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In Drake's Wake

Interview with Michael Turner

Derek Pickett, Chairman of The Wessex Society

Michael Turner in a boat with a local guide

Michael Turner

Few, if any, can claim as deep a knowledge of Sir Francis Drake as Michael Turner, founder of the Drake Exploration Society.

Michael has travelled the world in Drake's wake, amassing a vast collection of photographs. He has written a five-book series on Drake and lectures regularly about his voyages.

Earlier this year our Chairman questioned him about Sir Francis and his place in our maritime history.

DP: Dan Snow recently charted the history of the Royal Navy for BBC2 in his series 'Empire of the Seas'. How well do you think he dealt with Drake's contribution?

MT: I watched the first episode, which dealt with Drake, and only mentioned him as a slave trader. A bit harsh really. He was a logistician on Hawkins' oceanic voyage and Drake was enticed to go on such voyages because it was oceanic experience.

Drake didn't really have a thirst for involving himself in the slave trade and he became the first white man in the Caribbean to work with blacks on an equal footing. It was the escaped slaves, the cimarrones, who actually helped Drake get rich - they led him across the isthmus of Panama and showed him where to waylay the Spanish mule-train - and he had a very effective relationship with them. Dan Snow also didn't point out that in 1586 when Drake captured Cartagena in Colombia he freed a lot of slaves, who were able to return home to Turkey as Drake promised they would be. And when Drake was leaving Cadiz he tried to swap prisoners with slaves condemned for life to the galleys. So to label Drake a slave trader is rather crude. It doesn't do justice to the nuances in Drake's life.

Hawkins had the slave image on his coat-of-arms and in those days there was nothing wrong in slave trading because slaves were a way of life. The Africans probably started it when they captured prisoners and turned them into slaves in their inter-tribal wars. You can't fully blame Hawkins for being the first slave trader in our modern history, for taking advantage of a situation that already existed. Hawkins was quite proud to be a slave trader but Drake didn't follow that line of work. He was looked upon to be very humane and in advance of his time in the way he treated people.

DP: I was brought up to see him as a bloodthirsty villain.

MT: Well, I wasn't. My dad called him a corsair - which isn't quite as strong as a pirate - but Drake was not a bloodthirsty person. The Spanish prisoners who were released and gave depositions of their experiences with him explained that he was not very cruel, he was loved by his men, he was generous with his prisoners and he never killed any unarmed Spaniard. When he sailed around the world and plundered ships and towns, not one Spaniard lost his life.

DP: Amazing. Clearly he had many admirable qualities. What is your overall assessment of the man, and are there particular stories that express it well?

MT: I'm glad you asked that question. In 1996, authors appeared trying to make money from their books by denigrating Drake as a human being. Even BBC Radio 4 had a programme out in the early 2000's trying to compare him with Bin Laden. Historians may have over-praised him in the past but what I've done recently is go through what those who met him said about him during his lifetime and after he died. Enemies of Drake, who had no reason to praise him, nevertheless gave very fair accounts of him. He was vainglorious, boastful, a touch arrogant, and loved attention and he could be greedy, extremely ruthless in pursuit of treasure. He was a larger-than life figure, very brave at sea, and brooked no questioning of his orders. He was great at being a guerrilla leader on a small scale, less successful at working with other very important people or taking orders from them.

During the action against the Spanish Armada, Drake captured an enemy ship and it couldn't just be any ship; it had to be the one with all the soldiers' pay chests on-board! He was lambasted by Frobisher for deserting his position. With the money he bought a long lease on a house called 'The Herbar' in Dowgate that became his London home from 1588 onwards. Today the site is beneath Cannon Street Station.

Drake was overcome in 1589 with plodding caution, which may have been partly due to back pain, the result of injuries suffered in putting out a fire at his London home. Around 1590 it is reported that he was unable to attend the Admiralty Court because of back pain, so I think he lost his physical verve and became more cautious at this time, which did come through in the 1589 voyage when he didn't link up with his soldiers' attack on Lisbon. He wasn't the best person to organise the victualling of ships. He was responsible for a delay in reaching the Caribbean on his last voyage, when the Spanish were waiting for him, so it was a very disappointing end to a great life.

DP: Let's go back to the start, Drake's birthplace at Crowndale Farm, Tavistock. Has the site been as fully investigated and conserved as possible, or is there further work to be done?

MT: I was there recently. I photographed the original well, which is in a field, just down the hill from where the ancient farmhouses stood and there are some slates there where the butter and cheese would have been stored, as the coolest part of the farm. There are remains of an old building there which are surmised to be Drake's house, because it was a little further down the hill than Drake's grandmother's house. No form of archæology has taken place in recent years on Crowndale Farm.

DP: Drake is claimed by Devon, and rightly so, but he had links with other western and southern counties, including very close links with Somerset and potentially others. Can you tell us about these, and what research is planned to fill in gaps in his known life here in England?

MT: There's no research needed really - I've covered it in work for my next book (In Drake's Wake, Volume 4: Drake in England). Starting from west working east, in Cornwall, Drake bought a house in Pensegnance because he was a great investor in property. He was in Saltash: one of the ships he brought back from the 1587 voyage was inventorised there. It had £113,000 of treasure on board. Drake went into Saltash several times; he had friends there.

He was obviously associated with Devon, particularly Plymouth. He married his first wife at St Budeaux church, just north of Plymouth. He is linked with Sidbury Manor, which is Sand House now, down near Sidmouth. Drake and Hawkins owned land there which they sub-contracted out to a grocer. Drake is associated with Ash House at Musbury in Devon because he lent money to Sir Bernard Drake in 1586. He lent him £600, so Drake could have gone to the house. He rode his horse through Axminster coming home from London to Buckland Abbey. He also owned property at Sampford Spiney on the west side of Dartmoor - one of the houses he obtained from the Queen after his world voyage. He owned Yarcombe House and the manor of Yarcombe, just off the A30, as well as a pub on the London road there, and would have prayed in the local church.

DP: All these properties he owned would have been at the end of his life?

MT: No, after he returned from his world voyage in 1580.

Drake was in Exeter many times. He was Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the shire and in November 1592 he was at the castle there. He was at the Guildhall and at St Peter's Cathedral.

He would have ridden from Plymouth to London many times. The first account we have of him riding is in January 1569. At the moment I'm trying to re-trace exact towns he rode through and see if there is anything there of historical interest. When you study Drake's life in full you can say 'well, he must have gone there', so my work takes me beyond the places specifically mentioned in the documents. I'm trying to photograph not only where Drake went but also where he most likely went.

He had connections with Hampshire, because he was in Southampton in April 1583, supervising the departure of the Fenton voyage. He was in Portsmouth twice, the first time being July 1586. He was in a hurry to get to London when he came home from the West Indies and instead of docking in Plymouth his fleet docked in Portsmouth, so he would have ridden his horse through Petersfield, and Guildford. He was also in Portsmouth in January 1588, preparing his part of a squadron to defeat the Spanish Armada by having cannon practice out off Spithead.

He was in Dover twice, in 1587 and 1589, the Government having asked him how he could improve the harbour design. Drake became rather adept at military engineering, having built forts around the world, so the Government asked his advice on many strategic matters.

In Somerset, where I live, he married Elizabeth Sydenham, the daughter of Sir George Sydenham. She was his second wife, and rich. He may possibly have married her in Monksilver church, which is very small and about half a mile north of Combe Sydenham Hall, the home of her father. Sir George was buried in Stogumber church, so Drake must have gone to Stogumber.

DP: A statue of Drake used to stand at Offenburg in southern Germany, commemorating the claim that it was Drake and not Raleigh who introduced the potato to Europe. What do you make of the claim?

MT: I don't have the details to hand but Drake did bring the potato home, from the world voyage when he was off Peru, and perhaps he brought it home as well from his stay with the colonists in what became North Carolina.

DP: Golden Hinde with an 'e', Golden Hind without an 'e'. Do you have a preference?

MT: The replica ship in London is spelt with an 'e' and the one at Brixham without. The documents show it without, so I do the same.

Originally the ship's name was the Pelican. The name was changed as Drake was about to enter the Strait of Magellan, not as he was leaving Port St Julian in Argentina as some authors have mistakenly written.

DP: What was the reason why it was changed?

MT: The story is simple really. Drake was experiencing mutiny and discontent amongst his men and he executed Thomas Doughty, the ringleader. Drake then wanted to re-establish his authority by the time the ships were about to enter the foreboding strait. To show his men that he had authority from the Court he took the golden hind - a female deer - from the coat-of-arms of Sir Christopher Hatton, a leading courtier, and associated him with the ship. Drake never showed anybody the commission on paper he reckoned he carried from the Queen and it's doubtful he had it really.

DP: Was this the occasion when Drake broke up one of the ships and redistributed the crew?

MT: It wasn't done for fractious reasons. Drake had moved Doughty around. He made him captain of a ship on leaving the Cape Verde islands to see how he could adjust to his relationship with himself and with the mariners. The ships were not staying together so Drake had to reduce the number of ships because they were getting lost and he also needed extra firewood for cooking, so it was at Puerto Natales in Argentina that one or two ships were broken up.

DP: You'd think that sufficient firewood for the galley would have been part of the victualling when they went ashore.

MT: Well, down in Argentina - and I've been there - there's not a lot of wood around. It's a very inhospitable place, very windblown, and in parts of the Straits of Magellan there is nothing growing.

DP: Talking of wood, two pieces of furniture are reputed to be made from timbers of the Golden Hind. What do you know about their provenance and are the claims reliable?

The founding members of the Drake Exploration Society around the chair in the Boldeian Library

A chair made from the timbers of the Golden Hind, in the Bodleian Library

MT: I've seen them both. The provenance is undoubted. In Oxford, when we formed the Drake Exploration Society, we stood around a chair made from the timbers of the Golden Hind, in the Bodleian Library (left). The Middle Temple in London has a table-top made from the fore hatch of the ship. There is also a replica of the poop deck lantern in the Great Hall of the Middle Temple. I've been lucky enough to see these artefacts associated with Drake. Unfortunately, there are very few others that survive.

DP: We were particularly excited to read of the possibility that some remains of the Golden Hind may still exist near Deptford. The most recent news on your website is from May 2009. Can you give our readers some of the background to the investigations and update us on where the project stands currently?

MT: Ray Aker - who is no longer with us unfortunately - was the President of the Drake Navigators' Guild in California. That organisation was far more hard-hitting in research on Drake than anybody over here. I got to know him in 1983 and found him to be very imaginative and that I thought along the same lines as him.

The Golden Hind was put in a mud-walled dry dock at the express order of Queen Elizabeth and unfortunately it rotted away because it wasn't roofed. Before it rotted away it was used for parties and ceremonious occasions and became something of a tourist attraction. Unfortunately, we're not exactly sure where the dry dock was. There is a zig-zag boundary line on maps of Lewisham and Deptford which makes no sense today in terms of the buildings of the area but which Ray Aker reckoned followed the line of the old Surrey Canal, which was filled in, and that Golden Hind had been berthed there. If excavation were to occur it would be cheap to do, as the site is open ground just concreted over on the up-river side of Convoys Wharf.

I've put on the website our desire to locate the Golden Hind, as part of advocating bringing more of Drake's life to light and, of course, I need the input from financiers and archæologists and the media to bring this project to fruition.

DP: Queen Elizabeth said that the ship was to be kept in perpetuity and yet you say it just rotted away. Was any work done to preserve it or did it just disappear into the ground?

MT: A new dock wall was built in the early 1600's but the ship was buried to provide it with additional support. Its presence would have stabilised the ground when it was buried and there ought to be a range of objects to be uncovered. The keel, for example, would give us the dimensions of the ship, which historians have only been able to guess at. A lot of the Mary Rose was found to exist after centuries in mud, which preserved the timbers, but even if wood hasn't survived at Deptford the ironwork would give you the exact placement of the timbers. There could also be utensils on board. Any archæology couldn't be very deep - maybe 12 feet below ground level.

It's certainly worth a group of people trying to get publicity for this project and take the investigation forward, perhaps to see what can be revealed by modern scanning equipment on the site Ray Aker identified. That site is about 100 metres down river from Deptford Strand, so I don't know if that could be classed as 'near Deptford'. There's also Deptford Creek, further down river, which has also been mentioned, and there's a creek up river from Deptford Strand as well. But we have to start somewhere.

DP: You've also researched Drake's grave. His coffin was dropped off at Portobello. Was that in the harbour or way out at sea?

MT: One league off the entrance to Portobello cove, which is 2.4 nautical miles. Even given some error in estimation, it's worth searching for the coffin, because it's not a vast area.

DP: Detection equipment today would surely be up to the task of locating a large lump of lead on the seabed.

MT: We made a programme for BBC2 in 1996 but nothing came of it. We didn't get enough support to mount a search. I had people contacting me claiming to be related to Drake and saying he should be left alone. I learnt that the media can be very useful but they can also be a hindrance because they like to proactively find people with different opinions, to generate arguments. So instead of bringing Drake home - if people do object to him having a hero's burial in London or Plymouth - I said "find, film, don't touch". At least we would know exactly where the coffin is. To maintain secrecy about the location, we would have to anchor and dive at many different points. Anyone following our movements would need permission to dive and would soon be spotted.

DP: How would you sum up your years as a student of Drake's career?

MT: My contribution over the past 30 years has been to follow Drake from the cradle to the grave, and to publicise my work as widely as possible, including through what I hope is the best Drake website in the world. I've put money into the project since 1980 by going to 42 countries - plus four overseas dependencies - photographing everywhere Drake went and have achieved 99% coverage of his life in the field. I'm the only person to have done this and to have written books informed by visiting and examining the actual geography.

I've wanted to touch Drake's life, to not just read books but go around the world and document where there was a possibility of finding artefacts associated with him - lost anchors, a broken cannon that was fired against him in Panama, the hermit's house, any remains of fortifications, maybe silver bars in the Panamanian jungle where Drake got rich. I want to see everything that he saw, and the Golden Hind project is one of the by-products of that wish. In the course of my travels, my interest in Drake has expanded to become far more complex and far-reaching than I could ever have imagined. There is more to it than I could possibly accomplish myself so I am always looking for positive publicity, to give Drake good airplay all these centuries later and to make him more relevant by bringing artefacts from his time into our lives.

DP: We'd like to give some publicity to the Drake Exploration Society. How would you 'sell' it to our readers as something they might wish to join?

MT: What we do - primarily John Thrower, Susan Jackson and myself - is undertake research, which is published every January and June in a 10,000-word journal called The Drake Broadside. It's material beyond the biography. We've been running it since 1996, the 400th anniversary of his death. After about 25 issues I've still not run out of material, and I do keep the focus sharp on Drake and not go off studying other personalities that he knew, although we do touch on them. I make sure it's a hard-hitting, potent shot, which the broadside magazine was in the 16th century. I would welcome material from new contributors but I accept that most members will be consumers, not producers. If our publishing activities ever do come to an end, we will still have our definitive website. The Society has a collection of research essays, which elicit email interest from around the world. I'd like your members to go to www.indrakeswake.co.uk and also click on to the Drake Exploration Society, which is linked on the home page. Membership of the Society costs £16 a year.

Michael Turner is available to give illustrated talks on Drake. He can be contacted at 7 Rosewood Avenue, Burnham-on-Sea, TA8 1HD, telephone 01278 783519, email michael@indrakeswake.com

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