Pot shot at Elizabeth's sea-dog

Sir Francis Drake
September 18, 1998

Sir Francis Drake is a rather naive work. Harry Kelsey is a cartographic specialist at the University of California and the most dramatic claim he makes is that Drake never reached "New Albion", traditionally sited on the north Californian coast. Kelsey makes a persuasive case for Baja California in modern Mexico, as his landfall. The evidence he gives is the Spanish practice of placing the latitude lines on their early Pacific charts too far north, leading to a confusion between the bay of Acapulco and the anchorage "Portus Nova Albionis" on Hondius's map of the circumnavigation, once thought to have been San Francisco Bay.

Kelsey lumps this phantasm of a colony, together with Drake seeking the Northwest Passage, into a plot to deceive the Spanish as to his real route to the Spice Islands, and to give a spurious authenticity to a voyage that was intended from the first to be nothing more than a piratical raid aimed at the Spain's undefended colonies.

Kelsey tries to prove, unconvincingly, that Drake never rounded Cape Horn, and therefore could not have established the existence of a Southern Ocean. It is part of a general chipping away at the heroic edifice, which palely reflects Lope de Vega's charges of "cowardice, brutality and incompetence". The author's publishers claim he actually shatters it, but that is to skew the historical record. La Noue, the French Huguenot leader, wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's secretary of state, and Drake's chief supporter: "Spain wants to take Flanders by way of England but you will be able to take Spain by way of the Indies." Kelsey would have it that Drake could not produce a privateering commission from the queen when a recalcitrant crew questioned the aims of a voyage that was allegedly for trade. But he then cites the evidence in the Public Record Office of Elizabeth buying into the joint stock venture, which was the Tudor interpretation of privateering.

The author dismisses Sir Julian Corbett's account of Drake's conquest of Santo Domingo, Spain's oldest American colony, as groundless, accepting the Spanish governor's letter to the king that his city was indefensible and his forces weak, but dismissing the English report of a stiff fight against strong defences. Here, as elsewhere, Kelsey prefers Spanish testimony that needs evaluating for any hidden agenda. The Spanish colonials were known to have been exaggerating their weakness to win a bigger share of the defence budget.

Kelsey seems to misunderstand the basic concept in the rise of English sea power which was so clearly stated 50 years ago by Michael Lewis: "[Drake] still acting at first ostensibly on his own, yet gradually becoming the unofficial weapon of the crown more and more often I until he is found to emerge, when open war emerges, as the leading official weapon of the crown in this strange kind of war." Naturally Elizabeth would want to keep the covert initiation of war quiet, although she benefited from Drake's circumnavigation to the tune of £600,000 in treasure. The queen, Kelsey infers, ensured that her dealings with her "dear pirate" remained secret, the circumnavigation being omitted, by her order, from Hakluyt's account of English navigators' voyages.

Kelsey makes much of Drake's despoliation of the church, but does not mention Pope Sixtus V's ambiguous attitude to Philip and admiration of the sea-dog. He also claims that Elizabeth would not trust Drake in chief command against the Armada but who else would be expected to lead the fleet but the lord admiral, Howard of Effingham?

John Crossland is a freelance writer specialising in naval history.

Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate

Author - Harry Kelsey
ISBN - 0 300 07182 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 566

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