Society for the History of Discoveries


Bawlf, Samuel. Sir Francis Drake’s Secret Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America, AD 1579. Salt Spring Island, British Columbia: Sir Francis Drake Publications, 2001. x, 149 p. ISBN 0968852807. $50.00 USD

Perhaps the greatest single loss to the historiography of early California is that of the original logs, rutters, and charts supposed to have been prepared during the voyage of Francis Drake to the region in 1579, not only because of the absence of more specific information regarding Drake’s presence, but also due to the incredible amount of time, ink, and paper that has been expended in speculating about his route and landing sites on the Pacific coast of North America. In addition to an unusual abundance of scholarly and popular works on the Drake circumnavigation in general, professional geographers, historians, and archaeologists such as George Davidson, Herbert E. Bolton, Robert E. Heizer, and Aubrey Neasham, amateurs such as Robert Power, Justin Ruhge, and Bob Ward, and an organization of both, the Drake Navigators Guild, have concentrated specifically on the Pacific coast aspect of the voyage. Each has determined Drake’s route and landing sites according to individual methodology, or a lack thereof, extending from Santa Barbara, California to Whale Cove, Oregon. This new volume on Drake takes a quantum leap by extending his route to Prince of Wales Island, landing site to Comox, Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, and careenage to Whale Cove, Oregon.

As have most Anglophile authors, Bawlf opens by establishing a mythical infallibility for Drake, affirming that his “secret voyage [the circumnavigation was] the greatest in the history of exploration,” and, as the title proclaims, knights him prior to his leaving Plymouth. As have most of his predecessors, Bawlf uses only English-language sources and demonstrates his limited knowledge of history and exploration by Spain and France. Also, as all Drake landfall writers, Bawlf is limited to the same contemporary sources, The Famous Voyage, The World Encompassed, etc., and to the same well-known cartographic results of the circumnavigation produced by Ortelius, Hondius, Plancius, Molyneux, et al. along with the several “Drake Maps”. Thus confined to the oft-employed documentation, Bawlf also follows other authors by interpreting it according to his own methodology. This includes ignoring published bibliography and cartography that does not support his theory, using half-truths and vague descriptions to assert absolute truths and specific, concrete facts, and employing generalized landforms on maps to fit precise locations. Therefore, among other things, he does not cite works that differ from his conclusions, he ignores or erroneously resolves problems of topographical, meteorological, ethnographical, zoological, and biological descriptions that do not fit his theory, and he pinpoints precise landforms that fit his thesis on maps that are otherwise imprecise and inaccurate. As in most works of this caliber modifiers such as “very likely,” “must have,” “probably would have,” “although,” “could it be,” “evidently,” “may have,” “probably,” and “very possibly” occur with great frequency.

Unique to Bawlf, however, is his assertion that the common contemporary sources do not really state what they state, but rather, because they are “enciphered documents” contain intentional falsifications to maintain secrecy. This affirmation enables him to interpret any sources he chooses to include in that category as he wishes, claiming to be privy to an understanding of these ciphers. While secrecy of geographic discovery was a common defensive method hardly restricted to England, the history of the search, including Drake’s, for a water passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (Northwest Passage westbound; Strait of Anián eastbound), and Drake’s interest in establishing a colony on the Pacific coast are well-known aspects of history, Bawlf treats these as top-secret aspects of English policy to enshroud the voyage in mystery.

Among the more notable claims of encryption and secrecy, Bawlf contends that the “code name” Moluccas was used to refer to California, that to alter recorded latitudes from as high as 53°N to 48°N to conceal discovery of Prince of Wales, Queen Charlotte, and Vancouver islands cartographers employed “cryptograms which have been carefully contrived to place his secret colony site 10 degrees south of its true location,” and made such “deliberate alteration to further obscure Drake’s discoveries” by following the “10° rule” of reducing true latitude by that figure. Additionally, without thought of the great distance from their routes, Bawlf states that one of the navigator’s aims was establishment of a “secret naval base” on Vancouver Island to raid Peruvian and Manila ships, that cartographic evidence provides the “unmistakable impression that Drake has formed a comprehension of the great coastal archipelago extending northward from Cape Flattery,” and that because of a “fast paced reconnaissance” he was unable to conduct exploration for the strait that would have enabled his return to England in 30 to 45 days. Possibly one of the most ingenuous statements, ignoring Spain’s prior knowledge of the Pacific coast, and after his own humorous mistranslation of several of them, Bawlf asserts that “Spanish” toponyms on maps by Ortelius, Hondius, Plancius, and Molyneux were “to conceal from the English authorities the fact that the information had been leaked by an English source.” 

Confronting the problems of dates, distance, and sailing time, Bawlf facilely states that “dates in The World Encompassed have been altered by the simple expedient of changing the month” allowing thirty additional days for sailing time, still admitting that the sixty miles per day headway necessary was “nevertheless… a remarkable feat.” For those who need physical evidence, stories of a “stolen” plate of lead, navigational rock inscriptions, and an undiscovered lead box of letters are included.

As with several of his predecessors, Bawlf excuses Drake’s apparent incompetence when it is convenient to his thesis, but closes by leaving no doubt of his opinion of Drake, who is “emblazoned in history as one of England’s greatest heroes,” whose voyage was an “extraordinary feat of exploration,” notwithstanding the fact that his “illustrated journal and charts are lost forever.” He is confident that he “establishes beyond any reasonable doubt” that Drake discovered the major islands of the northwest coast as far north as the Stikine River and “gave the name Nova Albion to Vancouver Island” where he “chose a site on its sheltered eastern coastal plain for the future colony.” Drake “remained convinced that he had found the Strait of Anian,” but “secrecy… deprived him of that credit.” Nevertheless, his “feat of exploration eclipses any achieved in that day” and his “secret voyage” was the “greatest in the history of global exploration.” 

There follows a chart that seeks to clarify the convoluted text explaining the relationship of descriptive accounts of the voyage to cartography, and a bibliography, with some citations incomplete, limited to selected works that support entirely or partially the author’s thesis. The printing, binding, and paper quality of the book are good, and the plates are clearly printed. This book is not recommended for entry level to the Drake phenomenon, but for all persons reasonably advanced in the subject, this new thesis is a necessary addition to their library.

Michael Mathes
El Colegio de Jalisco


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