Drake’s Bay – Shipwrecks and lies.

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake was circumnavigating the globe for good Queen Bess when he determined that the hull of his ship, the Golden Hinde, had become so encrusted with sea life and shot with worms that their speed dropped from exceedingly slow—to: oh-my-god-this-tub-is-sooo-daammn-slooow.

The common practice was to careen the ship by entering a protected bay and winch the vessel up onto the beach at high tide so the barnacles could be scraped and the seams caulked. Drakes Bay is the place where legend has it that this happened, and the little bay was either named for him or it was a colossal coincidence that he ended up in a bay of the same name.

According to a journal kept by the ship’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, “The company fell in with a convenient and fit harborough” for refitting in June, 1579. While in the harbor, Drake entertained hordes of amazed locals and ceremonially claimed California on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. Drake named the place New Albion, or The New White Place, after the cliffs of Dover on the English coast of which he was reminded. He instructed that a brass plaque be made and installed on a wooden post.

From Frances Fletcher: “a plate of brasse” as “a monument of our being there” claimed “her majesties, and successors right and title to that kingdome.” The journal also says that the plate included the date of the landing, Drake’s name, and Queen Elizabeth’s portrait on a sixpence coin affixed to a hole in the plate. This plaque is one of the great artifacts from the Age of Exploration.

To the immeasurable joy of Dr. Herbert Bolton, a historian at UC Berkeley, the plaque finally turned up after being lost for centuries. Dr. Bolton had been searching for this treasure for 30 years and was jubilant when it was discovered and brought to him in 1937. The plaque came to him because he was the go-to guy for all things Drake in California history and it was natural, and perhaps destined, that he would end up with it. He toured with the plaque in a specially equipped ‘history truck’ and with great ceremony he had it installed, finally, in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley.

The fact is, he was not only destined to have the plaque—it was planned that he have it. It seems some characters from the E. Clampus Vitas society had made the plaque. The ECVs or just, the Clampers, are a fraternal organization dating back to the Gold Rush days in the Sierras. Many miners objected to the stuffy seriousness of the Masons and Oddfellows so they formed the E. Clampus Vitas society. The name is Latin gibberish and the organization is as good as the name. They are still around and their prime directive over the years has been to install bronze roadside markers around the state commemorating real but trivial events like a spitting contest or a barn collapse. The requirement to join is you have to wear a red shirt and a ridiculous hat.

Dr. Bolton was a common sight on the beach at Drakes Bay where he hoped to unearth the plaque one day. And he might have done so if he had been paying attention. A facsimile of the plaque was forged, aged with acid and planted in the sand in front of the professor, who was combing the beach with some of his students. But Dr. Bolton didn’t see it and somehow it was lost, much as the authentic one had been.

Six years after the fake plaque went missing it was found in the tidal mudflats near San Quentin Prison, 25 miles east of Drakes Bay. Now, very well aged, it looked real enough and it made its way in short order to Dr. Bolton. This discovery became the crowning achievement of a brilliant career.

Now the Clampers were—and are—a jocular bunch and not at all mean spirited. So they were vexed that the trick had so perfectly backfired. They had actually written on the back of the plaque ECV in invisible ink and had planned to have it found in the morning with a celebration dinner that night to reveal the hoax. Then, with the time interval and the professor making a big deal out of, it became a cause celebre.

The Clampers tried various avenues to unravel the joke without ruining the good doctor of whom they had grown quite fond. One Clamper printed a booklet titled Ye Preposterous Booke of Brasse that cautioned that the plate should be studied closely because it might be a fake. The professor ignored all the warnings. In fact, the hoax was not revealed until 1971 when an x-ray spectrograph revealed the brass to be of contemporary vintage. And the wording on the plaque was so unlike 16th century English that it would have been hard to swallow by anyone except those who wanted, beyond all good sense, for it to be the very one Drake nailed to the post. Dr. Bolton went to his grave before the hoax was revealed, still a hero. I hope I’m that lucky.

“All I need is a red shirt and I can be a Clamper!”

The plaque is still on display at the library but with an updated description. The Clampers continue to install plaques.

Drake rehabilitated his ship and sailed into history as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe but other explorers who arrived on this particular shore were not as lucky, as I will reveal in Part Two of Drakes Bay, shipwrecks and lies next week.

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