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1. Under Elizabeth, to a large extent the success of a transatlantic expedition was evaluated by the amount of booty procured: it was expected not only to pay for itself but also to turn a profit for its participants and backers, a kind of joint-stock company. Measured by this yardstick, Sir Francis Drake’s 1585 - 86 West Indies expedition was a dismal failure. He learned that holding a city for ransom was an unprofitable substitute for capturing treasure ships, for the colonial citizenry simply did not have very much money to offer. Measured by the calculus employed in modern warfare, however, it was considerably more successful. Besides the considerable damage inflicted on Spanish prestige and morale, and the corresponding boost for the English, the descent of an entire enemy fleet and army produced a loud chorus of yelps from frightened colonial governors and municipalities, and all the manpower, material and pesos Philip was obliged to invest in providing adequate defense for his American holdings had to be subtracted from his resources for current fighting in the Netherlands and a projected invasion of England.
2. The fullest account to emanate from the English side, which served as the basis for subsequent accounts (such as those of Hakylut and Camden), is well known to historians. This was printed at London by Richard Field in 1589 under the title A Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Frances Drakes West Indian Voyage, Where in were taken, the Townes of Saint Iago, Sancto Domingo, Cartagena & Saint Augustine, NOTE 1 prefaced by a dedicatory epistle addressed to the Earl of Essex by its editor, Thomas Cates. At the beginning of this letter, Cates makes it clear that his account is based on a previous one written by Walter Bigges, Captain of a company of infantry on the expedition, and continued by someone else after Bigges’ death. He supplies no more information about Bigges or his account, which is in fact Expeditio Francisci Draki Equitis Angli in Indias Occidentales A. MDLXXXV, Qua urbes, Fanum D. Iacobi, D. Dominici, D. Augustini & Carthagena captae fuere, published at Leiden Apud Fr. Raphelengium in 1588. Bigges’ Latin account far less known or understood than Cates’ Summarie and True Discourse. NOTE 2 This is especially so because, being published abroad, it is not listed in A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave, Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475 - 1640 (2nd ed. London, 1976 - 86), nor is it included in the Early English Books microfilm series or its more recent electronic equivalent. The purpose of the present edition is to make this account more generally available.
3. I would suppose the rather complex background of the English version printed by Thomas Cates was something like this. Its kernel was a diary or some similar narrative document kept by Captain Walter Bigges. It is easy to imagine a land officer with a literary bent doing this to ward off the protracted inactivity of life at sea. Bigges writes with the viewpoint of a soldier: he describes land operations in considerably greater detail than maritime ones, and the hero of his story is his own commanding officer, the chief of the land forces Lieutenant General Christopher Carleill, much more than Drake. According to Cates (in his dedicatory epistle to Essex), Bigges…ended his life in the said voyage after our departure from Cartagena, the same being afterwardes finished (as I thinke) by his Lieutenant Maister Croftes, or some other, I knowe not well who. It would be an easy supposition for Cates to make that the subordinate who inherited his company of infantry also inherited his document. Counting against this facile assumption, possibly, is the fact that Bigges’ death is not recorded; one would perhaps think some sense of pietas on the part of his own Lieutenant would have prompted a mention of his passing. In any event, Bigges’ continuator was obviously an infantry officer: an officer because he was sufficiently literate to continue the job, of infantry because he too writes from a landsman’s viewpoint. Whoever he was, he did his task well, and the change of authors is seamless to the point of invisibility.
4. After Drake’s return from his circumnavigation the English government enforced a rigid policy of secrecy — evidently all writings of the participants were confiscated upon return to England — and years passed before it was described by any detailed printed account, or by published maps. It is not unlikely that the government likewise discouraged the publication of accounts of the West Indies expedition. This seems especially probable because there was one important military secret that required protection. Although (as described in paragraph 21) the Roanoke colony had been abandoned by Governor Ralph Lane and his men, this was only a temporary measure, and the government would scarcely have wanted to advertise the existence of a potential English base in the New World, where their sailors could refresh and refit after an Atlantic crossing, to prevent the Spanish from beefing up their own military settlements or mounting an expedition against Roanoke.
5. Maintaining a policy of secrecy about Drake’s earlier circumnavigation had been a relatively easy thing, since it involved only the officers and men of a single ship. Dealing with a fleet of twenty-five ships and 2,500 men must have been a very different matter. The present version (with no author’s name given) was printed at Leiden in 1588. Though certainty is impossible, one presumes that Bigges wrote his original document in English, and the Dutch printer commissioned a Latin translation to make the book available for the foreign market. One would also hazard the guess that the document was given the printer by Bigges’ continuator or somebody else, as a means of circumventing the English government’s secrecy policy. Perhaps the continuator was currently serving in the war in the Netherlands.
6. The cat was now out of the bag. This published document gave the Spanish all the help they could want in locating the secret English colony, since it explicitly states that Roanoke is on the coast approximately six degrees north of the Spanish settlement of Santa Helena in Florida. Further governmental censorship was now pointless, and the next best thing would be to put the best possible face on this breach of security and allow publication of an account, so as to extract the greatest propaganda value from the expedition. Hence, one supposes, by 1589 the government smiled on Cates’ project of producing a corrected and enhanced version of Bigges’ narrative. This Thomas Cates was well qualified to do, since he himself had been an infantry officer on the expedition (he was Lieutenant of Christopher Carleill’s own company), and therefore was an equally credible eyewitness to the events described by Bigges and his continuator. There is little room for doubt that Cates worked on the basis of the published Latin text (and this rules out the possibility that the extra information in the English version represents what Bigges originally wrote, and that the Dutch printer abridged his account). This is above all shown by comparing the two writers’ description of the observation tower at St. Augustine. Bigges had written in quam per triginta gradus ascendebatur, indicating that the platform of this tower was ascended by a staircase with thirty steps (or a ladder with thirty rungs). Cates’ equivalent (pp. 41 f.) is being in the latitude of thirtie degrees, or verie near thereunto. Since the word gradus can mean “step/rung” and also “degree,” one can appreciate the reason for this blunder in translation, which replaces an immediately cogent indication of the tower’s height with an irrelevant one about the geographical location of Florida. Other mistakes committed by Cates probably also result from misreading the Latin: for example, although Bigges correctly says that Cabo S. Antonio (the western tip of Cuba) is versus occidentalem Cubae regiones partem, Cates (p. 41) writes that the Cape is the Easternmost part of Cuba (on the other hand, immediately below Bigges wrongly states that the district of Metanzas is west of Havana, and Cates’ statement that it is to the Eastward of Havana is a correction). At times one cannot be quite sure whether Cates’ deviations from what Bigges wrote are mistakes of translation or corrections: compare, for example, the Latin statement (para. 21) Nam admiralius noster praecedenti nocte quatuor leucis a continente maris ibi profunditatem exploraverat, eamque dumtaxat trium ulnarum et dimidiae esse deprehenderat with Cates’ version (p. 47) For the Admirall had bene the same night in foure fadome and halfe three leagues from the shore. Is the transposition of numbers deliberate or accidental? Similar questions are not infrequently raised by numbers, for statistics given by Cates sometimes differ from those of Bigges. Some examples: were the citizens of Vigo deprived of goods to the value of 40,000 ducats (Bigges) or 30,000 ducats (Cates, p. 8)? Was the town first attacked by the English twelve leagues distant from Santo Domingo (Bigges), or twelve miles (Cates, p. 22)? Did the English destroy a quarter of Santo Domingo (Bigges) or a third (Cates, p. 26)? Were the English attacked half a mile outside Cartagena (Bigges), or two miles (Cates, p. 30)? Were there 105 Englishmen at Roanoke (Bigges) or 103 (Cates, p. 49)? Likewise with dates. Did the expedition begin to steer for the Cape Verde Islands on December 16, 1585 (Bigges) or the 17th (Cates p.11)? Did the fleet return to Portsmouth on July 27, 1586 (Bigges) or July 28 (Cates. p. 50)? Regarding numbers, dates, and other factual discrepancies between Bigges and Cates, in each case a diligent historian will have to ask himself whether he is confronted by a correction or a translational error.
7. Translating Bigges’ Latinized account provided Cates with a narrative framework, but a comparison of the two versions reveals how much extra material Cates added. On virtually every page he supplies something new: extra circumstantial detail, anecdotes, local American color (mention of bananas, tobacco, and so forth), and other sorts of information. Even making ample allowance for the fact that the Latin volume uses larger pages, it is revealing that the Latin text occupies 21 pages, whereas Cates’ version covers 53. Besides the fact that Bigges’ text is makes for an exciting “good read” in Latin, not the least important reason for its publication here is that it serves to clarify the nature and extent of Cates’ own contributions. In future, Latinless Drake historians and biographers can profit from access to Bigges’ original document and an ability to compare it in detail with the better-known English one.
8. The present contribution consists of an edited text of the 1588 Latin publication (a digital reproduction of the volume is available here) with an accompanying translation. Save at the beginning, the printed text is not articulated into paragraphs, and so I have supplied numbered paragraphs for convenience of reference. I take this opportunity to extend my thanks to the Huntington Library of San Marino, California, and to Mr. Stephen Tabor, Curator of Early Printed Books of that library, for supplying me with a photographic copy of the volume.
NOTE 1 Reprinted at Amsterdam, 1969 (The English Experience series, no. 128).
NOTE 2 Attention is drawn to it in Drake’s most recent biography, Harry Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake, The Queen’s Pirate (New Haven, 1999) 280. See also Mary Frear Keeler’s detailed discussion at Sir Francis Drake’s West Indian Voyage (Haklyut Society Works II.148, London, 1981) 301 - 309.