The Great Probability of a Northwest Passage

[Theodore Swaine Drage (attrib.)] THE GREAT PROBABILITY OF A NORTH WEST PASSAGE: DEDUCED FROM OBSERVATIONS ON THE Letter of Admiral DE FONTE, Who sailed from the Callao of Lima on the Discovery of a Communication BETWEEN THE SOUTH SEA and the ATLANTIC OCEAN; And to intercept some Navigators from Boston in New England, whom he met with, Then in Search of a NORTH WEST PASSAGE. PROVING THE AUTHENTICITY of the Admiral's LETTER. London: Thomas Jefferys 1768.
4to; xxiv, 153, [2]pp., plus three folding engraved maps by Thomas Jefferys. Rebound to style in half calf over marbled paper, red morocco lettering piece on spine. Two ownership inscriptions on ffep. 1. Text block with light toning, occasional foxing and soiling, and nsome noticeable wear at corners. First map with some wear along folds and edges, recently lined; other two maps very good or better. Manuscript inscription on p. vi, at end of dedication, apparently identifying author as “Theodorus Swaine Drage”.

First edition of this important 1768 English analysis of existing textual and cartographic source materials relating to the possible existence of a Northwest Passage through Arctic Canada to the Pacific.

Much of the driving force for the search for the Northwest Passage in the mid-18th century came from Arthur Dobbs (1689-1765). Dobbs became obsessed with the quest, sponsoring several expeditions, writing books on the subject and conducting a vicious pamphlet war against Christopher Middleton, a highly-respected sea-captain who commanded an expedition promoted by Dobbs, but had the temerity to suggest the Passage did not exist. While little progress was made, Dobbs did succeed in keeping the quest in the public eye and prompting publishers to offer the interested public books and charts of the region.

The volume begins with a transcript of the “Letter of de Fonte”, as published in The Monthly miscellany or Memoirs for the curious in April and June 1708. De Fonte was a supposed 17th-century Spanish Admiral who, while voyaging along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, entered an eastward passage and encountered a vessel from Boston, commanded by a Captain Shapley, sailing westward. Unfortunately, the The Monthly miscellany gives no bibliographical information about the manuscript used, such as its authorship, origin or location, merely recording the contents. This supposed letter was ignored for decades until revived by Dobbs as a principle argument for the existence of the Northwest Passage. Following the transcript, the author provides a running commentary on the De Fonte account, tests its veracity against the discoveries and reports of other authors, and argues vigorously for its veracity. A favourable review in the Critical Review, or Annals of Literature, 1768, notes that the “remaining part of the book is a collection of every remarkable tradition or anecdote which materially relates … several of which the author explain is a masterly manner, and every where appears an able geographer and seaman.” (p. 241). Streeter on the other hand calls it a “careful (and credulous) analysis.”

The argument is illustrated by three maps engraved by Jefferys. The first, “A General Map of the Discoveries of Admiral de Fonte” appears to be an entirely original compilation, blending de Fonte’s mythical discoveries in western Canada based on the account in The Monthly miscellany (we have been unable to locate a copy of the The Monthly miscellany to examine, but it appears to have been un-illustrated), but introducing materials from Engelbert Kaempfer’s History of Japan (1727) and other sources. The map is described in a contemporary commentary as “composed from detached voyagers and Japanese maps pieced together [which] gives us indeed a passage entering from the South-Sea … which running by a plain channel opens among the Cumberland Isles between Baffin’s and Hudson’s Bay” (Monthly Review or Literary Journal, pp. 240-1)”. A notable feature of this map, compared from French maps of the period, is a much reduced “Sea of the West” (on this see below). Certainly, we have identified no early prototype for the depiction.

The second map is a copy of the general map of the Americas from an edition of Antonio de Herrera’s Descripción de las Indias (first publication 1601). The third is “The Discoveries made in the North West Parts of Hudson’s Bay. By Capt. Smith in 1746 & 1747”. Sponsored by Dobbs, Smith’s voyage had identified at least two candidates for a Northwest Passage exiting from Hudson Bay.

The Appendix describes a 1753 voyage by a schooner out of Philadelphia sponsored by “the merchants of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Boston”, inter alia Ben Franklin, and commanded by one Benjamin Gillam. The goals were to search for a Northwest Passage, “to open a Trade there, to improve the Fishery and the Whaling on these Coasts, cultivate a Friendship with the Natives, and make them serviceable in a political way”. (p. xi) The voyage failed to achieve its objectives because of “a great year for ice” and dissent among the participants.

A question of authorship
The text is unsigned but popularly credited to Theodore Swaine Drage (ca.1712-1774), although Charles Swaine, Archivist of the Hudson Bay Company has also been posited as a possible author. Drage served as a clerk on board the galley California on its voyage in search of the Northwest Passage in 1746-1747, sponsored by Dobbs and his associates, and is widely accepted as author of the resulting An Account of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage by Hudson’s Streights (London, 1748-1749), credited to the “Clerk of the California”.

Authorship is credited to Drage on the basis of a manuscript letter found with the Harmsworth copy (the collection dispersed at auction, and that copy now not traced) signed by Drage and probably sent by him to the dedicatee, the Earl of Hillsborough (Reproduced in Howard N. Eavenson, Swaine and Drage: a sequel to map maker & Indian traders, see p.5ff. For what it is worth, our copy of the book has the manuscript inscription “Theodorus Swaine Drage” added to the dedication in an early hand.

While Drage might seem a good candidate—and he had been at school with the Earl of Hillsborough—after his time at sea, Drage’s interests had gone in other directions. He settled in Philadelphia, working as a partner in a wine merchants from 1758, before studying for the ministry and returning to England in 1769, where he was ordained. Thereafter he sailed for North Carolina, where the governor and his wife were family friends, while one of his sponsors was Benjamin Franklin.

I don’t have a dog in this hunt, but a valued colleague, far more learned than I, argues that while the Appendix may be attributed to Drage the main text may well have been edited by another—Braddock Mead (d.1757), a gifted Irish cartographer and geographer closely associated with Thomas Jefferys in the 1750s and author of the major maps of the Americas (1753), New England (1755) and Nova Scotia (1757). One of the features of Mead’s work was his composition of detailed texts, demonstrating his painstaking research, analysis and compilation of source materials when assembling his maps.

My colleague argues that the impressive discussion of the sources for the history of the search for the Northwest Passage corresponds exactly with Mead’s style. Nor is there anything in the content (beyond the engraving date of one map) to show compilation later than the mid-1750s, and it may be that the text was composed by Mead in the 1750s, laid aside by Jefferys during the Seven Years War, then brushed off and published when British attention again turned to global trade and the passage to the Indies. Certainly the early 1750s was a period of great interest in the northwest passage with the publication of Joseph-Nicolas Delisle’s great map, “Carte des nouvelles découvertes au nord de la mer du sud, tant à l’est de la Siberie et du Kamtchatka, qu’à l’ouest de la Nouvelle France” (1750), and the attendant illustrated memoir Nouvelle Cartes de découvertes de l’Amiral de Fonte, et autres Navigateurs, 1753.

As mentioned above, when compared to these French sources the map shows a much reduced “Sea of the West”. In 1753, Mead, writing up his pen-name (or alias) John Green, composed an extremely important six-sheet chart of the Americas, and accompanying Remarks, in support of the new chart of North and South America, in six sheets. The pamphlet commences with a discussion of the de Fonte controversy, speaking in favor of the theory of a passage, but criticising French geographers for their highly speculative (mis-)interpretation of the de Fonte materials including the exaggerated sea of the west. Tantalizingly, at the very end Mead mentions “a Memoir to support a Chart which I have prepared of the Countries round the North-Pole: In order to show the Probability of both a North-East and North-West Passage…” (p. 48)

Frankly, though my colleague is terribly sharp, I think he’s dead wrong in his take on Mead’s views of the De Fonte tale.  Mead ends his Remarks as follows:

“In the mean Time I shall venture, upon the whole, to say, that the discoveries ascribed to De Fonte have no real Existence in Nature; and that however commodiously they may help to fill-up a Map of the North-West part of America, they ought in reality to have no place there.” (p. 48)

The work is well represented in American institutional collections but uncommon in trade. The two most recent examples at auction (the Frank Streeter copy in 2007 and Brooke-Hitching copy in 2014) both achieved very strong results.

ESTC T93835. OCLC 6266165 et al. Sabin 28460. Streeter VI:3464. Christie’s, The Frank S. Streeter Library (April 2007), lot 162. Sotheby’s, Library of Franklin Brooke-Hitching Part 2, D-J (Sept. 2014), lot 415. Biographical background on Drage from William S. Powell’s Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, accessed May 2020 on the NCpedia web site.