The story of Francis Drake is truly one of the most interesting, complex and heroic. The first English claim on what would become the United States—on the Pacific coast—is notable. Yet the events, actions and thinking of the man and his day are often lost to obscurity.
Every 10 or 20 years, a new author attempts to bring new energy and light to the subject. John Sugden, in his “Sir Francis Drake” (1990), and Harry Kelsey, in “Sir Francis Drake: The Queen’s Pirate” (1998), were the most recent. Now, longtime author Laurence Bergreen has weighed in with “Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire: In Search of a Kingdom” (2021).
Unfortunately, the book is a mess that starts before page 1. Bergreen accurately explains how the calendar was changed, moving dates forward 10 days, but even his examples get it wrong. Bergreen says, “I have followed the modern, Gregorian calendar for all events in all locations.” Yet all the circumnavigation dates in the text appear to be the old style (O.S.) dates. Any editing or fact checking could have corrected this: Several copies of the original “World Encompassed” are available online for free.
Californians interested in how Drake got to our coast know that Drake left Mexico and sailed out to sea, way beyond the sight of the coast of the Americas. He sailed north as far as he could, turned east and was surprised to find the North American continent so far out to the west.
Instead, Bergreen shows Drake sailing along the coast of continental Mexico, Baja California and the modern states of California and Oregon. He agrees that Drake was in the vicinity of the Oregon Dunes on June 6, 1579 O.S. But, then says Drake sailed north to 48 degrees, to the vicinity of the Olympic Peninsula, on June 5, 1579 O.S. Yes, 320 nautical miles north, arriving the day before.
Bergreen then has Drake sailing south to a cove at 44 degrees north (the area of the Oregon Dunes). Then, Bergreen has Drake among the Coast Miwok. That does match the accepted research. But eight pages later, Bergreen states, “On July 23, Golden Hind spread sail, caught a fresh breeze, and glided out of the harbor, ending the five-week idyll in San Francisco Bay.” Oh, Bergreen believes Drake was inside San Francisco Bay!
Where is the analysis of the navigation, the geography, the careening site, the weather, the tides, the shoals, etc.? Missing completely. Bergreen does have Drake then visit the Farallon Islands, in agreement with accepted research.
By the way, the National Park Service, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon State Parks and California State Parks concur with the mainstream research. Bergreen stands nearly alone. He writes that he took a cruise through the Strait of Magellan; he should have visited the coasts of Oregon and California, too.
The book focuses on Drake’s circumnavigation and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Here he nearly omits the key element of fireships—thought to be hellburners—at Calais, only referring to this obliquely pages later.
The overall idea of the book is that Drake helped lead to the formation of the British Empire. Leaders of the Hakluyt Society, the longstanding British historical group that has studied this, recognize that this “has been the subject of a vast number of publications and different opinions.” While Drake “may have had some effect” leading to the formation of the British Empire, “there were a lot of other voyages at this time and a general mood for expansion of trade. It was the commercial aspect of exploration in large measure that led to the Empire.” Bergreen needs to provide much more evidence if he wants to effectively argue the British Empire claim.
The extensive quotations in the book also lack good references, the book’s organization is often confusing and disjointed, and there are unnecessary and confusing backtracks. Bergreen is generous to Drake, recognizing his transformation from “a slaver to one who came to despise slavery” and nearly became, at least in Bergreen’s eyes, a leader of the Cimarrons in Panama and the Miwok in California. The author recognizes Drake having “a sympathy for nearly everyone, even his avowed enemies,” and notes how few opponents died at Drake’s hand. Yet Bergreen continuously uses the term “pirate” instead of “privateer,” calls the execution of Doughty “murder” and considering the captured Spanish treasures “stolen.”
There are many, many other clear errors in Bergreen’s book—far too many to catalog in a short review. Unfortunately, Bergreen’s book on Drake is not a reliable, worthwhile addition to the inventory of Drake works. A reader looking for a solid work on Drake must look further back, not to the Kelsey book, which is also problematic, but to a later edition of Sudgen’s “Sir Francis Drake.”
Michael Von der Porten is the vice president and archivist of the Drake Navigators Guild, which has been researching Drake in California since 1949. He lives in Santa Rosa.
The Drake landing site at the Point Reyes National Seashore remains largely inaccessible until September 2021, when construction at Drake’s Beach is expected to be complete.