The illustrations accompanying this article are among the earliest European pictures of America. All are from a set of about two hundred marvelous drawings in ink and watercolors that was given to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York in 1983. Before that they were essentially unknown, hidden in a series of private collections since they were first found in England in 1867. They illustrate Francis Drake’s voyages in the Caribbean in 1572-73 and 1585-86, and his circumnavigation of the globe from 1577 to 1580. In 1586, after raiding Spanish settlements around the Caribbean and razing St. Augustine, Drake stopped at Roanoke and took Raleigh’s colonists from there back to England. About ten of the drawings—none of those used here—show plants, animals, and perhaps one Indian seen in Florida and on the Carolina coasts. But the most informative are those from the Caribbean and South America.
Some of the paintings were prepared from sketches made from life, while a few apparently were based only on verbal descriptions. All of them are labeled, and many are described in considerable detail in sixteenth-century French, written in three different hands. The artist, who has not yet been identified, was probably a Frenchman who accompanied Drake.
The illustrations and their captions were more than simply a sampling of exotic plants, animals, and cultures. Drake’s purpose was not only to capture Spanish-American treasure but also to establish an English foothold in a part of the world largely claimed by Spain. The artist was recording information he thought might further those aims.