Drake in the January 1997 Smithsonian Magazine

...more rubbish on the heap

Left: One of Drake's men, as seen by an unidentified historian,
preparing to "mingle" with a "peaceable local."
(See text, below)

A very recent example of casual journalism masquerading as history, mentioned here to show that the obfuscation continues to this day, is found in the January 1997 Smithsonian magazine in which appears a pretty article supposedly focused on Drake's character. (The author shall be nameless here, as he has not written on Drake before and probably will not again.) When straying from ethereal matters such as Drake's "impetuousness," "motivation" and "religious zeal" to prosaic questions of who did what when and where, the piece stutters through a typical litany of speculations presented as facts and punctuated by errors. While speculation is a vital part of any discussion about the circumnavigation, it is this still ongoing tendency to blandly present conjecture as fact (while often getting the few available facts themselves wrong) that causes so much chaos: In the Smithsonian piece the Golden Hind is "70 feet from stem to stern" and has "18 small cannon," Drake visits Horn Island (near Cape Horn) and Padua (in the Western Pacific), Drake searches for "new antiscorbutic fruits" to "ward off scurvy," the Golden Hind in Northwestern American waters is "barnacle-heavy," "talk" of finding the Northwest Passage precedes the voyage and, to spice things up a bit, Drake's men "mingled enough with peaceable locals to introduce genes." (For more comments on this outrageous claim, access the page Drake and the Native Americans from the main menu.) Each of these statements is purely conjectural, and while some are reasonable enough and others (such as the last) are wildly imaginative, all such harmless (albeit sometimes insulting) rumination is dangerous when left unqualified.

As for matters of fact, in the Smithsonian article Drake leaves England with four ships (there were five), the notorious phony brass plate is discovered in 1937 (it was 1936), the reef-grounded Golden Hind is freed by a "wind shift and a high tide" (she tipped free in a slackening wind and a low tide), Panama is "up" the west coast from Mexico (this looks like an editorial error) and no one between 1893 (Corbett) and 1990 (Sugden) wrote a "serious biography" of Drake (see, among others, Thomson's 358-page biography Sir Francis Drake (New York: Morrow, 1972). Unfortunately, five errors in even such a short article is far from a record, but each of these careless mistakes is in regard to well known and well documented matters about which there should be no mystery at all.

Regarding Drake's lost Nova Albion anchorage, the surprising disclosure is made that Drake's men "built a small settlement" there (the better to mingle in, no doubt). "There" is placed, solely by the writer's invocation of something he calls "commonsense odds," within Drakes Bay. These "commonsense odds," though they (it?) are the only justification given by the journalist for his opinion of Drake's whereabouts, are apparently not good enough to bet the farm on, for in a few lines comes the equivocation "there is little hope of settling it beyond all question." Indeed.

It is because of the ongoing appearance of such fluff in respected and widely read publications that a work clearing the decks is so badly needed. With each repetition of the mythology - be it from the presses of (among other offenders) the University of California, the California Historical Society, trade houses large and small, and now the Smithsonian - this shoddy sort of material seems to slip ever more easily past editors' benumbed eyes into the Drake literature, to further cloud the muddy waters around the Golden Hind and the vision of unsuspecting students, amateurs, and even professional historians.

(Notwithstanding the sharp criticism expressed above, I thank the Smithsonian for including, next to their web-site abstract of the offending article, a link to this site - where interested persons can perhaps find a more accurate and objective view of some of the issues. It is also pointed out that neither the author nor the editors of the unfortunate piece are to blame for this debacle so much as is the needless shambles into which the history of the circumnavigation has fallen, something which has made what should be straightforward research almost impossibly complex and which is the primary reason for these pages and my related larger work.)

Author's Note: Some of this material is adapted from or related to my yet unpublished book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored, in which these and neighboring thickets are explored much more deeply than on these few web pages. Thus there may be references here not fully explained, or answers missing their questions. Also lacking here is documentation, provided in the book by 782 endnotes. - Oliver Seeler

Nova Albion Research
Copyright 1996-97 by Oliver Seeler
Please feel free to send your comments to oseeler@mcn.org
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