Our En­com­pass­ing of this Neather Globe

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Ho­ra­tio Mor­purgo

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 al­to­geather 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.