EXPLORER: Captain Sir Frances Drake (c. 1540-1596)
SAILED WITH: John Winter, Thomas Doughty
IMPORTANT DATES: embarked on global circumnavigation in 1577; potentially reached Pacific Northwest in 1579; returned to England in 1580
VESSEL: Golden Hind
POTENTIAL PURPOSE: to thwart Spanish trade monopolies; to discover the Northwest Passage
Sir Frances Drake was an English captain who sailed during the Elizabethan age of the sixteenth century. He made voyages to the Caribbean and Panama, intending to thwart the Spanish trade monopoly that ruled Atlantic and Pacific routes. Drake became known as something of a pirate as he plundered the Spanish vessels that traded the coasts of South America and the Caribbean. He acquired the nickname of “El Dragon”, The Dragon, for his looting and naval victories over the Spanish Armada.
On orders from Elizabeth, Drake embarked on a voyage that remains a source of speculation and mystery. On December 13, 1577, Drake, commanding the Golden Hind, left Plymouth with four other vessels with the story that they were sailing to Alexandria, Egypt. Almost three years later, Drake returned without his escorts on September 26, 1580, after circumnavigating the globe. His booty was rich enough to pay the English national debt and Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake aboard the Golden Hind. But the details of the expedition, beyond points at which he was sighted by the Spanish, were entrusted to the English monarchy in strict secrecy.
Drake crossed the Atlantic and sailed the South American coast, heading north once they entered the Pacific. He made his way through Spanish territory and continued west, passing the Indonesian archipelago and the Indian Ocean to return to England by sailing around the African continent. Booty, the deception of the Spanish, and circumnavigation may have been welcome outcomes, but the search for a Northwest Passage is thought to have been the ultimate goal of the secret expedition.
Documents, maps and charts that would help historians to trace Drake’s voyage were altered, hidden or even destroyed, giving misleading latitudes, inexact coordinates and deceptive details. For example, a manuscript in the British Library from about 1583 describes the voyage. The Library’s analysis of the northern latitude reached by the expedition shows the numbers appear to have been changed from 50º to 53º then finally to 44º North latitude, meaning he reached a point much further north than the current ink reveals. A curious group of islands appear on several 16th century maps, long before Europeans are thought to have sailed to the Pacific Northwest. If these islands are, as some have suggested, the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte archipelago and Vancouver Island, they are perhaps proof of Drake’s arrival in northern waters. What is known is that Drake reached what he named “New Albion”, on North America’s Pacific coast. He may have turned west to cross the Pacific somewhere in the Spanish territory of California, but El Dragon may also have continued further north, bound for the entrance to the mythical Passage as he sailed the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Inside Passage.