Slave trade at center of boulevard name debate

06/17/2020

A petition that calls for the renaming of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, which cuts east near Drakes Bay in the Point Reyes National Seashore across the county to San Quentin, has generated a groundswell of support. Gathering over 5,000 signatures in the past week, the petition ties the English sea captain to his legacy of slave trading and colonization. 

“Removing the name of a slave trader from the honorable position of a main thoroughfare in the most racially disparate county in California is not pretending that he, or the colonial ideologies that he represented, did not exist,” said Nicole Lavelle, a Bolinas resident who signed her name. “It is instead saying, ‘These are not the values that we, as a community, want to uphold, honor, represent, or perpetuate.’”

Dozens of commenters who addressed the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday on matters related to racial equity included their support for the renaming. Lauren Brown, a Larkspur native who launched the petition on Change.org on June 8 and has set a goal of 7,500 signatures, asked supervisors to list the renaming as an item during the county’s budget hearings next week. 

Ms. Brown told the Light it would also be prudent to have new names for Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, and to take down a 30-foot sculpture at the Larkspur Ferry Landing, where last night advocates gathered with signs. 

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni approves the effort. “Certainly I am supportive of the principle behind the movement and looking forward to more dialogue with our residents,” he wrote to the Light. As far as renaming the boulevard, he said, “We are just beginning to understand the scale and scope of this change, from the 101 freeway to local road signs, involving several cities, the county, Caltrans, and thousands of property addresses that will need to change, from personal to business addresses.” 

Petitioners have not proposed a new name. Yet Lucina Vidauri, who identified herself to supervisors as a descendent of the Coast Miwoks on Tuesday, asked, “Where are the Coast Miwok names?” She continued, “It’s time to honor the first people of Marin, to let newcomers know who was here and who took care of the land for thousands of years. One way to honor them is to take away the disrespectful people that were part of their demise.”

Sir Francis Drake is commemorated as the first sea captain to successfully circumnavigate the globe; in 1581 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth on the deck of his ship, the Golden Hind. 

He was also a slave trader. John Hawkins, who helmed the British Royal Navy and was a notorious actor in the transatlantic slave trade, was Drake’s cousin and the two voyaged together, especially at the start of Drake’s maritime exploits. 

A historic attack by the Spaniards in 1568 in San Juan de Ulúa in Mexico following one such mission decimated the English fleet, prompting Drake’s years of stealing, burning and destroying Spanish ships and colonies in a battle for new territory and power. Thus he earned himself a reputation as a ruthless pirate. 

Drake’s involvement in slavery persisted throughout his career as a privateer. In the 1580s, scholars describe him carrying hundreds of enslaved people from Africa and South America on his ships during an attempt to establish an English outpost on the East Coast. When the mission went awry, the fate of those peoples was never recorded, according to a Smithsonian Magazine story published on the gap in history. 

“The saddest part of the story and perhaps the most revealing is that no one bothered to say,” wrote historian Edmund Morgan in his 1975 book, "American Slavery, American Freedom."

His legacy in Marin stems from his landing and five-week stay in the cove now known as Drakes Bay, which the National Park Service deemed a National Historic Landmark in 2012. 

Sir Francis Drake claimed the land for England, naming it Nova Albion. That translates literally to “New White,” though Albion was also a name that early cartographers assigned to England. 

“He recorded the claim on a plate of brass and pronounced it to the world by nailing the plaque to a post,” explained a history produced by the Drakes Navigators Guild, the group that first submitted the landmark application in the ‘90s. “Of course, this claim came without full disclosure to the Coast Miwok; sadly—though it would be a centuries long process—this claim forecast the encroachment on their homeland, a delayed encroachment that would eventually yield devastating effects.” 

Although there are competing theories as to where Drake landed, the park service condoned Drakes Bay as the most probable location after six decades of research by the guild. 

Michael Van der Porten, the archivist for the guild and a Santa Rosa resident, would not weigh in on the idea of renaming the boulevard, but said the public should decide.

The boulevard originated as a dirt road built in 1865, the San Rafael-Olema Road. When it was paved in 1929, Wilford Scilacci, the proprietor of the Point Reyes Emporium, suggested a new name: the Sir Francis Drake Highway. 

“Scilacci and his fellow residents had little solid knowledge about Drake, his full history, and even whether there was enough evidence to prove that the Golden Hind had indeed visited the Marin shore,” local historian Dewey Livingston said. “But the name stuck.”

In 1930, the Board of Supervisors changed the name to boulevard. It was subsequently extended west from Olema to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Ms. Brown, the petition organizer, said one of the common opposing arguments to her petition for the change was that history would be lost.  

Ms. Lavelle said she wasn’t concerned. “Historical revisionism is not bad; it’s necessary,” she said. “Historical amnesia is bad. They are different things. Questioning history, uncovering missing perspectives, and ultimately rewriting what stories are told is not problematic, but in fact critical if we want a future where white supremacy is not the dominant ideology.”