was called upon by the crew to deliver a sermon.
None of the official narratives tells us what Fletcher said, but an ‘Anonymous Memorandum’, long held by the British Library, makes clear that Drake interpreted his words as an incitement to mutiny. So what did Fletcher say as they stared annihilation in the face? He would almost certainly have viewed the stranding as divine punishment, whether for the theft of so much treasure, for Drake’s execution of a crew member, Thomas Doughty, whom the commander accused of treachery (and, for good measure, sorcery), or for the mistreatment and abandonment of black passengers taken off Spanish ships.
But more important than any of these taken singly, I believe that Fletcher dared to question the whole spirit and purpose of the voyage. I think he also suggested – again in defiance of Drake – that ordnance be dumped to lighten the ship. This was done and the ship was refloated. Whatever the reason, Drake subsequently ordered that Fletcher be chained to an iron staple in the deck, where he publicly harangued him as “ye falsest knave that liveth”.
In a way, the removal of this episode from the ‘official’ account is just what you would expect. This was a culture struggling for the first time with the massive contradictions of modernity. The new science had, literally, allowed people to see the world, and their place in it, a new way. But in doing so it had also raised agonising questions about how this new knowledge and the power it conferred should be used.
Environmentalists today argue that our situation is unprecedented. Humankind has never before felt itself to be on the cusp of such wholesale and irreversible change. They are right. But there were those in 16th-century Europe who saw the religious and political upheavals of that time as signs of a looming crisis for all of humanity, “a great catastrophe overhanging the world”, as John Dee, an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, once put it.
Their sense of general crisis was different from ours but can still supply insights into the origins of our own crisis. The figure of Dee in particular offers a fresh way to remember the Age of Discovery and its contradictions. Dee was a mathematician, a Greek scholar, a lawyer, a courtier and an alchemist – at a time when none of these roles was entirely distinct from the others. Perhaps most important of all, Dee was, from the 1550s to the 1580s, an adviser to the explorers.
He had frequented courts and universities right across Europe. The emergent science was for him above all part of a universal reform of knowledge. This would transcend and ultimately heal the continent of its religious and other divisions. Dee’s “paradoxal compass” was invented to assist with navigation in the higher latitudes, and he was still boasting about it 20 years later. He did write a book about it but could never raise the funds to publish it. It was probably not a compass at all, but a chart centred on the North Pole, from which the meridians radiated like the points of a compass. It was ‘paradoxal’ because it sought to represent the spherical nature of the Earth on a flat chart.
Dee’s ‘compass’ would have accompanied the earliest English expeditions to Asia. These sought out, from 1553, a route to China and India via a north-east passage, through the Russian Arctic. They met, of course, with “infinite yce”, and failed, though the expeditions did expedite relations with the Russian court of Ivan the Terrible. Later expeditions went in search of a north-western route, through what we now call the Canadian Arctic, with similar results.
It is only today – and as the melting of the Arctic ice opens a route to the east for modern shipping – that we are beginning to grasp how ominous for all concerned was this earliest encounter of the Arctic with modern science. In 1585 John Davis, one of Dee’s pupils, logged the “great store” of whales encountered off Greenland. We cannot today read that without a twinge of presentiment. Davis brought back barrels of cod to entice future investors. He noted the “marveilous great abundance of seales” in the strait between Canada and Greenland that now bears his name.
Yet, however paradoxically, he shared his teacher’s ideal. It is only by such expeditions, the same Davis later wrote, that “the forme of the earth, the quantities of Countries, the diuersitie of nations & the nature of Zones, Climats, Countries and people, are apparently made known unto us.” On a later voyage, his ship in the South Atlantic was surrounded by phosphorescence one February night. His description is clearly that of a man deeply moved by what he is seeing.
I began by asking why the joy experienced by Drake’s crew as they watched the wildlife around them was edited out of the official version. It was because such enchantment is not and never will be reduceable to financial or national considerations. That is why the Tudor and Stuart states and staterelated businesses tried to minimise or delete it then, and why their intellectual and commercial successors are trying still.
The causes we engage in as environmentalists today have a common ancestor in an argument that got under way four centuries ago. Then as now, these arguments could set people as much at odds with themselves as with each other. But many, from the start, saw science as a reformed way of knowing that had the potential to unite humanity in its hour of need. It can be that again. But now the stakes are incomparably higher.
Horatio Morpurgo’s The Paradoxal Compass: Drake’s Dilemma is published by Notting Hill Editions.
34 Resurgence & Ecologist