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The Drake Exploration Society

Some Botanical Discoveries Made on Francis Drake's World Voyage

John Thrower

Treatise on Aromatic

Fig 1 - Treatise on Aromatic Plants

On 12 June 1769, Captain Cook's Endeavour was standing off Tierra Del Fuego, within the Strait of Le Maire. At the request of Joseph Banks, Cook put into the inlet that he called the Bay of Good Success. Banks and his scientific colleagues wished to go ashore to search for botanical specimens. During the day's trip, in which they were caught in a snowstorm, the party collected scores of samples including Winter's Bark in abundance. Banks would have been guided to collect this bark from its description in his copy of the Treatise on Aromatic Plants, by Charles de l' Écluse,1 published in 1582. The very copy of the book, with annotations in Banks's own hand, is now in the British Library. The title page is shown at Fig. 1. Neither the British Library nor the John Carter Brown Library has a translation of the Latin text. The version of some parts given in the article by Davidson,2 is misleading in places and incorrect in others, hence, one is wise to refer to the original Latin.

Charles de l' Écluse, born in 1525, a native of Arras in the Pas de Calais, was a naturalist and especially a botanist of great eminence in his day, and Professor of Botany at the University of Lieden. He was amongst many on the continent who were fascinated by the discoveries made on Drake's circumnavigation. They knew that the results of the voyage were so much more than just enormously profitable. Écluse came to London in 1581 because he wanted to hear the story first hand from the sailors themselves. He gained access to Sir Francis Drake and conversed with him frequently. He also met John Winter, who had of course, returned aboard the Elizabeth in July 1579; and one of Drake's gentlemen sailors, Lawrence Eliot, who had completed the circumnavigation. Écluse obtained specimens from all three, although his principal source was Lawrence Eliot. Écluse's book is noteworthy because it is the earliest published account resulting from the 1577-80 voyage. Beautifully printed by Christopher Plantin of Antwerp, Écluse's skilful line drawings are of special interest when it is remembered that they record the actual specimens carefully brought home on the Elizabeth and the Golden Hind.

Winter's Bark, named by Écluse Winteranus Cortex, was found by John Winter in the Strait of Magellan. The Elizabeth, separated from the Golden Hind, re-entered the strait. Three weeks were spent in a sound that they named Port of Good Health, as we learn from Edward Cliffe's account. Here John Winter collected the bark that he used with great effect to treat cases of scurvy. He brought home several specimens; the drawing of the one presented to Écluse appears at Fig. 2. The bark is aromatic and pungent. Écluse thought it resembled the common sort of Canella - the genus of plants, the most important of which, is wild cinnamon.

The Golden Hind sailed on, collecting various other specimens from the Americas and the East Indies. Some of them were already familiar to Écluse, so his descriptions need not be repeated here. For example, Drake's crew obtained several samples of Cacao from the "coasts of Peru." However, Lawrence Eliot presented some pieces of Dragon root, that was new to Écluse. Eliot said that the Spaniards in "Peru" valued this root very highly and were reluctant to part with it at almost any price. The root is about half an inch thick, swells out in knots and protuberances with fibrous attachments - see Fig. 3. It is blackish outside and white inside. At first astringent and biting to the tongue, it leaves an agreeable after taste. The Spaniards claimed that it strengthened the heart and vital powers. Dragon root may be related to Polygonium Bistorta described by Culpeper3 which is one of the strongest astringents known to herbalists.

In Ternate, Drake's men saw a tree about ten feet tall, with a rounded head, that yielded a white meal from its trunk, named by Écluse Arbor farinifera, or "Flour tree". The meal was pounded in water, shaped into bricks and dried. It then served as "food for people of slender means." The drawing of one of the bricks brought home on the Golden Hind is shown at Fig. 4. Écluse recommended the addition of a little pepper or cinnamon to remedy the insipidity of the flour.

Some very interesting details were given to Écluse about Crab-iland, where Drake built a fortified encampment and careened the Golden Hind between 14 November to 12 December 1579. For a start, Écluse was obviously informed of its location. He writes, "This island is situate under the equator between the Greater Gate and the Moluccas." Tantalising, and perhaps only partially remembered, one has to assume the Greater Gate to be one of the passages into either the Ceram Sea or the Banda Sea. But which one? It is unfortunate that Écluse was not as good a geographer as he was a naturalist.

The island, he was told, abounded in lofty trees, bigger than oaks, with leaves like laurel. The trees yielded a long shaped fruit, like small acorns of the ilex, but without cups. Within was a long hard kernel covered with a thin skin. Although hungry, Drake's men had not dared to eat them on Crab-iland but subsequently did so on "Beretina" (Damar Island). Consequently, Écluse named the nuts Fructus Beretinus. It has been suggested4 that the nut was probably a species of Canarium; very likely Canarium vulgare that is found in the Lesser Sunda Islands, Celebes (now Sulawesi) and the Moluccas. The specimens of the nut brought home by Lawrence Eliot are shown in Fig. 5.

Crab-iland was obviously named because of its many land crabs. Écluse calls them "grass-eating crabs." They are generally assumed to be robber crabs, cancer crumenatus.4 Écluse describes fully the crabs, their habits and how they were used as food by Drake's men. The descriptions need not be repeated here because, interestingly, they match, quite closely, those in the World Encompassed.5 One could be forgiven for thinking that they might have come from the same observer. Thus, the probability is raised that, Lawrence Eliot may have been a contributor when the material for the World Encompassed was being compiled.

Drake and Eliot were quite willing to talk freely about their discoveries in the East Indies. By contrast, there is not a word in Écluse's book about the sojourn in California. Obviously, this was a state secret in 1581. We know very little about Lawrence Eliot; his background surely deserves research. He was the first to compose answers to the questions put to the crew by Edmund Tremayne. These were to respond to the false charges brought by the Spanish Ambassador Bernadino de Mendoza. The resultant document sent to Secretary Walsingham on 8 November 1580, bears Lawrence Eliot's educated and flourishing signature at the top.6 Here Eliot is spelt Elyot. His cleverly composed answers, that gave nothing away, betray a legal training. All the other signatories were content to follow his lead. With regard to his family connections, one possibility could be that Lawrence was a younger nephew of John Eliot, who was a partner of Old William Hawkins. The Eliots later became the Earls of St Germans.

With Francis and cousin John Drake recording, map making and painting coastal profiles coupled with Lawrence Eliot and Francis Fletcher collecting and recording specimens, the great cabin of the Golden Hind must have been a hive of scientific study. A true precursor of the later valuable collaboration between the Navy and Natural Science. Although his is only a partial account, Écluse does shed a shaft of light onto these early beginnings.

Before they parted, Francis Drake presented Charles de l' Écluse with a specimen Bezoar stone. A concretion from the stomach of goats, and thought to be an antidote to poison, it was highly valued by the Peruvians. Later, one wonders if Francis Drake was a little surprised that his conversations with Écluse were published by the following February! Nevertheless, he would have been proud of the resultant scientific paper, in Latin, about the discoveries and praising his achievement. Écluse gave the Peruvian Dragon Root a proper Latin name; doubtless Francis Drake was amused when he read this recorded as Drakena Radix!

1. Clusivs, Carolus Aliquot notae in Garciae Aromatum Historiam
Antwerp, 1582, British Library ref. 988. F.2 (2)
2. Davidson, James B. On some points in Natural History first made known by Sir Francis Drake, pp. 134-7
The Western Antiquary, 4 (1885)
3. Potterton, David (ed.) Culpeper's Colour Herbal, p.29
London, 1983
4. The British Library Sir Francis Drake An exhibition to commemorate Francis Drake's World Voyage 1577-80, pp. 90-91
London, 1977
5. Drake, Sir Francis The World Encompassed (1628) In Francis Drake Privateer, p.196
London, 1972
6. Nuttall, Zelia (ed.) New Light on Drake, p.422
Hakluyt Society, Second Series, 34 London, 1914

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