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The Drake Exploration Society

An early Spanish reference to Drake's Port Pheasant and a possible new location

John Thrower

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Spanish Crown addressed interrogatories to their cities and towns in the islands of the West Indies and on the Spanish Main. The Officials in these places were required to make detailed investigations and returns.

In response, the report dated 1610 on Castilla del Oro, which includes today's Panama, besides giving full details of the City of Panama and its surroundings, recounts various notable events in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. For example, the uprising of the enslaved "negroes cimmarones"; how Francisco Draque in 1596 burnt Nombre de Dios and sent 900 soldiers to Panama who were opposed on the road and how Guillermo Parque (William Parker) sacked Portobelo in 1602.

Most interesting, is the detail of its report on the raid by John Oxenham across the Isthmus and into the South Sea:

"In 1578 some English ascended the river of Puertofaisanes from the North Sea and entered the Rio Indios which flows into the South Sea, carrying material for launches which they put together and began to rob the sea, but Spaniards went out and conquered them and secured that pass."

Puertofaisanes is Port Pheasant! Oxenham's raid into the Pacific was in 1577 although he was interrogated in Panama in 1578.

Francis Drake himself named Port Pheasant having discovered his secret harbour in 1571. In 1572:

"...thence directed our course for a place called Port Pheasant for that our captain had so named it in his former voyages, by reason of the great store of those goodly fowls which he and his company did kill and feed on in that place..."

The harbour was carefully described:

"...which is a fine round bay of very safe harbour for all winds lying between two high points not past half a cables length over at the mouth, but within eight or ten cables every way having ten or twelve fathoms water more or less..."

A sketch map of Port Pheasant
A sketch map of Port Pheasant

Partial view of Port Pheasant...
a fine round bay of very safe harbour  

Drake's name for the bay and his descriptions were, of course, not published until 1626. The only other prior publication of the raid in Hakluyt - a garbled account by Lopez Vaz - did not mention the name. therefore some interesting questions are raised:

How did the Spanish know the name to write about it in 1610?

Why did they say that John Oxenham began his raid from Port Pheasant?

Map 1 - South East Panama

Map 1 - South East Panama

Map 2 - Golden Island, Acla and Caledonia Bay

Map 2 - Golden Island, Acla and Caledonia Bay

Michael Turner has carefully explored the various possible locations for Port Pheasant. Confirming suggestions made by Raymond Aker and Edwin Webster, his definite conclusion is that the most likely location is Zapzurro bay just beyond Cape Tiburón just inside Colombia (see Map 1). There is no better choice but even Zapzurro does not match closely Drake's specification.

The Spaniards knew very well that John Oxenham had hidden a captured ship near Pinos Island (Map 1) and had secreted his pinnaces, guns and treasure in creeks near the site of Balboa's old city of Acla (Map 1 and 2). Acla was the recognised start point for crossings of the Isthmus prior to the opening of the Camino Real from Panama to Nombre de Dios. Oxenham ascended one of the Acla rivers, crossed the Pass at Sasardí and built a cedar wood pinnace inland for his raid to the Pearl Islands in the bay of Panama capturing a larger treasure haul than Drake in 1573.

Oxenham's raid made a powerful impact on the colonists of Castilla del Oro and was remembered for many years afterwards. The colonists petitioned King Philip II several times to rebuild and repopulate the old Acla site and build defences there. If the king had heeded this advice he might have prevented the many later crossings by pirates and buccaneers from Acla and the establishment of the late 17th century Scottish Colony at nearby Caledonia Bay (Map 2).

Why did the Spanish link Port Pheasant with the Acla inlet? The simplest and perhaps most likely explanation is that the name Port Pheasant had been passed to the Spanish by word-of-mouth from the Cimarrones. Subsequently, and years later, they simply confused the 1573 Drake and 1576'7 Oxenham raids and wrote in Port Pheasant for Oxenham's base location.

However one must also take into account that the Spanish knew not only the name but also the location of Drake's secret harbour. They had certainly discovered his base between his visits there in 1571 and 1572. So, if it is assumed for the moment that there was no confusion in the 1610 report then it follows that Port Pheasant was situated somewhere in the Acla inlet!

Caledonia Bay, also called Puerto Escoses, (Port Scotland) (Map 2) has sometimes been suggested as the location for Port Pheasant - notably by author Thompson in 1972. It is approached between two high points, but otherwise its openness, general large dimensions and closeness to Drake's next base, Isla Pinos ("Port Plenty") (Map 1), would seem at first to rule it out. However deep in its south east corner (Map 2) there is a round bay, which, unlike the main Caledonia Bay is sheltered from all winds. This smaller bay is about the same size as Bahia Zapzurro but is nowadays only 3-4 fathoms in depth. No doubt, as with all sheltered bays along this coastline, it has silted up and suffered mangrove growth over the last 400 years or more. Could this be possibly Drake's fine round bay? It certainly merits at least some serious consideration. If any investigation was thought worthwhile, it has a major advantage - unlike Bahia Zapzurro, it remains untouched by any development. It affords a full potential for an archaeological study. Archaeology in this immediate area has proved productive. Col. John Blashford - Snell's expeditions have made important discoveries at the Acla site and at the remains of the ill-fated Scottish colony.

If Drake was in the deep recesses of Caledonia Bay, the evidence should be waiting to be discovered!

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