englishmen to describe the llamas whose descendants followed them to North America and England, and that the word "llama," which today rolls so smoothly from every child's tongue, was brought to England on board the Golden Hind.


Notes & References:

1. Richard Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (London, 1600), v.III p. 735. All spellings in the quotations in this article follow the cited sources exactly, except that the use of the letters u and v has been changed to conform with modern usage.

2. The World Encompassed (London, 1628), pp. 55-56. The authorship is in dispute, but often cited as Francis Drake, the explorer's heir.

3. See "ship" in the Oxford English Dictionary.

4. Henry Wagner, Sir Francis Drake's Voyage Around The World (San Francisco, 1926), p. 268.

5. Zelia Nuttall, New Light on Drake (London: Hakluyt Society, 1914), p. 263.

6. Ibid., p. 28.

7. Ibid., p. 45.

8. "Alpaca" has gone through more changes than the other names. The Peruvian name seems to have been "paco," which is what is given in D'Acosta. The prefix "al" comes from the Arabic, meaning "the." "Alpaco" became the most common term, which changed fairly recently into "alpaca." See "alpaca" in the O.E.D.

Nova Albion Research
Copyright 1993, 1996 by Oliver Seeler
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