The Plate of Brass

An X-Ray of the Fraud

No other aspect of the search for Drake's lost anchorage has caused as much confusion and embarrassment as the small crudely engraved metal plate "found" in Marin County in 1935. Not much will be said about it here, although a chapter of my forthcoming book Francis Drake in Nova Albion - The Mystery Restored, deals with its history, its still-ongoing consequences, and with who the perpetrators of the hoax might have been.

Here, it will suffice to say little more than that there is no longer any question of the fraudulent nature of this artifact. Its early authentication, in 1936, under the auspices of the University of California at Berkeley, never should have happened; there were many scientists and historians warning of a hoax even then, but they were generally ignored until much later when Samuel Eliot Morison, using without a word of attribution some of the early material, publicly declared the plate a fake. This of course proved nothing, but ignited a storm of controversy, with outraged cries coming from proponents of various Marin County landing sites. Caught in the crossfire was U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library, the owner of the plate. In the 1970's the Bancroft ordered the plate re-examined, both physically and in terms of its textual content, by the most sophisticated techniques available; the results were altogether negative, but the report issued by the Bancroft in 1976 equivocated by seizing on the habit of scientists to never make absolute statements, and thus left the question open. That merely threw gasoline on the fire, and the Bancroft was forced, apparently by political pressures it would be interesting to know more about, into yet another analysis of the scrap of brass. The results were even more negative, but incredibly the 1979 report again danced around a simple declaration. Finally, in the early 1990's the Bancroft submitted the plate to one more analysis, by extremely advanced methods at the university's Davis campus. This re-re-re-examination was undertaken without announcement and the results - again thoroughly negative - may never be published. However, a statement finally was made by the Bancroft, in the form of a loan of the plate to the university's museum of anthropology, at Berkeley, for inclusion in an exhibition titled "Frauds and Fakes," where it took its just place right next to the bones of Piltdown Man.

Meanwhile, the plate no longer has direct influence among historians, but its effects linger in subtle ways - the idea that Drake's lost harbor had to be reasonably close to the "find," in the environs of Marin County, was deeply embedded, and its extraction from the mythology of the circumnavigation has not been easy or complete.

As for the perpetrators of the hoax, this writer suspects that they were members of the notoriously puckish fraternal society E Clampus Vitus, playing what was supposed to be a short-lived prank on one of their own. A detailed but circumstantial case for this entertaining speculation is presented in my book.

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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