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Stalking Sir Francis

Drakes Bay is, beyond all reasonable doubt, the place on the California coast where Sir Francis Drake careened and repaired the Golden Hind in 1595 before setting sail for England and home, we learned the other day, reading the latest copy of the Smithsonian Institution Research Reports. The endless debate over the authenticity of the site is over. The early historians, who first proposed the location, have been proven correct.

The report inspired us to talk with the two scholars who produced the last bit of evidence that clinched the case. They had sorted out the mystery through Ming Dynasty shards found among Coast Miwok tribe relics at the Point Reyes National Seashore that now embraces Drakes Bay.

It was Clarence F. Shangraw, chief curator of the Museum of Asian Art in San Francisco, who made the first spectacular discovery. He found that the 708 bits and pieces of what once had been 235 cups, bowls, plates and a vase were from two distinct periods of manufacture, some made in the mid 1570s, some made 20 years later, in the mid-1590s. He was able to date each shard and specify where in China it had been made.

Then Edward P. Von der Porten, director of the Treasure Island Museum, made the second discovey: The older shards showed no signs of sea damage, even though they were finer and more delicate. But those made around 1595 had been worn in the way that pounding surf and sand smooth rough edges. “Two totally independent methods of analysis gave us identical answers,” Von der Porten said.

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The answers, they reported, are clear: The older shards had to have been carried carefully ashore. They could only have come from Drake’s ship. They had to be from the crates of precious Chinese ceramics logged aboard the Golden Hind when they were pirated by Drake from Spanish outposts and ships along the Central American Coast of the Pacific Ocean on the voyage before he reached Point Reyes. Records make clear that the crates were not aboard when the Golden Hind returned to England. As Drake consolidated his supplies for the long voyage home, he must reluctantly have lightened cargo and left the dishes for the Indians to use.

The ceramics made a generation later must have been aboard the San Agustin, a Spanish trading vessel plying the Pacific between Acapulco and Manila. It had been blown far off course and then sank in a terrible storm at Drakes Bay on Nov. 30, 1595. Efforts to locate the wreckage, buried in centuries of accumulated sand, are now being planned. But detailed records of the shipwreck itself permit accurate dating.

There was a lively but risky trade across the Pacific in those days, dominated by Spanish galleons running between the west coast of Mexico and the Philippines and Indonesia. Chinese ceramics were transferred in junks from points of manufacture to the trading ports, such as Manila. Galleons brought them to places like Acapulco. They were carted overland to Vera Cruz for shipment to Europe where extraordinary prices were paid, even for the lower-quality goods. Drake’s booty included the finest products of Jingdezhen in south-central China, the center of fine ceramics from the 14th Century even to this day. But the San Agustin’s cargo was of poorer-quality bowls and plates made on the south coast by entrepreneurs quick to respond to the lucrative market.

The Miwok tribespeople apparently smashed most of the ceramics that came into their possession to make jewelry, even one elegant pendant, and to fashion effective tools for scraping hides. “Each culture finds a different use,” Shangraw said philosophically.

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Some of the shards are now part of a traveling exhibition being shown in major museums, but Von der Porten hopes for a permanent exhibit in California one of these days. That will help him respond to the continuing skepticism that some still express about just where it was that Drake landed.


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