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The Drake Manuscript

Patrick O'Brian and Verlyn Klinkenborg, Andre Deutch, London, 1996

The cover image from 'The Drake Manuscript'

The Drake Manuscript

This book contains a collection of captioned water colour paintings of the Caribbean. The collection is called the, Natural History of The Indies. This was the title of the American publication. The 134 leaves bearing 199 images of plants, animals, birds, fish, shells, Indian life, activities of the Spaniards and geographical sites were bound in 18th century blue morocco. They were bequeathed to the Morgan Pier Pont Library in the USA.

The reader will not learn much of value about Drake's activities, but will gain a quaint pictorial insight, of what he would have seen in the Caribbean. Strangely, some pictures are from Drake's world voyage, such as the Cape Verde Islands and Indonesia. The captions beneath each painting are in French. Their English translations are at the back of the book. John Thrower and I , were particularly pleased to read the description of the Camino Real. This helped confirm the site of the mule train robbery. The book will take about two hours to digest but many days to appreciate what the artist is trying to convey to the non-travelling, late 16th century reader, or to those in later centuries who were not witness to the highly superstitious indigenous populations of the Caribbean Sea. The unknown artist was a Frenchman. He mentions some of Drake's activities and must have sailed with him. This then, is the slender justification for relating the manuscripts to Drake. Some of the drawings of animals are from hearsay, such as the llama. Other images fall victim to fantasy. The shark is one example. Apart from the River Chagres estuary, those geographical plans of Nombre de Dios and Fogo volcano, bear little resemblance to reality.

The work of the artist is not matched by those who wrote the Forward and Introduction. It is the foremast and not the mizzenmast that is steadying the pearl divers' boat.

The uninitiated Drake reader only learns about the unsuccessful raid on the mule train and is ignorant of the fantastic haul from the subsequent robbery. This event enabled Drake to build the Pelican and sail around the world!

We read that Drake careened at 38° before reaching around 48°. This is the wrong way around.

The Indians did not force Drake to retreat in 1586 near or in South Carolina.

Tropical rains did not prevent Baskerville from reaching Panama City: it was the fortifications of the narrow Capirilla Pass. Three society members climbed the pass to appreciate how few Spaniards could be so effective in blocking Baskerville's advance.

No expense has been spared on this publication. The book is a joy to hold, which for me far exceeds the technological marvels of a CD ROM. Only for reasons of original irregular size, are two leaves not exactly facsimile. Even the stains have been faithfully reproduced on superb quality paper. This is a highly specialised book and is well worth examination.

Michael Turner

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