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The Drake Exploration Society

Henry Briggs and Francis Drake's Harbour in California

John Thrower

Drawing of Estero

Drawing of Estero

Henry Briggs (1561-1630), was a famous mathematician and mapmaker, also interested in astronomy, geography and navigation. Amongst his many achievements was the invention of logarithms to the base 10. The Northwest Passage was another of his specialisms, so he naturally paid close attention to Francis Drake's world voyage.

Briggs knew well Drake's discoveries below the Strait of Magellan. He was a close colleague of Edward Wright whose map of the world, included in Hakluyt's Principal Navigations (1600) recorded those discoveries in accurate detail. It was thus quite natural for Briggs, together with another friend, Samuel Purchas, to be very critical of the claim of William Schouten and Jacob Le Maire to have discovered Cape Horn. Purchas wrote:

And my learned friend Master Briggs told me he had seene a plot of Drake's voyage, cut in silver, many yeeres before Scouten or Maire intended that voyage.

They had another reason to be scornful. Schouten recorded the latitude of Cape "Horn" as 570 48' over 100 miles in error. What a contrast to Francis Drake's accurate measurement of Cape Elizabeth so many years earlier!

Henry Briggs' map of North America (western half) with Robert Dudley's map 85 (inset)

Henry Briggs' map of North America (western half)
with Robert Dudley's map 85 (inset)

Briggs provided the map of North America published in Purchas his Pilgrims, vol. iii, 1625, of which the western half is shown here (with an inset of Robert Dudley's manuscript map No. 85). Made before 1622, it is one of the most important of the time. As a composite, place names are recorded, reflecting the nationality of the discoverer, in English, French or Spanish. The map shows California as an island; Briggs notes that this information came from a Spanish chart captured by "ye Hollanders" (see map). Perhaps the chart was taken during the Dutch raid on Acapulco in 1615.

The Spanish Father Antonio de Ascension, a member of Sebastián Vizcaino's expedition of 1602, was responsible for the enormous error in the mapping of California; misinformation which persisted for more than a century. Briggs seized on the idea, because it fitted conveniently with his theory of a narrowed continent and a Northwest Passage. If correct, it would provide a route from Hudson's Bay to the Gulf of California! However, the enormous mistake does not affect the detailed charting of the small part of the west coast which is of the greatest interest to Drake historians. Briggs's map obviously benefited from Spanish data, which enabled him to record some latitudes more accurately than those on Edward Wright's map. For example, Wright gives 43° for Cape Mendocino, whereas Briggs has it at an accurate 40° 30'. It is evident that Briggs was so impressed by Father Antonio's map that he copied it precisely, ending the west coast abruptly and horizontally at Cape Blanco. Edward Wright wisely refrains from delineating unknown coastline beyond 44°, marking it there as Nova Albion.

Punta de los Reyes

A general view of the harbour

Most interesting of all, is Briggs's record of Francis Drake's California harbour as, Po. Sr Francisco Draco and shown accurately inside Punta de los Reyes at 38° N. Surely this must be the earliest cartographic record of sufficient scale and accuracy to enable the position of Drake's California sojourn to be precisely located? Considering that the map is so well known, it is surprising that this important part of it has been generally ignored by Drake's biographers. Probably, it has been regarded as an unreliable source, because of its very large error. Certainly, major questions arise, and some of them are very odd indeed. How did Briggs come to make his very accurate placing? Was it by good judgement, or did he possess some inside information? Why was the rather peculiar combination of words used to name the port? What was, or was not, marked on the Spanish chart? Did Briggs name the port at all? We just do not know, but it is interesting, nevertheless, to speculate.

The Briggs map was in advance of The World Encompassed and well before the Dudley maps, drawn about 1635 and published in 1647. One could suppose, then, that Briggs simply indicated Francis Drake's harbour onto the Spanish chart, at what he believed to be the correct latitude, which he may already have known, or, could have read from The Famous Voyage account in Hakluyt. Conveniently this placed the port near Point Reyes already marked on the chart - how fortunate! Edward Wright with the same information available did not mark in the harbour on his own map - a curious omission.

Alternatively, it might have been the other way round. Perhaps Briggs knew what to look for. He was hoping to see a notable point at about the right latitude and found one on the chart - Point Reyes. How was he able to do this? Briggs had very good contacts by moving in the right circles. He may very well have had access to the same information that had guided Robert Dudley to draw his remarkable maps of Drake's harbour. On Dudley's map Point Reyes is not named but called La Punta. (see map)

However, both the above explanations beg the question of the very strange combination of English, Spanish and Latin that Briggs used to name the port. Po. for Puerto is definite and is clearly the same as the other examples on the map. Sr for Sir is differentiated from the many St markings. Francisco is in the Spanish form, but then for Briggs to add Draco, Latin for dragon, for Drake is strange indeed. On the Dudley maps Draco is also used, but those maps were made in Italy. Surely, one would think, the patriotic Henry Briggs would have kept to an English name for an English discovery on an English map? Surely, he would have wished to have proudly inserted Po. Sir Francis Drake amongst the Spanish names, especially as he carefully used many English names on the eastern seaboard of the same map. The words used seem to be more akin to the work of a Spaniard - although, if so, one might have expected to see Draque rather than Draco?

All this leads one to wonder just what might have been marked on the Spanish map, near Point Reyes, before Briggs got to work. Possibly it might have been marked B. de St Francisco , recording their first name for the present Drake's Bay. Briggs could then simply make minor alterations and add the word Draco. Again, this seems unlikely for the reasons already given. Also see the important point on this from Ringrose below.

So, if Briggs did not write these words, who did? Were they already on the chart made by Father Antonio de Ascension, and Briggs simply copied them as he did for all other names on this western side of his map? Father Antonio had certainly visited Drake's Bay, albeit briefly. He also had an interest in Drake's activities which he demonstrated later when he relayed the well known story about Drake's Portuguese pilot, Morena. There is, of course no suggestion in the records of either the 1595 Cermeño or 1602 Vizcaino voyages that the Spanish had gained any knowledge of Drake's landfall. However, if they had done so, it would normally have been kept closely secret. Later, about 1620, Father Antonio and Gerónimo Martin Palacios compiled a derrotero of the entire coastline. The same derrotero was used by Basil Ringrose to derive the information and charts north of Acapulco for his own South Sea Waggoner. Ringrose records in detail the anchorages within Point Reyes, including Drake's Estero, but he does not name any of them, nor mentions Francis Drake; whereas he does so in other parts of the Waggoner dealing with the South American coastline. Also another important point emerges: Ringrose faithfully records all the Spanish names for ports and bays all the way down the coastline. Most significantly, he makes no mention of Bahia de St Francisco within Point Reyes, so these particular words were not on the chart in Father Antonio's derrotero and, very likely, not on his original chart captured by the Dutch.

Unfortunately, no definite conclusion can be drawn from this seesaw of conflicting speculation. The most intriguing aspect of Henry Briggs's famous map remains a mystery. A most important mystery nonetheless and one deserving of further research. One can reflect, however, perhaps with a touch of wry amusement, that the fine detail of Francis Drake's Californian harbour, shown in Robert Dudley's manuscript map, coupled with the precise information indicated by Henry Briggs, should have permitted no controversy about the location of Portus Novae Albionis post 1647!

Map showing Point Reyes and Drake's Bay

Map showing Point Reyes and Drake's Bay

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