Research is Our First Task:
The location of Drake’s anchorage remains a matter of extensive debate among a growing number of commentators, historians, scholars, and writers of popular books, but there has so far been no collaborative, scientific, peer-reviewed examination of the evidence from both the Oregon and California Coasts. Our goal is to assess this evidence within an empirically grounded, multifaceted framework, drawing on skills from within the archaeological, historical and anthropological academic communities.
The Significance of 'The Famous Voyage'
It’s been over four hundred and thirty-four years since Francis Drake and his company in two ships, the Golden Hinde and a small ship only known as Tello’s Bark, landed somewhere on the west coast of American. This was during what became know as ‘The Famous Voyage’ (1577-1580). Seventy to Eighty men-- and a pregnant black woman named Maria-- landed on this unknown beach. They remained for five or six weeks and careened, caulked and refitted the ships. Onto this beach, they unloaded their captured treasure and secured it into the rudimentary fort they built. Accumulated from over a year of plundering Spanish possessions in the New World, the treasure included an estimated one million silver and gold pesos, untold bars of silver, four crates of Chinese porcelains, bolts of linen and silk, precious stones, (including a handful Peruvian emeralds, three as large as a little finger), pearls, gold chains, vestments from sacked churches, and of course: captured maps, nautical charts and rutters. The pesos and silver bars alone must have taken up over one thousand cubic feet of space. Where was this beach?
To this day there is no consensus among Drake historians as to the location of this harbor and beach. Though various bays have been proposed as contenders, Drake’s Bay, California has for many years been considered the strongest, but there is scant evidence to support this theory. The proponents reason that the landing must have been in the vicinity of where the contemporary published accounts, (rather than manuscript accounts), indicate, either at 38° degrees north, or 38° 30 minutes (The Famous Voyage 1589 and The World Encompassed 1628 respectively). Drake’s Bay, California is located just north of 38° north.
Historians are divided. Drake’s foremost biographer, Harry Kelsey, suggested it was Acapulco, but noted that the various latitudes given in the various published accounts of the Drake voyage are of little or no value in determining Drake’s landing place.[i] They are literally all over the map between 38 and 48 degrees north. Kelsey dismisses the contention that Chinese porcelain sherds (presumably from cargo Drake captured) prove Drake was at Drake’s Bay, as he wryly states ‘as luck would have it’ these sherds are found in the exact same place where a Spanish ship wrecked in 1595. [ii]
Luck may have had very little to do with it. The ship that wrecked at Drake’s Bay was the San Agustin, sailing from Manila with a cargo of silk and the aforementioned porcelains, and specifically tasked by Philip II of Spain to explore and chart the northern California coast before sailing on to Acapulco. Captain Sebastião Rodriguez Cermeño, indeed the whole western world, was keenly aware of Drake’s voyage sixteen years earlier. Cermeño was instructed to search for good ports where stops could be made ‘in case of necessity.’ Good harbors--especially places where ships could be careened-- were of incalculable value. Cermeño certainly believed he was in the same latitudes Drake sailed, and he may have been the first of many to be fooled by the dissemination of disinformation that indicated a ‘faire and good Baye’ at latitude 38 degrees. [iii] Captain Cermeño reached the coast at about 41 degrees north and sailed south, scouting the coast. Three days later they anchored in a bay a little more than 38 degrees north, in what is now referred to as Drake’s Bay.
Cermeño and his men landed on November 7, 1595, disembarked on the beach, lined up in marching order, and marched to the village just above the beach. Cermeño wrote “there were fifty adult Indians looking on with much wonderment in seeing people never before seen by them.” [iv] The Indians gave no indication they had ever seen Europeans before, and Cermeño and his men noted no articles of European manufacture, no iron, nor any trace of Europeans having previously been there. The grass-covered huts the Indians lived in bore no resemblance to the plank-roofed houses Drake’s men described. Hakluyt’s account mentions canoes, but the Indians here had reed boats. Cermeño decided to assemble a launch for coastal exploration.
It, alas, was not a ‘faire and good Baye’, and after a few days a storm blew up and the San Agustin was wrecked, breaking up in the surf. A few men drown, the survivors including Cermeño worked to refit the launch for the journey to Mexico. At the moment of the wreck, Drake was in the Caribbean on his last voyage with a fleet of twenty ships preparing to capture Panama. This expedition was a failure, and a despondent Drake, sick with dysentery, died at sea off the coast of Panama in late January of 1596, at the same moment that Cermeño and his crew were making their way south to safety in their open boat. Drake died before he could have found out about the wreck of the San Agustin, but if he had known he might have had a hearty laugh at the folly: it’s likely that the latitudes of the ‘faire and good Baye’ Cermeño was in search of were falsified by order of Queen Elizabeth, designed as a piece of diplomatic deception to baffle Spain. I reiterate Harry Kelsey’s note: “The latitudes given in the accounts are of little or no value.”
[i] Harry Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake; the Queen’s Pirate (New Haven and London: Yale Nota Bene, Yale University Press, 2000), 183-184.
[ii] There was only sixteen years between voyages, and the proponents of Drake’s Bay contend it is possible to distinguish the manufacture dates of the porcelains from Drake’s and Cermeno’s cargos based on attributes such as ‘sharp edged’ and rounded. Chinese porcelain experts Harvey Steel and Jessica Lally refuted this contention at Oregon Coast Ceramics Roundtable, October 2010, Manzanita.
[iii] Richard Hakluyt, Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation. London: George Bishop and Ralph Newbery, ca. 1589 (perhaps a second edition in ca. 1595), and The Second Volume of the Principal Navigations, 1599).
[iv] Henry Wagner, and Sebastião Rodriguez Cermeño, “The Voyage to California of Sebastião Rodriguez Cermeño in 1595,” California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1, (1924): 14.