Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake and the Canadian West Coast.

Mackenzie King said Canada’s problem was too much geography and not enough history. The real problem is we have lots of both, but few Canadians know little about either. For example, few Canadians know of the connections between Elizabeth I and Canada.

Elizabeth is one of the greatest leaders of all time. When two women executives wanted to write a book about leadership they chose Elizabeth as their model. Their book, “Leadership Secrets of Elizabeth I, begins each chapter with a quote of Elizabeth’s wisdom, such as, “The past cannot be cured.” The extent of her interests and understanding were remarkable, including some that few people know.

Elizabeth 1; The Armada Portrait with Elizabeth’s hand on the globe.

For example, her geopolitical ambitions included searching for the Northwest Passage from the eastern and western ends, though most only know of the eastern efforts. The reason they don’t know is because Elizabeth sent Sir Francis Drake on a secret mission to discover the western end as part of his circumnavigation of the world.

The scientific advisor to Elizabeth on this and several other matters, including astrology, was the fascinating character, John Dee. He was a real confidante because he picked the date for her coronation. He was interested in navigation, especially determination of longitude, and discovery. One biography of him is titled, John Dee, Geographer, Astrologer and Secret Agent to Elizabeth I.” Dee provided considerable input to the planning of Drake’s voyage including a remarkable map with a polar projection. With the North Pole at the centre, it is a view of the Arctic Ocean that most people don’t recognize even today.

Dee’s Polar Projection Map

A contemporary image of Dee shows him carrying the instruments of his interest in navigation and longitude of the globe.

Elizabeth deliberately created the image of Drake as a pirate beyond her control. In reality, nobody was beyond Elizabeth’s control. Drake was a very clever man who spoke several languages, one of the greatest navigators in history and contributor to the construction of world maps.

Sir Francis Drake also with his hand on the globe.

On Drake’s return from his voyage, Elizabeth ordered him directly to London. There she took all his charts and Log books, swore him to secrecy, and turned them over to her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.

Sir Francis Walsingham: One of the few known portraits.

What happened to those charts and logs is a tale of secrecy, intrigue, discovery and distorted history.  Most reports claim Drake landed in San Francisco and set sail from there across the Pacific. A brass plate left by Drake and found in the Bay area supported this claim. In 1977, the plate was shown to be a forgery made of 20th century brass. This broke the California academic hold on the story, and people began to re-examine the evidence.

Former British Columbia cabinet minister Sam Bawlf stepped out of politics and turned to his longtime interest in west coast exploration. It began with youthful adventures along the coast and extended through his responsibilities for historic and archaeological sites and the coastal ferry service. His particular interest was the reported visit to the coast by Sir Francis Drake in 1579 A.D., and he decided to write a book. He needed to know the weather conditions in that year so he asked Provincial Archivist John Bovey if he knew anyone who could reconstruct conditions. John connected Sam with me, and I agreed to produce the research he wanted. Sam Bawlf produced a very credible thesis marshalling the historical context and evidence in a fascinating book titled, “The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake.” But why did he need to know the weather conditions? They were central to the story because the weather conditions in his log didn’t fit the recorded latitudes.

Elizabeth gave Drake secret orders to discover the western end of the Northwest Passage and wanted to prevent the Spanish knowing where he went and what he found. When Drake returned to England after circumnavigating the world, Elizabeth ordered him directly to London. She visited him on his ship The Golden Hind and removed all his charts and logbooks. Elizabeth’s general plan was to control both ends of the Northwest Passage and thereby control the North Atlantic, North Pacific and the Northern Hemisphere. Bawlf confirmed with scientific evidence from the British Library, how the latitudes registered in the logbooks were altered to indicate Drake did not go as far north as he did. The problem was the weather descriptions were not appropriate for the new latitudes because they were not changed.

A further complication is that 1579 falls solidly in the early part of the cooler period of the Little Ice Age (LIA) from 1560 to 1830 AD.  This means the weather was different for each latitude than it is today.

The challenge was to determine the pattern of weather Drake is reporting, the latitudes at which it occurs today, and where that occurred in a cooler world. Drake was on the coast in June and sailing north. He reports conditions currently typical of southern Alaska, but his altered logbooks indicate he was in the region south of Prince Rupert. As Bawlf notes “Drake later referred to the coast at latitude 53 degrees as the “Frozen land” and “Coast of objections”. Prince Rupert is at 54° 18’ N.  Even with the cooler conditions of the LIA, he had to be further north.

Global temperatures declined sufficiently to shift weather patterns associated with the boundary between polar and temperate air, the Polar Front, south approximately 300 km.  One degree of latitude equals 60 nautical miles (nm) or 111 km. 300 km is approximately a 3° latitude shift. Sitka, Alaska is at 57° 3’ N. Prince Rupert is 3° further south, so it would have had a climate similar to Sitka, Alaska in 1579 AD.

When Drake entered the Pacific around Cape Horn, he captured a Spanish ship for the gold, but also to obtain a navigator to direct him to the Northwest coast. He was aware of El Nino but little else. He released the navigator in Oregon, who then walked to Mexico and reported what happened.  Then, apparently, Drake sent the ship with 11 of his crew to sail back through his newly discovered Northwest Passage to England. We know this because 11 names are missing, with no explanation, from the original crew list when he got back to England. Apparently he sent gold with them that he didn’t want to weigh him down on his Pacific crossing. It never reached England.

Drake turned his charts over to Walsingham and accepted knighthood and other accolades from his Queen. He obeyed the order to remain silent about his secret voyage on the Northwest coast of America. However, consider his situation. His circumnavigation was noteworthy, but he was second to do it.  Besides the discovery of the Northwest Passage was a much greater prize at that time. Within months, Drake visited with world renowned Flemish mapmaker, Abraham Ortelius. A few months after that a new world map appeared with the west coast of America shifted 60 degrees of longitude further west to approximately its proper location. More important, four islands, including Vancouver Island, appeared that did not exist on any previous map.

French version of Ortelius map of Drake’s voyage. The four islands are highlighted in the bottom left.

Mackenzie King was only correct about Canadian history but mainly because the academics and media have failed to educate people. Canadians will be amazed at how much history Canada has once they start digging and learning. Academic history and academics are the great limitations on availability and readability. Most Canadians get much of their history from non-academic writers like Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, Peter C. Newman, and Sam Bawlf.  

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