The Elizabethans And America
“To push back the consciousness of American beginnings, beyond Jamestown, beyond the Pilgrims, to the highwater mark of the Elizabethan Age” -- Part One of a New Series.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
The various accounts all agree about what happened. The native Indians were exceedingly friendly: “They are a people of a tractable, free and loving nature, without guile or treachery”—evidently inhabitants of a golden age; we see how the myth of the noble savage, the state of nature, and other concepts of literature and political theory grew up. To Drake’s embarrassment—for he was a firm Protestant who always traveled with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs on board—the native Californians took to worshiping the English as gods. The braves sought among the seamen till they found a god whose face pleased them, “which commonly were the youngest of us.”
As a sign of good will and a peace offering the Indians came down bringing baskets “filled with an herb which they called Tabah,” and offering their obedience. Drake took
the sceptre, crown and dignity of the said country into his hand, wishing nothing more than that it had lain so fitly for her Majesty to enjoy … and that the riches and treasures thereof (wherewith in the upland countries it abounds) might with as great conveniency be transported to the enriching of her kingdom here at home as it is in plenty to be attained there … Before we went from thence our General caused to be set up a monument of our being there, as also of her Majesty’s and successors’ right and title to that kingdom: namely, a plate of brass, fast nailed to a great and firm post; whereon is engraven her Grace’s name and the day and year of our arrival there, and of the free giving up of the province and kingdom, both by the king and people, into her Majesty’s hands; together with her Highness’ picture and arms, in a piece of sixpence current English money showing itself by a hole made of purpose through the plate, underneath was likewise engraven the name of our General … This country our General named Albion and that for two causes; the one in respect of the white banks and cliffs which lie toward the sea; the other that it might have some affinity even in name also with our own country, which was sometime so called.
It is nice to think of California as New Albion.
Drake proceeded north along the coast of Oregon until he came abreast of British Columbia, looking for the outlet of a northwest passage. But, his chaplain Francis Fletcher wrote, “we conjecture that either there is no passage at all through these northern coasts (which is most likely) or, if there be, that yet it is unnavigable … Though we searched the coast diligently even unto the 48th degree, yet found we not the land to trend so much as one point in any place towards the east, but running on continually northwest, as if it went directly to meet with Asia.” They concluded, correctly, that “the large spreading of the Asian and American continent which (somewhat northward of these parts), if they be not fully joined, yet seem they to come very near one to the other.”
So Drake returned to a harborage just north of present San Francisco, thought to be the present Drake’s Bay, for careening his ship before the long haul across the Pacific.
Meanwhile the Queen at home had to face the music. Drake’s depredations on the coast of Peru had made a great noise in the world and caused much indignation in Spain. When Winter came back in the summer of 1578, he was received with favor by the Queen, and was closeted alone with her to give her an account of the voyage. In August of the next year, Philip sent Mendoza reports of the events on their coast from the viceroys of Peru and New Spain, “which certainly disclose a very strange affair.” The impassive Philip was a master of understatement.
SIDEBAR: DRAKE'S "PLATE OF GLASS"
Drake was expected home after two years—he was a year overdue before he eventually returned, and the Queen was growing anxious for news. She also wanted to know the purpose of the preparations in Spanish ports. Philip was on the eve of his conquest of Portugal, by which he gained an oceangoing fleet and added a second empire to his own. The situation was growing very dangerous: England was coming face to face with a world empire, the balance of power quite thrown out with France paralyzed by civil war.
Elizabeth wanted to find out where she stood. In January, 1580, she invited Mendoza to a bearbaiting that had been laid on for her. He wanted to know her attitude toward Drake’s piracies. She countered by asking the purpose of Philip’s preparations at sea. At last she demanded with emphasis, “Ut quid tot sumptus?”—“To what purpose such great charges?”—the discussion being carried on, of course, in extemporary Latin.