Sir Francis Drake's Nova Albion
Documenting a missing chapter in British Columbia history

by Samuel Bawlf

Figure 1. Detail of future Canada on the Molyneux globe.

Photos courtesy of the Masters and Benchers of the Middle Temple.

A 400 year old English globe provides irrefutable proof that the great Elizabethan seaman-adventurer Francis Drake explored and claimed the British Columbia coast for Queen Elizabeth I in the year 1579—two centuries earlier than the first Europeans were previously believed to have reached this coast.

The globe, made by contemporary cartographer and instrument-maker Emery Molyneux,1 depicts Drake's epic voyage around the world in 1577-80 and contains information that so closely matches the actual British Columbia coastline that it could only have been based on Drake's firsthand observations of the coast.

The Proof

On the globe, the track of Drake's voyage reaches northward on the Pacific coast of North America to latitude 48ºN, where there is a large and distinctive indentation in the coastline. Adjacent to this feature, Nova Albion, meaning New England, is inscribed straddling the 50th parallel of latitude. Below, Drake's name is inscribed in Latin. (Figure 2)

Because Molyneux's detail is drawn at a small scale, it shows only the general trend of the coast. But anyone who has studied a modern map of this coast will easily recognize that this large indentation closely matches the mainland coast behind Vancouver Island. One need only imagine what the modern map would look like with Vancouver Island removed, and they will get essentially the same picture as one sees on this globe. (Figure 3)
Figure 2. Drake's track (recoloured) reaches north to a distinctive indentation of the coastline, where his name is inscribed in Latin beneath the inscription Nova Albion straddling the 50th parallel of latitude.

Figure 3.
Molyneux's Globe omits
Drake's Island of Nova Albion
Modern Map with
Vancouver Island dotted in.

The point where Molyneux's coastline turns eastward is plotted almost precisely at the latitude of Cape Flattery—48º 23'N—which marks the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. To the east, his coastline dips southward, indicating the entrance to Puget Sound, and then it runs northward to 49º before curving and running northwest, just as the mainland coast behind Vancouver Island does from that point.

Clearly these readily identifiable details could not have been a figment of Molyneux's imagination. It would be impossible for such accurate details of this coast to be depicted on his globe except as a result of direct observation of the coastline by someone who was equipped to determine its latitude and compass bearing.

Even if one knew nothing of the reason for the obviously deliberate omission of Vancouver Island from the globe, there is no other viable explanation: for Molyneux to have these details of the mainland coast that is hidden behind Vancouver Island, Drake had to have sailed through the straits which separate Vancouver Island from the mainland.

Thus, the globe provides incontrovertible proof and a priceless record of Drake's exploration of British Columbia's coast in the year 1579.

Corroborating Evidence

The information on Molyneux's globe is corroborated by a large body of evidence that I assembled in an investigation that I undertook in 1996—2000.

In my research I examined all of the known contemporary sources pertaining to Drake's voyage into the North Pacific. In the course of this study, I was able to decipher and unravel a veil of state secrecy imposed by Elizabeth's officials to conceal from England's rival, Spain, Drake's discovery of what he believed to be the Pacific outlet of the Northwest Passage, and his choice of Vancouver Island to become Nova Albion—the New England which was to serve as the base for English maritime enterprise in the Pacific once discovery of the Passage was complete.

In 2001 I published this research in Sir Francis Drake's Secret Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America, A.D. 1579 (hardcover, 160 pages, 45 maps and illustrations. ISBN 0-9688528-0-7).

Comments By Leading Scholars

Richard Ruggles, Emeritus Professor of Geography, Queen’s University, and one of Canada’s foremost authorities on the mapping of discoveries:

    “I think it’s a remarkable piece of work. It’s the first really detailed study of the cartographic materials… It will be a very significant historical and geographical aspect of British Columbia and Canadian history.”

    “I really believe that his approach is correct. He has done really solid research. It changed my whole approach to understanding [the subject]… I had the opinion that Drake had gone to 48 degrees and Nova Albion was in California. I am now convinced that Drake travelled to southeast Alaska and Nova Albion is on Vancouver Island.”2

Francis Herbert, Curator of Maps, Royal Geographical Society, London, and a past president of the Society for the History of Discoveries:

    “A lot of the material is ground breaking. In that others agree that Drake could well have had good reason to voyage farther north to BC and Alaska I am sufficiently convinced of [Bawlf’s] arguments. 3

Dr. Marcel P. R. van den Broecke, Netherlands, an authority on the maps of Abraham Ortelius:

    “This is quality research. It’s hard to underestimate the significance of these names appearing at the places mentioned for the first time, explaining as Mr. Bawlf’s research does, why they appear at the time they did, at the location they did and with the names they received.” 4

Robin Winks, Townsend Professor of History, Yale University, and former chairman of the US National Park Service advisory board:

    “His work is very good. It is a considerable manuscript. I read it with a critical eye, and I think it’s a very convincing study and a very significant work.” 5

Grant Keddie, Curator of Archaeology, Royal British Columbia Museum:

    “He’s presented an excellent case for showing that Drake came much farther north than was previously believed.” 6

Dennis Reinhartz, Professor of History, University of Texas at Arlington, and a past president of the Society for the History of Discoveries:

    “Bawlf has convincingly expanded the geographical boundaries and historical implications of Drake’s voyage along the northwest coast of America… He is versed in the known facts of the voyage, and he is not cavalier with them. Nor does he contort or distort the source material. His interpretations and reasoning are historically as well as methodologically sound.” 7

Notes 1. Molyneux's first globe, now lost, was presented to Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace in 1591. The copy that is pictured here, although dated 1603, is believed to have been produced in 1597 or 1598 and is preserved at the Middle Temple, London.

2. “Compelling discovery rewrites BC history”, Stephen Hume, The Vancouver Sun, August 5, 2000, p. A1 and A2.

3. to 6. Ibid.

7. “Northward Bound”, Mercator’s World magazine, July/August 2001, p. 54

Updated August 2015