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Of great seadogs and their barques

John Crossland previews an exhibition which charts the lives and journeys of three great English explorers.

Drake was cruel and tyrannical, an archetypal pirate in fact." This debunking of our greatest sea-dog, by an educational officer at the preview of the new National Maritime Museum exhibition, "Blood, Sea and Ice", might have been politically correct but could still shock anyone old enough to have been raised in the patriotic spirit of "Drake's Drum".

Sir Henry Newbolt's rousing poem appeared exactly a century ago and instantly caught the public imagination at the flood-tide of imperialism. The strictures of many of Drake's contemporaries, by no means all Spanish, were overlooked so that a paragon of essentially Victorian virtues - bluff, bold and chivalrous - could be entered in the record as an exemplar to successive generations of young Britons.

This exhibition opens on Sunday, the 400th anniversary of the sea rover's death, from enteric dysentery, off Panama. It was an inglorious end to an expedition planned to save his eclipsed reputation but which, the museum staff point out, was "fraught with failure and should never have been sent".

Drake sits rather uneasily with Captain Cook and Sir John Franklin in an exhibition charting the epic of English discoveries, but earns his place for his circumnavigation of the world from 1577 to 1580. Although it is unfashionable to use the term "role model", particularly for someone involved in the slave trade, he became just that for his generation of young Elizabethan adventurers, and the cool re-evaluation of him here at Greenwich meets the requirements of the history curriculum at several points; the role of hero, exploration, science, life processes, native peoples and social history.

The circumnavigation made Drake famous throughout Europe and even won the grudging admiration of the Spaniards. He took his sole surviving crew, out of five which left Plymouth, to the latitude of 55 degrees South, further than anyone had sailed before, and proved in the process that the American continent was not connected to a Terra Australis, but that the Pacific and Atlantic met at Cape Horn. He then completed the round-the-world voyage - through the Magellan Strait, up the American coastline (claiming present-day California for Queen Elizabeth I), across the Pacific, and home via the East Indies and Cape of Good Hope.

The exhibition includes Padre Francis Fletcher's sketchbook of various sections of the South American coastline, which aided future mapping of the New World, as well as the "broadside" map of 1595, tracing the Golden Hind's route.

However, there is no sign of the watercolour sketches which a Spanish captive says were made of the north American coastline, on Drake's orders. Instead, we have the burning of Spanish settlements in a series of hand-coloured maps by Baptista Boazio, illustrating the sea-dog's raiding expedition through the Caribbean in 1585 which led to open war with Spain.

The real casus belli can be traced, however, to Drake's turning the circumnavigation into a plundering expedition. As Nick Henshall, editor of History Review, says: "If Drake was around today, he would be privatising his share options. We should be very familiar with the ethos of 16th-century seafaring - it was run for profit; Drake plc if you like!" Certainly the Queen was sufficiently pleased with her share of the profits - Pounds 264,000-worth of gold, silver and jewels were lodged at the Tower - to knight Drake, "her pirate", with his own sword on the Golden Hind's quarterdeck.

The sword, a broadsword with its black pommel decorated with exotic fruits and tendrils, is a centrepiece of the Greenwich exhibition, together with the chair made from the Hind's timbers after she was broken up in 1662, and subsequently gifted to the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

The most awesome exhibit, however, is Drake's drum, a snare or side drum decorated with his arms, "sable (black), a fess (band), wavy between two silver stars (the Poles)". It hangs today at Buckland Abbey, Devon, the place Drake bought with his Pounds 24,000 in prize money, and is thought to have drummed a dirge as his body was committed to the deep, clad in armour and encased in a lead coffin. But its grip on the imagination stems from the ghostly taps it is supposed to emit at times of national crisis or victory.

From "Blood" we pass on to "Sea", the section devoted to our greatest navigator, James Cook of Marton by Whitby. Like Drake, of modest background and rigorously trained in seamanship, he brought his predecessor's exploration of the Great Southern Ocean, or Pacific, to successful conclusion, charting the whole ocean so thoroughly that his charts are still useful today.

The museum is richly endowed with Cook artefacts from three voyages and they testify to the change in emphasis in 200 years from treasure-hunting to scientific research. Here is his "trusty friend and never-failing guide", the K1 marine timekeeper, designed for him by Larcum Kendall of London, which helped him to plot longitude. Also the "dip circle" which was used, with mixed success, in measuring the vertical component of the earth's magnetic field, and the magnificent brass sextant - one of four issued by the Board of Longitude - to measure longitude by the lunar distance method (it measured angles up to 120 degrees).

Cook's ships, little bigger than Drake's 100-ton cockleshells, were floating laboratories and the importance of scientists and artists on the expedition can be gauged from their numbers and weight of equipment relative to that of the crew in an exquisite scale model of the Endeavour with its Lilliputian ship's complement.

Artist William Hodges, who accompanied the second voyage of 1772, painted Tahiti and New Zealand as a lost paradise peopled by noble savages of almost classical features.

The reality is shown in smaller, more realistic oil sketches, with Cook and his seamen retreating to their boats under a hail of missiles thrown by Melanesians at one unfortunate landfall.

Cook was killed in these exact circumstances, in Hawaii on February 14, 1779, by heavy, carved wooden clubs and spears, like those displayed. A piece of the rock on the Hawaiian seashore against which he fell is also shown. He was searching on his third voyage for the Northwest Passage, from the Pacific into the Atlantic.

This was a challenge accepted 66 years later by a 59-year-old veteran of Arctic exploration, Sir John Franklin. "Ice" portrays a great Arctic tragedy: the death by starvation and disease of all 129 of Franklin's expedition, only 100 miles from the elusive passage.

No epic of polar exploration had such an enigmatic conclusion. The pathetic debris was discovered by rescue expeditions near the position of the Magnetic North Pole, but no record of whether they achieved their objective and perished on the way back to their ships, or of exactly how and when they died, has ever been found. Nor has any trace of HMS Erebus and Terror (although one is believed to have been spotted atop a floating iceberg years later).

Here is the last message, on a scrap of signal paper, dated April 25, 1848 at Victory Point; signed by Lieutenant des Voeux and informing any rescue party that Franklin had died a year earlier, on June 11, 1847, that the Erebus and Terror had been trapped by ice for nearly two years and were deserted three days before the note, on April 22. Message ended, "we start tomorrow for Backs Fish river".

From then on all is conjecture - there was no one left to look for the hydrogen-filled balloon, hanging here in brown folds, which Edward Belcher flew off to Franklin with encouraging despatches. The stem and keel of a 24-foot boat and a sledge, together with two shotguns, are poignant indicators to what had happened. They were found with two skeletons, which were still clinging to harness for dragging sledges.

Eskimos told later would-be rescuers of starving survivors desperately trading knives and watches for food (the knives are here, made into harpoons; the watches in discarded bits). On the wall nearby are grainy early photographs of these men, smiling confidently at the prospect of finding the mythic passage. Visitors stand in silent tribute at this awful point.

Blood, Sea and Ice: Three English Explorers is at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich from January 28 until June 30 Children's activities associated with the exhibition

"Tudor Explorers": throughout the exhibition children can try on costumes and experience hands-on sessions with silks, spices and an astrolabe.

"A Doublet for Drake", February 21, 22 and 24: children can design an outfit for Drake's audience with the Queen.

"The Voyages of Captain Cook", April 912: a puppet and artwork show bringing Cook's voyages to life.

"Charting the Southern Seas", April 1820: Garry Brooking acts out events of Cook's voyages.

Throughout the exhibition visitors can take part in a workshop examining the Franklin expedition, and handle objects made by Inuit Indians.

* In the Discovery Room in South Building, Old Royal Observatory, they can use telescopes, and measure time and star positions.

For further information contact the Education Department, tel: 0181 312 6608

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