The Unknown Expedition of Sir Francis Drake

April 11th, 2019

On December 13th, 2013, Bruce Campbell found a very special coin while walking along a British Columbia beach. The retired security specialist was relic hunting, but up until that day he had never had much luck finding anything of import. Deciding to change his tactic and walk below the high tide line where no one else was hunting, his metal detector alerted him to a coin hiding beneath eight centimetres of blue clay. It was an English shilling minted between 1551-1553, under the reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and brother to Elizabeth I.

The first recorded European voyage to British Columbia is Captain James Cook’s expedition in the 1770s, although even prior to Campbell’s impressive find there has been speculation––albeit controversial speculation––as to whether Cook’s visit was really the first time European ships appeared in these waters. Samuel Bawlf, in his book The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580, suggests that Drake actually travelled to British Columbia and even as far as the Northwest Passage but that this voyage was kept secret to protect knowledge he was gathering of the area from falling into the hands of the Spanish. Bawlf speculates that Drake headed north from California in search of a western entry point to the Northwest Passage.

Bawlf’s theory developed after he observed coded details on maps and globes that appear in what seem to be imagined coastlines. In a globe produced in 1597, for instance, Bawlf noticed an indented illustration of the continental coastline in which he could make out depictions of Vancouver Island, Prince of Wales Island, Haida Gwaii, and the Olympic Peninsula. Bawlf further asserts that some metal plates found in a Tlingit burial cave on Kuiu Island include Latin inscriptions that mention Drake, which he suggests was due to a robbery that could have occurred during his passage.

This controversial theory is not without its skeptics, and some historians have mocked Bawlf’s suggestions as “imaginary” for the way he describes Drake’s seemingly exhaustive journey through much of the waters of British Columbia and Alaska, including voyages through dangerous passages known for their rip tides, such as the Johnstone Strait. Historians have generally asserted that the farthest north Drake made it was California or perhaps Oregon. The discovery of this coin does, however, add evidence to the theory, and it is not the first 16th century coin to have been found off the coasts of BC––in total there are three.

Discoveries such as this have earned the theory some credit with specialists. Grant Keddie, curator of the Royal B.C. Museum and one of the province’s top archeologists, is encouraging relic hunters to scour the coasts for other objects that have yet to be dated, like glassware or ceramics, to see if these “might date to the same time period as the coin.” In the meantime, Keddie says he will examine the shilling carefully and see if any more corroborating documentary evidence shows up.

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