Episode 162: The Pirate Queen

In the 1570s, Francis Drake plundered Spanish ships throughout the New World with the private permission of Elizabeth I. His actions marked the first direct challenge to Spanish naval supremacy in the region, and also marked the beginning the English embrace of empire. In this episode, we explore those developments and examine the impact they had on the English language. We also examine the first novel composed in English and the first permanent theater built in London.


4 thoughts on “Episode 162: The Pirate Queen

  1. Great episode as always! This is one of my favorite podcasts. I always come away with fascinating information, like the origin of “filibuster”, “Moby Dick”, “rummage”, and so many other things in this episode, and all your episodes. Love it.

    But one small thing that surprised me this time, prompting me to come here and write this comment, was the matter-of-fact way you said Drake sailed north to the “vicinity of Vancouver” before turning back to “the region around modern day San Francisco”.

    I’m not an expert on Drake but I am a geographer in the Pacific Northwest and have been keenly interested in, and actively researching all I can, for many years, the early maritime European contact history along the California and PNW coast. My understanding about Drake is that while researchers are extremely confident that his main landing site was in Drakes Bay, California, near San Francisco as you said, there is less certainty about his northernmost landfall. Over the years many places ranging widely from Mexico to Alaska have been suggested, debated, and argued over. And while there is still uncertainty the general consensus is that it was probably on the coast of Oregon near Coos Bay. Or so I have come to understand.

    The idea that he reached what’s now British Columbia is, if I understand right, widely considered a “fringe” theory among Drake historians. So it was surprising to hear you make that claim as if it was plain undisputed fact. Also, you said “vicinity of modern day Vancouver”, by which I assume you mean the city, not Vancouver Island. The earliest known-for-certain European landfalls north of California and south of the Aleutians, are on the west coast of Vancouver Island, relatively accessible from the open ocean’s coast. In contrast, Vancouver is well over 100 miles into the “Salish Sea”, through the infamously foggy Strait of Juan de Fuca (which the first 10-20 Europeans known to sail by failed to see at all, due to fog), then through the labyrinthian and dangerous waters around the San Juan Islands, and *then* a good distance into the Strait of Georgia. That Drake did all this in 1579 is extremely hard for me to believe, making me wonder where you got the info.

    Was it Samuel Bawlf? If I’m not mistaken, in Bawlf’s 2003 book “The Secret Journey of Sir Francis Drake”, he suggests and tries to make the case that Drake reached Comox, which is over 200 miles into the Salish Sea, beyond even Vancouver. However, Bawlf’s theories have been criticized by many other prominent historians of Drake and early PNW maritime history. While it isn’t impossible there seem to be many problems with Bawlf’s theory, which various historians have pointed out. His book made a bit of a splash, so to speak, in British Columbia, where it isn’t uncommon to hear the claim made in a “pop history” kind of way.

    Also, speaking simply as someone who has studied the early maritime history of the PNW coast in detail, I have great trouble believing that Drake went into the Strait of Juan de Fuca / Salish Sea at all, let alone over 200 miles through treacherous archipelagos, very strong, complex, and constantly changing tidal currents, thick summer fog, frustratingly variable winds, hazardous “lee shores”, and much else. The theory strains credibility on those grounds alone, to my mind. It took numerous ships and expeditions from several countries over a few years to do this in the late 1700s, and even then it was very dangerous, uncertain, slow work. I mean, it’s not impossible, but even if Drake *could* do such a thing it makes little sense that he *would*, seems to me. You mentioned how hard it was for him to get through the Straits of Magellan. Getting to the Vancouver or Comox area would have been similarly difficult, especially with zero info from earlier explorers.

    Plus, I believe Bawlf’s theory makes Drake’s main landing place unlikely to be Drakes Bay, California. I think Bawlf claimed it was Whale Cove, Oregon. But Drakes Bay is quite well established as Drake’s main stopping place where he claimed the land as New Albion, careened his ship, interacted with the Coast Miwok people, and prepared for crossing the Pacific. This makes Bawlf’s theory rather strained and even more “fringe” than it already was. I think only 12 days are supposed to have passed between Drake’s northernmost landfall and his longer stop at Drakes Bay. Doing that from the Oregon coast is reasonable, but from Comox in the Strait of Georgia? Incredible! Hard to believe.

    Anyway, given all these things, and assuming I’m not missing some key facts, I wondered if maybe it would be wise to rephrase what you said so that it sounds less like established fact, at the very least. If it was me I would want to point out how we simply don’t know how far north Drake got, and that most historians think it was probably somewhere on the Oregon coast. And perhaps say that there are a large number of other theories, including various places on the coast of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. And even some, like Bawlf’s, that claim Drake went far into the Salish Sea.

    Sorry for the long comment. On the topic of early PNW maritime history I find it hard to be terse! But I thought you might be interested and perhaps not as much of an expert on this topic as you obviously are on the history of the English language.

    In closing, keep up the good work! I am always eager for the next episode and super impressed with your knowledge and entire style of presentation. Superb! Every episode blows my mind one way or another!


    • Hi Paul. I’m surprised to hear that Drake reaching the vicinity of Vancouver is controversial. All of my sources indicate that he reached that location before turning back. According to my research, the voyage was chronicled by Francis Fletcher who estimated that the ship reached a latitude of 48 degrees north, which would have placed the ship in the vicinity of Vancouver. In Laurence Bergreen’s book ‘In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire,’ he writes that “They were now at 48 degrees north, Fletcher estimated, in the vicinity of the Olympic Peninsula…” (p.208) In Susan Ronald’s book ‘The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Private Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire,’ she writes that “… by the time they had reached somewhere around modern Vancouver they had been so engulfed in icy fogs and fierce northwesterlies that the Hind…began leaking.” (p.231). I also have Samuel Bawlf’s book, which provides a detailed account as you noted, but I didn’t really use it as a resource for the episode. Of course, this isn’t my area of expertise, but I don’t consider the northernmost limit of Drake’s expedition to be an essential part of the episode, so I will probably leave the episode as it is, and I’ll let your comments serve as further elaboration of the issue.

      • Hey thanks for the detailed response!
        Personally, the ideas about 48 degrees, Olympic Peninsula or even Vancouver Island seem much more plausible than so far into the Salish Sea. But then I know less about Drake scholarship than later 18th century maritime stuff, so it’s quite possible my incredulity may be overheated, lol.

  2. I am fascinated with the podcast. Just one short comment: in Episode 162 you mention “eastern and western coasts of Panama, when referring to Francis DrakeĀ“s whereabouts either in the Atlantic or Pacific. In fact the Atlantic would be the northern coast and the Pacific the southern coast. The Panama Canal does not run east-west but north-south since the isthmus of Central America from Costa Rica to Colombia runs East-West instead of North-South as does the rest or it.
    I realize that this is of little importance, but I thought it was worthwhile pointing it out (needless to say I am writing from Panama.
    Thank you for making me enjoy the History of the English language.
    Best regards,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.