The White Cliffs

...not where, but for whom, do they lie?

Near-white cliffs along the Mendocino Coast

Perhaps no single observation in the Nova Albion narratives is so widely known as the reference to white cliffs. The passage from the World Encompassed:

This country our generall named Albion, and that for two causes; the one in respect of the white bancks and cliffes, which lie toward the sea: the other, that it might have some affinity, even in name also, with our owne country, which was sometime so called.
Even skeptics of Drakes Bay theories usually concede that the very light cliffs there are a point in its favor, and the Drake Navigators Guild misses no opportunity - ever - to point at them. Indeed, these cliffs are often the first thing mentioned in the process of snaring new recruits. However, the Guild's touts are rooted in two assumptions, each based on unsupported and purely subjective interpretation of the above quoted passage.

The first assumption is that the cliffs are located at, or very near to, the lost harbor. But the original text does not state or imply in any way that the cliffs were seen at the harbor - in the passage they are specifically related to only "this country" and not to any particular local place, such as a bay or harbor. Since the name Albion (Nova Albion in another version of the same passage)is also specifically applied to the "country," the only thing that can be deduced from the statement is that "white bancks and cliffes" were seen somewhere along several hundred miles of the coast. There are indeed other very light cliffs along the Northwest Coast - for example at Point Arena - but of course these are no more meaningful in terms of locating Drake's harbor than any others.

As well as the two references to the "country" and none to any place within it, there is another indication that the cliffs were not directly associated with the harbor. In the narratives, what little information is given about the immediate anchorage area is near the beginning of the Nova Albion passages; the reference to the cliffs, on the other hand, is near the end, alone. Perhaps not too much should be made of this, but it is yet another factor to be considered.

The second Guild assumption (a kind word, under the circumstances) regarding the cliff passage is in regard to the phrase "which lie toward the sea." This statement would appear to present no logical or interpretative difficulties. The white cliffs of England, which face - "lie toward" - the sea, are the obvious model here. Clearly, the reason for the inclusion of the phrase is simply to emphasize the similarity between the cliffs of Nova Albion and those of England, by placing the cliffs by the sea and visible from it, rather than, say, along a river or on a mountainside. At Drakes Bay it happens that the most dramatic of the cliffs are on an outer edge of the bay; thus if one stands on the beach within the bay and gazes towards the sea, there are cliffs in sight ahead. So what? It is this that inspires the Guild contention that what is meant by the phrase "which lie toward the sea" is that cliffs are to be found to the seaward side of Drake's harbor. Thus a general descriptive phrase is turned into a statement that orients a local topographical feature in a way that favors Drakes Bay. The problem with this convolution is that it is utterly unsupported by the context of the text. Moreover, if any information about the orientation of the cliffs was intended, why was it not phrased in specific terms, say by something along the lines of "the white bancks and cliffs, which stand outside the harborough?" Indeed, the Guilds own preposterous logic could lead to a conclusion unfavorable to Drakes Bay, on the basis of the absence of such a description.

None of the above excludes Drakes Bay as a possible landing site, nor does it exclude the white cliffs there as the ones referred to in the narratives. It is generally considered that the Golden Hind's last stop in the region was at the Farallon Islands, and since the Farallons are nearly in sight of Drakes Bay, it is certainly possible - even likely - that the white cliffs seen were indeed those at that bay. However, it does not follow that Drake's harbor was there, and the current mythology does nothing more, on close examination, than once again demonstrate how the Drake Navigators Guild has muddied the waters around the Golden Hind.

Author's Note: Much of this material is adapted from my forthcoming 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 by Oliver Seeler
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