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DRAKE, Sir FRANCIS, English navigator, probably the first European to sight the west coast of Canada; b. near Tavistock, Devonshire c. 1540; d. 28 Jan. 1595/96 on board his ship off Portobelo, Panama.
One of the great seamen of the Elizabethan age, Drake made several voyages to the West Indies in 1565–73 and commanded a final expedition in 1595, but his fame rests chiefly upon his voyage around the world in 1577–80, for which he was knighted in 1581, and on the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
On his world voyage, Drake left Plymouth in December 1577. He spent some time in the South Atlantic; then, in September 1578, he passed through the Strait of Magellan and entered the Pacific. After harrying Spanish ships and settlements on the South and Central American coasts, he seized Huatulco in Mexico. Here, in the spring of 1579, he planned his homeward voyage. Geographical ideas at the time were much influenced by Abraham Ortelius, whose famous map of the world showed the northern coast of North America as being south of 60°, with a polar sea beyond which communicated with the Atlantic by a northwest passage and with the Pacific by the Strait of Anian. Drake decided to attempt to return to England by this polar route. He set out from Huatulco on 16 April, but some six weeks later bad weather made him change his mind, and eventually he sailed across the Pacific and Indian oceans and returned to Europe by rounding Africa.
The supposition that he sighted Canada is based upon the nature of the winds and currents that normally prevail in the North Pacific in the spring months. These revolve clockwise in a vast circle – a phenomenon noted by Claret de Fleurieu, a French naval officer, and as a consequence known as “Fleurieu’s whirlpool.” Sailing ships must take it into careful account; otherwise they may spend many days battling with head winds.
After leaving Huatulco, Drake first sailed a considerable distance to the west, and then turned north. On 5 June he was still far from the North American coast, somewhere between latitude 42º and 48º; on 17 June he dropped anchor in a bay near San Francisco. The only way in which he could possibly have travelled between these two points in only 12 days was by following the edge of the whirlpool, and being swept along by its winds and currents. These probably carried him within sight of the coast of Vancouver Island and the State of Washington, and the earliest accounts of the voyage seem to bear this out.
P. R. Bishop, “Drake’s course in the north Pacific,” B.C. Hist. Q., III (1939), 151–82 (for the theory that Fleurieu’s whirlpool carried Drake within sight of the coast of Vancouver Island and the State of Washington). E. G. R. Taylor, Tudor geography, 1485–1583 (London, 1930), passim. H. R. Wagner, Sir Francis Drake’s voyage around the world (San Francisco, 1926). J. A. Williamson, The age of Drake (London, 1938), passim; Sir Francis Drake (London, 1952), passim.