Since 1980 Michael Turner has travelled the world in Sir Francis Drake’s wake and footsteps, recording on slide film virtually all Drake’s movements. Michael’s journeys have resulted in the discovery and verification of Drake’s previously unidentified anchorages and places ashore. Michael’s research forms the first ever pictorial, topographical biography of one of History’s greatest seafarers. Michael has travelled to Panama in search of Drake’s coffin – a six feet long casket in the open sea at a depth of 125 feet – and hopes to make history by finding it. Here, Country Squire Magazine’s Dominic Wightman talks to Michael Turner about Sir Francis and Michael’s “spiritual affinity” with the great man.
Q: Why Sir Francis Drake?
Michael Turner: I first learnt about Sir Francis Drake at primary school. By the time I had left school, I realised that all these heroic, unique, adventure stories all belonged to one man’s life! I read several Drake biographies and thought nothing more; until I coincidentally saw Drake’s portrait in the museum at Veracuz fortress in Mexico in 1980. I was excited to be stood in the same place as my schoolboy hero so far from Drake’s native Devon, that I decided to visit everywhere Drake went. Forty-two countries later, I realise I have amassed a unique body of work which has resulted in a 15,000-photographic slide collection, several published biographies along with considerable media exposure.
Q: Great seaman or ruthless pirate?
Michael Turner: Drake began his oceanic seafaring life by sailing for, and with, his second cousin Sir John Hawkins on two slave trading voyages. Drake’s first naval action was in late 1566 when, under Captain John Lovell off Cape Verde, Senegal and between two of the Cape Verde Islands, five Portuguese ships were robbed. This could be termed as piracy but Drake grew up in an era where Catholic Portugal and Spain denied Protestant countries trading rights to their New World. English, French and Dutch seafarers would not accept this duopoly. Maritime laws were respected in European waters but had evaporated completely west of the Azores. Drake realised that slave trading was a long-winded course to financial utopia; hence he became the first English privateer to operate in the West Indies and to work with black people, whom he looked upon as equals. Between 1570-73 Drake conducted three raiding voyages on Spanish shipping and settlements in Colombia and Panama. Escaped black slaves known as cimarrones helped Drake to achieve the pinnacle of success, by audaciously robbing a treasure-laden pack-train within 2.5 miles of its destination of Nombre de Dios in Panama. The Spaniards always praised Drake for his humane treatment of prisoners. Drake denied that he was a pirate: he was a privateer and the Queen always backed him.
Q: And the cimarrones helped open Drake’s eyes to the bigger picture too?
Michael Turner: Whilst in Panama, the cimarrones took Drake to a treetop where he saw the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This inspired Captain Francis to be the first Englishman to sail along all the Spanish colonial coastlines of Latin America, where he became even richer as a result of robbing ships. To return home, Drake became the first Englishman to sail around the world [1577-80]. Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake and made him an admiral of her navy.
The cannon at Nombre de Dios that split when fired against Drake in 1596
Q: Cadiz delayed the Spanish Armada’s planned attacks on England?
Michael Turner: Sir Francis led the largest fleet hitherto to leave England. In 1585-86, commanding 23 ships he raided the West Indies and ransomed two of the most prestigious cities in King Philip’s New World: Santo Domingo and Cartagena.
In 1587 Drake destroyed nearly all the shipping in Cadiz harbour, Spain and captured the Portuguese network of forts on the south-west tip of Europe. Homeward-bound, Drake seized King Philip’s carrack the Sao Felipe: its cargo was valued at £113,000. This was the richest prize that any privateer had taken. Drake had delayed the sailing of the Spanish Armada for a year which enabled England to resist this Spanish naval onslaught.
Q: And then Drake assumed the role of national saviour?
Michael Turner: The culmination of Drake’s career was when he boldly fought the Spanish Armada at the sea Battle of Gravelines near Calais, France in 1588. Humble origins ensured that Drake could not operate beyond the rank of vice-admiral during a national crisis. To the Spanish, Drake almost personified the English navy. The Pope applauded Drake for his audacity and courage.
Drake-ing in Sierra Leone
Q: What was Sir Francis’ greatest achievement in your opinion?
Michael Turner: I consider Drake’s greatest achievement to be the voyage of circumnavigation. This is because he was the first commander to survive a world voyage; he had sailed in a relatively small ship with very crude charts, which proved quite useless in the myriad of islands in Tierra del Fuego and Indonesia. Furthermore, unlike Magellan’s eighteen starving, impoverished survivors, Drake brought home about sixty healthy men who all became rich! Geographically Drake had discovered Cape Horn.
Q: You believe you have located Sir Francis’ coffin?
Michael Turner: I have photographed nearly everywhere Drake has been and have even dived, several times, to the seabed near Drake’s final resting place which is “one league off Portobelo”, Panama. Sir Francis is buried in a “Cophin of Lead” in about 140 feet of clear blue, warm water. This precise geography has, since the Victorian era, tempted explorers to find his remains. For historic and personal reasons, I would like to locate the coffin. A fibre optic camera could film Drake’s skeleton housed in his armour. We could even see his sword and the bullet that has been lodged in his thigh since his raid on Nombre de Dios in 1572. There could be his coat of arms stamped into the lead.
A grave marker left on a rock near where Drake rests
Q: Where do you believe Sir Francis would have wanted to be laid to rest?
Michael Turner: Drake’s will states that he was to be entombed in the earth. Furthermore, Drake adored attention and would have preferred to be interred in a tomb near his sovereign in Westminster Abbey.
Q: What’s your take on the moral argument of disturbing Sir Francis’ resting place?
Michael Turner: The moral argument for finding Sir Francis is that everyone has a right to visit a grave. We would learn about the construction of the lead casket: was it a wooden box encased with lead, or was it a sheet of lead, hermetically sealed to preserve this legendary seafarer’s remains? Drake deserves that the precise location of his resting place be known. An autopsy could be conducted to prove the cause of death was in fact yellow fever and dysentery.
At Drake’s country seat: Buckland Abbey
Q: I have been reading Dr John Sugden’s biography of Drake. Which books on Drake do you recommend?
Michael Turner: I hope this feature will encourage the audience to learn much more about one of England’s greatest heroes. People ought to read the best published biography, which you mentioned: Sir Francis Drake by Dr John Sugden. To analyse the in-depth primary sources, please study the voyages published by the Hakluyt Society and Navy Records Society. For a solid introduction, I can offer for £5, my glossy, colour booklet, Sir Francis Drake and the Golden Hind. The contents uniquely portray the real Sir Francis Drake as described by his contemporaries and an inimitable comprehensive tabulated log of the world voyage. The few facts about the Golden Hind can be found there. For a visual display of the places Drake went, please visit my website www.indrakeswake.co.uk where you can study videos recorded at Drake locations in England, Chile and Panama and from there you can e-mail me for the booklet. I am soon to embark upon a cruise ship to give eight Drake slide shows. After my return in March, I am available to give illustrated Drake talks to interested organisations.
Thank you very much for your time, Michael. All of us at Country Squire Magazine wish you all the best with your Drake endeavours.