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In Drake's Wake

The Jettisoned Cannons

Michael Turner

The following is an excerpt from my second book In Drake's Wake The World Voyage. It would be a tribute to Ray Aker's precise geographical sleuthing, if we could find, film and possibly retrieve Drake's cannons. These would be the only shipboard guns remaining from late 16th century England.

Vesuvius Reef, Indonesia

Mr Aker convincingly outlines Drake's next leg of the voyage. The Golden Hind sailed westwards through the Kaloembangan Strait and soon Drake was amongst the largest area of reefs and shoals since leaving England.

The shores of the Strait consist of the high, densely wooded and sparsely populated islands of Peleng and Bangaii. I was able to photograph this stretch of the voyage from a chartered boat.

The eastern coast of Sulawesi was encountered at Tomori Bay, where Drake became embayed. Instead of the coastline trending in the desired south to south-westerly direction it ran south-east and promised more shoals and reefs. Hence Drake elected to sail north around Sulawesi by sailing NE through the wide and clear Peleng Strait. Upon exiting the Strait he sailed south, probably because he had been constrained by the seasonal head winds. He was again off the east shore of Peleng Island and searching for another southerly route. By early January the Golden Hind had sailed SW past Bangaii Island towards SE Sulawesi diligently dodging the reefs. Then believing he was clear of them at last he ran aground in darkness at 8 o'clock on 9 January 1580 and remained grounded until 4 o'clock the following afternoon.

A chart of the reef

When loe, on a sudden,..our ship was laid vp fast vpon a desperate shoale,..The place whereon we sate so fast was a firme rocke in a cleft, whereof it was we stucke on the larbord side. At low water there was not aboue sixe foote depth in all of the starbord, within little distance...no bottome to be found; the brize during the whole time that we thus were stayed, blew somewhat stiffe directly against our broadside, and so perforce kept the ship vpright...This shoale is at least three or foure leagues in length;... [World Encompassed, 76, 79, 80]

Drake had encountered a reef on an isolated seamount. It can comprise coral, rocks or sand and part or all of it can dry at low water. Vesuvius Reef consists of two adjoining coral reefs. The total distance from the NW tip of the west reef to the SE tip of the east reef, including the two mile wide, deep channel in between is six miles. Each reef is about 2½ miles long by a mile wide.

The reef, ...lies in 2 deg; lacking three or four minutes, South latitude. [W.E., 80]

Golden Hind aground in the Celebes

Golden Hind aground in the Celebes

This reading is in error by only eight nautical miles for the north end of the west reef, which lies to the NW of the east reef. Due to the isolation of the reefs along with the given latitude there can be no mistaking Vesuvius Reef for any other. Its sighting is further confirmed by The World Encompassed.

...the neerest land was six leagues from vs, and the winde from the shoare directly bent against vs;.. [W.E. 78] A north-easterly was blowing from the Bangaii archipelago and the nearest island to the reef is Bangkoeloe being exactly six leagues away, which is equal to 14.8 nautical miles or eighteen statute miles.

The ship suffered no damage but all hands thought death was certain. All prostrated themselves and offered their souls to God. Drake gave comforting speeches about the next life. There were two unsuccessful attempts to kedge off. Then the ship was lightened by jettisoning; three tons of cloves, some food, and according to John Drake eight cannons were thrown overboard. All to no avail, despite that each nine feet long saker weighed up to 2,000 pounds. I also think that the tree trunk Drake had intended to present to the queen was also discarded.

A cross section of cannons on the Golden Hind

A cross section of cannons
on the Golden Hind

The Famous Voyage also states that eight guns were jettisoned. The Anonymous Narrative records two and curiously The World Encompassed gives no number. In view of the dire circumstances and the fact that the ship still remained aground, I believe the number to be eight. The ship would have still been adequately armed with the ten remaining guns from the original complement of eighteen. According to Dueñas [Wagner, 185] Drake left five cannons on Crab-iland. This is highly unlikely, because Drake would have ideally needed all his guns in case he encountered the Portuguese. Dueñas reported that Sultan Babullah had been given two guns, one of bronze, which he had mounted in front of the palace, and the other of iron. These guns could have been salvaged along with three others from the reef. This has caused Aker to conclude that Drake cast six of his heaviest iron guns and two lighter bronze guns on to the reef. Dueñas stated that three cannons were retained by the local chieftain, the King of Bonga. This means that possibly between three and eight guns remain on the reef.

Ray Aker accepts that Bonga could equate with the modern-day port town of Bangaii, which is the administrative centre for the area, being only ten miles west of Crab-iland and sixty miles NE from the reef. Bangaii has always been the local Sultan's official residence and Aker believes that any salvaged guns would have been taken here. Encouraged by Mr Aker I visited Bangaii by chartered boat in 1993. On the aeroplane from England I had asked an Indonesian passenger to write out my forecasted set phrases. Hence at Bangaii armed with the relevant written request and a picture of a cannon, I was escorted to the Sultan's residence. By coincidence adorning the entrance were two iron cannons set in concrete. I was informed that the cannons were Portuguese. They were five feet long with five inch bores. Studies of my slides by Mr Aker suggested that these guns were from the late 17th century. Furthermore Drake would have discarded his heaviest guns in his desperate effort to lighten the ship and these would have been much larger than the two cannons at Bangaii. Despite our disappointment it was important to investigate a possibility.

At some stage Francis Fletcher had given a sermon, during which he incurred the ruthlessness of Drake's wrath. Fletcher held his captain responsible for their desperate plight. God was punishing them for Drake's execution of Thomas Doughty. Once the ship was delivered back to the sea Drake used his strengthened position to excommunicate Fletcher from the Church, denouncing him to the Devil. Drake had one of Fletcher's legs chained to the forecastle deck hatch and wrapped around his arm the now famous legend, Frances fletcher, ye falsest knave that liveth. [Wagner, 187]

It pleased God in the beginning of the tyde, while the water was yet almost at lowest, to slacke the stiffnesse of the wind; and now our ship, who required thirteene foot of water to make her fleet, and had not at that time on the one side aboue seuen at most, wanting her prop on the other side, which had too long alreadie kept her vp, fell a heeling towards deepe water, and by that meanes freed her keele and made vs glad men. [W.E., 80]

Mr Aker theorises that the remaining cannons may have been deliberately left on the starboard side in anticipation that if the wind blew from the west, being from the reef side, the weight of the guns would have contributed towards the sudden heeling to starboard. One would like to think that Drake had calculated this effect but the narratives leave it to chance.

A painting of a ship aground

National Maritime Museum, Rotterdam

The Hondius inset shows the ship at her moment of deliverance as she heels to starboard, thus freeing her keel from the reef. The fore and main yards as well as the top masts were lowered primarily to reduce the effect of the wind driving the ship farther on the reef. Moreover by lowering the weight aloft the tendency to pound on the reef is lessened. This would minimise damage to the hull. To resist further the effect of the wind driving her farther on to the reef, an anchor was cast and the cable kept taut.

Although Aker's research had narrowed the grounding site to these reefs, it remained to determine, which reef possessed the cleft with a rock within that the Golden Hind struck. The opportunity to photograph this reef was most unexpected. I was on a Merpati airways flight to Luwuk in a Spanish built twenty-four seater Casa 212, preparing myself for the start of this 1988 expedition. The plane's flight path was sixty miles NW of Vesuvius Reef. It was an unlikely possibility but I asked the pilot if he would deviate, reduce altitude and speed to allow me to photograph the reef. To my amazement he agreed. Unfortunately my maps were in the cargo hold and his charts did not include the reef. I navigated from memory. Soon two juxtaposed reefs were sighted, which were quite a distinguishing feature. My excitement erupted, when I saw the cleft on the NE side of the west reef. Hitherto no Drake scholar knew upon which of the two reefs the Golden Hind had grounded. I felt the joy of adding this knowledge to the history book. All this on my 33rd birthday! From 1,000 feet at 120 knots the views were breathtaking and graphic. I gazed at the cleft, which was a thin white wall of coral, behind which the water alternated between being deeper and shallow. The shades of blue added to the pictorial impact. The ship would have been grounded just south of where the cleft begins, which is marked by a protruding lip of coral. The whole drama on board Drake's stricken ship seized my thoughts and so did the future desire of looking for the cannons.

An aerial view of the reef

The flight was more than good value for money. I thought that at sea level the reef would not feature on film and that the pilot had saved me an expensive three day and disappointing boat trip to visit a reef so far from the coastal shipping route. However an unforeseen opportunity in 1993 was to reshape my thoughts.

I was back in Kendari and wished to revisit Crab-iland. The air route to Luwuk now entailed two overnight stops. In 1988 I had been lucky to sail immediately on a boat from Luwuk to Kendari. In 1993 the whereabouts of the boat for this non-scheduled route was not known. Unexpectedly at Kendari I had found a twelve metre boat to charter at an affordable $125 a day. I could now choose my route and realised that the reef, upon which Drake cast anchor in the most dramatic circumstances, could be included. Furthermore I could also reach Bangaii. As usual, the time of departure was timed to coincide with daylight during the arrival at each location. I was charged for the boat's estimated six day round trip. My work was completed in three and a half.

On Christmas Day we departed at 5.30am. Twenty-four hours later during a bright and still dawn the captain awoke me to the delightful and unexpected sight of two photogenic dried coral reefs. I was surprised to see a fisherman's hut on stilts perched on each reef. The boat cautiously nudged its way along the east side of the west reef. I used my compass to verify the position of the cleft. Fortunately low water made this easy, since in places the drying height reached half a metre. To be sailing so far from land in calm deep blue sea alongside a near vertical seamount exposing a vast expanse of coral, was a unique personal geographical marvel. At the north end of the cleft the anchor gripped the lower reaches of the coral wall.

A ground-level view of the reef

I was honoured to have my photograph taken standing on the reef with the neerest land...six leagues behind me and emptiness to westward. Then I snorkelled south half way along this 400 metre long cleft. Generally there was about three feet of water above the edge of the reef. In two or three places large heads of coral protruded twenty metres from the general line of the reef. This would represent a firme rocke in a cleft, upon which the Golden Hind ran aground and would account for the water being deeper, where the ship grounded. I was most interested in the angle of the reef's wall which had caused the grounding. The coral grew to a depth of about twenty feet, where it gave way to white rock. This wall sloped about 50° from the horizontal into the dark blue depths. I was conscious of the possibility that Drake's cannons could be found.

Working progressively from the worst to the best scenario: all or some of the cannons could have been recovered by fishermen; the remainder could have rolled down the reef's wall and could be too deep for cost effective salvage. Alternatively, if the cannons were cast over the port side on to the reef thereby not hindering the freeing of the ship, some or all could lie at the stated depths of between six and twelve feet. A week's reconnaissance would only cost £3,000. A proton magnetometer could be towed by a boat or canoe. Since the cannons can only lie a few metres on to the reef, they would soon be detected. Now that we know their whereabouts an attempt ought to be made to find them. They could then be housed in the Plymouth City Museum.

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