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Book Reviews

The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580

by Samuel Bawlf

Did Sir Francis Drake visit Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlottes, and the coast of Alaska 200 years before any other European? Geographer, ex-B.C. politician, and sailor Samuel Bawlf sure makes a strong case for such a voyage.

By any criteria, Drake was an extraordinary man. His circumnavigation of the globe, his role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and many other exploits make him an enthralling subject for Bawlf’s well-researched and entertaining book. The first three sections of The Secret Voyage cover Drake’s early life and what we know about his voyage around the globe. The final section speculates that, in the summer of 1579, Drake sailed and mapped the complex coast of B.C. more accurately than anyone would do for centuries. Throughout, Bawlf is careful to separate speculation from historical fact.

But if Drake really did reach the B.C. coast, why don’t we know about it today? Government secrecy didn’t begin with Watergate – the Elizabethans were masters at it. When Drake sailed home in 1580 after three years at sea, he thought he had discovered the western end of the Northwest Passage. Such a discovery would have given the British a major advantage over the Spanish, but only if the knowledge could be exploited before it became common knowledge among rival governments and navies. Hence the ensuing secrecy, suppression of information, and alteration of maps and documents.

Bawlf tells a wonderful adventure story with a light touch that makes even the convoluted background of Elizabethan politics clear and interesting. The endnotes, in most books a repository of dry facts, are also a fascinating read in their own right.

Drake probably did make nautical history during that summer of 1579, although the details will never be known. Bawlf’s book may take us as close as we can get to the truth, and it is a most enjoyable journey for anyone with a taste for history.