Folktales about Drake flourished in the West Country even during his own life-time. He was widely thought of as an enchanter. Once he did make it into the Pacific, and then got home, his having ‘shot the gulf’ was proof of occult powers. He was thought to possess a mirror which allowed him to see over the horizon and Spanish prisoners were told by their English guards that he was a sorcerer. In calling him ‘The Dragon’, his enemies didn’t just mean he was a pyromaniac and all-round baddie. They meant he was an emblem of Diabolus.

Devil’s Point, overlooking Plymouth Sound, is a promontory from which the families of Navy personnel still wave off their loved ones. It was said that Drake went there at the approach of the Spanish Armada and cut pieces of wood into the water. By the power of magic these became at once the well-armed boats by which he saw off the invader. As Mayor of the city he would later bring clean water off the moor by constructing a leat. Even such municipal good works morphed into stories about how the water had followed magically at his horse’s heels as he rode into town one morning.

Such stories were only one outlet among many for the widespread unease to which the new mathematical sciences gave rise – navigation and engineering included. But it was not only a function of that. There   are non-western cultures in which long-distance travel is also an activity with magical associations – not least in that very Pacific region through which Drake sailed. The Trobriand Islands, Hawaii and Eastern Papua New Guinea have all furnished anthropologists with examples.

His uncanny aura can only have been strengthened by the secrecy surrounding his Famous Voyage. The logbook, illustrated by himself and his cousin John and presented to the Queen at Whitehall during six hours of conversation, has, famously, vanished. The world map which he gave her at the same time was still hanging there fifty years later but has also since disappeared.

The resulting gaps in our knowledge have generated a compensatory hunger for information about exactly what happened. A readiness, too, to speculate about how such documents come to be lost, and why. Laudatory poems were allowed but no detailed official account of the voyage was published in England until nine years after the Golden Hinde returned, when it appeared in a book dedicated to the head of the Secret Service.

The length of that silence was the talk of Europe even at the time, and crucial aspects of the venture are still unknown. What was its purpose, even? The ‘draft plan’ for the voyage, discovered in 1929, tells us who the investors were and that this was intended as a journey of reconnaissance. Direct conflict with the Spanish was to be avoided. But the section which would have told us where the ships were meant to go has been burnt away. Some parts of the voyage are still impossible to trace accurately. How   far south the ship went beyond Tierra del Fuego, or how far north along the coast of California his ‘New Albion’ was: these are still matters of conjecture.

Is the missing detail here a tell-tale sign of furtive state-sponsored burrowings? To each generation its own speculations. In our own time, the secrecy is often treated by historians as circumstantial evidence that Drake’s intentions, and those of his backers, were legally dubious from the start. One source even suggests that Drake initially had instructions to deny that he had sailed around the world at all.

But what we don’t know about Drake and his voyage is different from what we do know but have chosen to ignore or play down. We know, for example, from the deposition of his Portuguese pilot, Nuño da Silva, that he carried ‘a book in which he writes his log and paints birds, trees and seals. He is diligent in painting . . .’

We might assume that in this he was merely indulging a hobby or preparing to justify his later actions, but da Silva’s words suggest something rather more committed. As chance would have it, we can actually see in some detail how the impression made by the natural world during this voyage was later ignored or played down:

And the 26 Sept . . . we safely with ioyfull minds and thankfull hearts to God, arrived at Plimoth, the place of our first setting forth, after we had spent 2 yeares 10 moneths and some few odde daies beside, in seeing the wonders of the Lord in the deep, in discouering so many admirable things, in going through with so many strange adventures, in escaping out of so many dangers, and ouercomming so many difficulties in this our encompassing of this neather globe, and passing round about the world, which we haue related.

So ends The World Encompassed, the first full-length account of the voyage, first published in 1628, nearly fifty years after the ship’s return. Notice that it was ‘in seeing the wonders of the Lord in the deep’ that the list of their activities begins. Just for a moment suspend disbelief. It’s quite possible that the man who wrote those words meant them quite literally.

The World Encompassed draws upon several sources but is mainly based, as the title page makes clear, on an account of the voyage by the expedition’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher.   Fletcher   himself was unable   to find a publisher for his manuscript but it was copied in the 1670s, illustrations included, ‘the originall being exactly to a haire with this.’ The original has disappeared but the first half of that copy survived.

A comparison of the text that was finally published with its main source tells us a lot about how the official narrative was arrived at. Fletcher, for example, is sceptical about the actions of ‘the General’ during the trial and execution of Thomas Doughty. Hence, presumably, Fletcher’s difficulties in finding a publisher. Doughty, who styled himself a fellow-commander of the expedition, was tried as a traitor and a conjuror at Port St Julian, in what is now Argentina. Fletcher’s views on this are simply absent from The World Encompassed. Drake’s gangsterism, in other words, is endorsed by a deliberate down-playing.

But other aspects of the voyage have also been noticeably scaled back. As they head south towards the Equator from the Cape Verde Islands, for example, Fletcher observes that ‘whereas Aristotle, Pythagoras, Thales, and many others, both Greekes and Latins, have taught that the torrida zona was not habitable . . . we proved the same to be altogether false, and the same zone to be the earthly Paradise . . .’ Nothing like this appears in the edited version.

The chaplain’s relish for this ‘earthly Paradise’ shows nowhere more clearly than in his account of watching flying fish pursued by dolphins and tuna in mid-Atlantic:

Nature has taught them in their flying aloft to come downe head long to the water and glance their bodyes upon the upper surface of the water hereof to wett their winges, and to continue their flight as before, whereby they go scott free from their sea persecutors . . . many times they would flye against the toppe masts and sales of our ship, and against the bodyes of our men . . .

The flying fish do appear in The World Encompassed (one historian has referred to it as a ‘digression about fish’). They make very little sense there because so much of the tone and colour of Fletcher’s original observations has been painstakingly removed.

In the manuscript Fletcher’s wonder at the newness of what he is seeing is palpable. The fry of the flying fish are described as ‘being of the bignes of gnatts. They scudd upon the superficies of the water and skipp from place to place like grasshoppers’.

The greatest spoyle whereunto these flying fishes were subject to in the ayer, was that a multitude of strange birds did ever attend upon the shoales of dolphin and bonetta (tuna) in the ayer, knoweing that when they light upon the sholes of the flying fishes, they would put them up as a covey of partridges, and they presently as hawkes fell upon them, with all the violence to make havoke, and slew 1000 before they held one fast for their owne use, wherewith they pleasured their friends, the dolphins and bonettayes, in the sea, which received them with greedynes looking for more . . .

This is nature writing. ‘In these and such pleasures,’ Fletcher records, ‘did we pass away 54 days’ on the crossing from Cape Verde to Brazil. Note the first-person plural: Fletcher is not just speaking for himself. He records his discussions with the Portuguese pilot about what they were all seeing. It was his duty to ‘Report such things of Gods great and marvailous works’. The islands they found off South America thick with penguins are sketched in a similarly rhapsodic, richly detailed style: ‘some of them have upon their heads, standing upright, a little tuft of feathers like a peacock, and have red circles about their eyes which becom them well . . .’

They land on an island one evening to take some of the birds for food:

the night draweing on the fowles increased more & more so that there was no place for them to rest in. Nay ever third bird could not find anny roome in so much that they sought to settle themselves upon our heads shoulders arms & all parts of our body they could in most strange manner without anny feare . . .

‘Penguin’, meaning ‘white head’ in Welsh, originally referred to the now-extinct great auk. Fletcher was the first writer to use this term for the bird we still call by that name: ‘Infinite were the Numbers of the foule which the Welch men name Pengwin.’ They are still there in The World Encompassed, and they are still good for eating, but neither the enchantment nor the pathos have made it past the editor.

And we are surely justified in asking why. Dolphins and flying fish are admirable enough in their way, the official narrative seem to be saying. They will do for a bit of back-drop and extra protein. But any reaction they evoke as creatures in their own right is not reducible to financial, strategic or patriotic terms. Whatever anyone who was actually there may have thought, they are ‘extraneous to the subject of the book’. They are irrelevant.

By drawing attention to this, I don’t mean to suggest that this voyage, or any other sixteenth century voyage, was some kind of wildlife cruise. The circumnavigation was certainly about statecraft and commerce. Those who invested in it made a 4700 per cent return on their investment. The Levant Company was set up using some of the money that was left over once Elizabeth had been able to pay off the entire national debt. And from the Levant Company there would one day emerge the East India Company.

But that is what the voyage meant for the English state and related business interests. The same state and the same related interests took care to manage the story about what it had meant from the moment Drake and his crew stepped ashore in Plymouth. This is part of a larger pattern. We still have the written ‘instructions’ on this from a follow-up voyage of 1582. They specify that all maps ‘or descriptions of the said voyage’ must be handed in to the commander when the ship returns and he in turn must pass these to the authorities. But nothing obliges us now to collude in this arrangement. The question about why those authorities needed to control the story so tightly matters more, ultimately, than the minutiae of where Drake went or even how much he stole.

It matters because consciously or otherwise the Age of Discovery in general, and the circumnavigation in particular, is still active in the way we see the wider world and our place in it. Over time this voyage has endured some very concerted attempts to force it into meaning two or three things and only those. It does not follow that those two or three things are all it meant.

Horatio Morpurgo helped to campaign for the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in Lyme Bay. He has written widely about the sea-bed’s recovery there since 2008. His latest book, The Paradoxal Compass, places the West Country’s relationship with the sea, and with science, in a longer historical context.

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