Rediscovering Drake's Island

Half marathon notice

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One of the nice things about working in a museum with huge collections is that from time to time you come across things you didn't even know you were looking for. This happened to me the other day when I unexpectedly came across a 1773 painting of Drakes Island, Plymouth, of which this is a detail:

I must have walked past it many times, but it caught my eye because I've been looking again at William Wales's log from Cook's second voyage as part of the digitisation project in which we are involved.

It's no surprise to learn that the island was named after Sir Francis Drake, who departed from there in 1577 at the start of his famous circumnavigation. This hasn't always been the island's name, however: it was previously St Nicholas's island, after a chapel there.

This takes us from one circumnavigation to another. As far as the Cook voyage is concerned, Drake's Island had a role in the long-distance testing (proposed by Nevil Maskelyne in 1771) of four new marine timekeepers - K1 by Larcum Kendall and three by John Arnold.  Not long before the voyage's departure, Wales recorded in his log (3 July 1772) that he:

Went on shore to Mr Bayley at Drake's Island, where I found he had got up his Clock and Quadrant and was employed making Equal Altitudes for the Time & Zenith distances for the Latitude of the Place. In the morning got on shore the Transit Instrument with intent, if possible to observe a few transits of the [moon] over the Meridian for to find the Longit[ude] of the Place from whence we are to take our Departure by the Watches. Cloudy with Rain at times.

So Drake's Island was the starting point for the testing of the four sea watches. By the time the ships returned in 1775, of course, only Kendall's timekeeper had proved successful.

As a final aside, I was also intrigued to learn that the first recorded submarine fatality occurred north of Drake's Island just two years after Cook's departure, when a carpenter named John Day died while testing a wooden diving chamber.