The myth of ‘Drake’s Dream’ is mired in white supremacy

October 23, 2020

By Steve Dodge

This article originally appeared in the Marin Independent Journal on September 17, 2020.

Francis Drake was an historical figure, but he later became a symbol, and that has caused confusion over how to confront his legacy in Marin. Everyone agrees that he was involved in the slave trade; any disagreement is over what that should mean. But we should also look at what Drake meant to those who lived before us, and who shaped his image after his death.

Drake became widely recognized as a symbol of colonialism and white supremacy in the 19th century. The historian Bruce Wathen has traced Drake mythology throughout what he calls Drake's "afterlife," and describes how Drake hero-worshippers used him during the Victorian period to justify the British empire. In the United States, Drake symbolism served to justify the Mexican-American War and westward expansion. In California, white settlers celebrated their arrival with monuments to Drake after nearly completing what their first governor, Peter Burnett, characterized as a "war of extermination" against the indigenous people.

The historian Richard White offers the example of Drake's Cross, erected in 1894, which commemorates the religious ceremonies of Drake's crew "on 'our' coast, in 'our' country, and on 'our' continent." He also highlights Zelia Nuttall's 1914 work, New Light On Drake, which describes "the present occupation of the North American continent by the Anglo-Saxon race" as "but a realization of what may be called Drake's dream." Like many who resist the renaming effort today, Nuttall focused her attention so narrowly on Drake that she ignored how "Drake's dream" was a nightmare for others, especially California's original inhabitants.

A more modern term for "Drake's dream" is the California Genocide, for which Governor Newsom officially apologized last year. The early California government paid millions of dollars to militias and other armed "volunteers" to kill Indians, and was reimbursed by the federal government for its efforts. At the start of the Gold Rush, the California Indian population was about 150,000, roughly half of what it was before the Spanish arrived. In the next fifty years, racist, violent attacks by white settlers displaced or killed 90% of the remaining population, bringing the total to 15,000 in 1900.

Drake's image also helped inspire this violence. As Congress developed the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted US citizens the right to colonize the West and displace the native people, they commissioned a mural for the Capitol that glorifies Manifest Destiny. Its popular name, "Westward Ho!”, derives from an adventure novel with the same name, about the voyages of Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. The novel's author, Charles Kingsley, used Drake as a vehicle to promote his white-supremacist and anti-Catholic views, which influenced much of the English-speaking world.

Reginald Horsman, an historian of white supremacy in the United States, says Kingsley envisioned "a world shaped to the desires of a supposedly innately superior Anglo-Saxon race," and that he "believed that degenerate races, including North American Indians, were better off dead." Indeed, in the opening scenes of Westward Ho! one character boasts, "as the Spaniards are the masters of the Indians, we're the masters of the Spaniards." The subtext is clear: Drake plundered the Spanish, so "we", the "Anglo-Saxon race," are entitled to do the same to the Indians.

Given this history, it is sad but unsurprising that Marin leaders did not consider the views of Miwok people when they named a former Miwok travel route after someone who signifies the effort to destroy them. Nor should we be surprised that Drake's involvement in slavery attracted little attention for 400 years, leaving it to us to grapple with that legacy in the 21st century.

Now, as the voices of Black, Indigenous, and other historically marginalized people have grown stronger, it is high time that the rest of us listen to them. Drake's image is a stain on Marin, left behind by people with a limited and self-serving understanding of their own history. The renaming effort offers an opportunity to reject that vision in favor of one that reflects all of us. Cleansing Marin of Drake will not eliminate racism from our culture, but it will discard a racist piece of it that we should all let go.

Steve Dodge graduated from Sir Francis Drake High School in 1985. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is a member of the Marin Alumni Network for Equity and Inclusion.