- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

Considering how Britain came to “rule the waves” in the 18th and 19th centuries, the origins of its naval strength were remarkably humble. During the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, England was too poor to maintain a standing navy, and in time of need turned to pirates like Francis Drake, the subject of a splendid new biography by Stephen Coote, Drake (St. Martin’s Press, $27.95, 337 pages).

In an era when an Englishman was defined by his religious affiliation, Drake was brought up in a strongly Protestant household. Having decided to go to sea, Drake, in 1566, joined John Hawkins in a slave-trading expedition to the Caribbean. It ended disastrously when the English were treacherously attacked by Spanish ships that regarded the Caribbean as their private preserve. The incident fired Drake’s lifelong hatred of Spain, an attitude that made him welcome in the Elizabethan court. He became “an Elizabethan adventurer bound by his faith, his nationalism and his ambition.”

While the queen looked the other way, Drake and Hawkins set to pillaging the trade between Spain and the New World. In Mr. Coote’s words, “an exhilarated Drake realized that he had found a highly effective way of greatly enriching himself while causing distress” to his country’s enemies. The author calls this “state-sponsored terrorism.” The gold and silver treasure looted from Spanish ships was duly divided among Elizabeth and her court, Drake and his crews.

The flamboyant Drake was a natural leader. His sheer courage and navigational expertise won the admiration of his peers. His officers held him in awe. “None of them dared to sit down before they were asked to do so and … none of them dared put his hat on until repeatedly urged to do so by Drake.”

In 1577, with the queen’s backing, he embarked on what became a voyage of discovery. In the 100-ton Golden Hind, Drake entered the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan and captured Spanish prizes off the coasts of Chile and Peru. He intended to return through the rumored Northwest Passage, but bad weather permitted him to sail no farther north than the latitude of Vancouver.

Drake was reluctant to return by Cape Horn, lest he encounter the Spanish navy in force. Instead he sailed across the Pacific and, in a remarkable feat of seamanship, circumnavigated the globe for the first time. (Magellan’s earlier claim was dismissed by Drake’s admirers because the Portuguese navigator did not live to complete his voyage.) Drake was knighted by the queen, and with the proceeds from the voyage bought a great house near Plymouth.

With England formally at war with Spain in 1587, the English became increasingly apprehensive about Spanish plans to invade the British Isles. Drake was sent on a mission against a Spanish fleet assembling at Cadiz, and in a daring raid destroyed many supplies, including water casks, required by the Spanish for their Armada. In the author’s judgment, “Drake had not defeated the Spanish Armada but he had made it impossible for it to sail in 1587.”

As the country’s leading seaman, Drake doubtless expected to command the English fleet that gathered at Plymouth the following year to confront the Armada. In the end the queen made Drake second in command to Lord Howard of Effingham, but it was Drake who led the navy’s weeklong pursuit of the Armada up the English Channel. Although distracted — predictably — by the chance to seize a valuable Spanish straggler, Drake played a major role in one of the greatest triumphs of English arms.

Drake was on yet another voyage of pillage in the Caribbean when he died of yellow fever in 1596. The greatest of Britain’s sea dogs is portrayed warts and all in Mr. Coote’s very accessible biography.

Tony DeBlois is a prodigious musical savant who became blind as a result of oxygen therapy shortly after his premature birth, and was diagnosed with autism at age five. Now 31, he makes his living as a pianist but he still cannot tie his shoelaces. Experts in autism say that there have been fewer than 100 cases of prodigious savants reported over the past century. Some Kind of Genius: The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois by Tony’s mother, Janice DeBlois and Antonia Felix (Rodale, $22.95, 242 pages), tells of the role that Tony’s mainstream music education played in transforming him from a withdrawn, nearly mute 15-year-old into an accomplished, outgoing performer.

If much of the credit for Tony’s achievements must rest with his tireless mother — three husbands left her as she struggled to obtain the training for Tony that would open up a new life to him and give him a marketable skill — it was the teachers along the way who rolled up their sleeves and dealt with the boy and his mother.

Janice DeBlois moved Tony from school to school in search of the best help to develop what she had recognized as his only lifeline: his extraordinary musical ability. It all paid off when John LaPorta, a jazz professor approaching the end of his career at Berklee College of Music in Boston, took Tony under his wing in a summer program in 1989. Tony not only developed musically but he “came out of his shell like never before and gradually shifted from a nonreactive, disjointed speaker into a conversational young man.” Two years later, Tony, who had never completed high school, was enrolled as a college student at Berklee, and in 1996 he became the first blind autistic savant to graduate there. According to LaPorta, who died in 2004, “Tony’s ability to improvise rather than simply echo music he hears” is startling enough, but the “subtlety, sophistication, and refined musicality” of Tony’s playing led LaPorta to believe that Tony “had all the resources to become an important voice in American jazz.”

One of the most interesting chapters of this book is “Islands of Genius: The Mystery of Savant Syndrome.” Among the facts: Savant abilities are limited to five areas, and music is the most common, followed by art. (The others are calendar calculating, math calculating and mechanical or spatial skills). Most savants are male, and previously “nondisabled” people can suddenly acquire savant skills as a result of neurological damage from brain injury or dementia. “Music is now understood to be a unique mode of knowing that is completely separate from language and other types of cognitive processes,” say the authors.

The story is not easy to follow, primarily because there’s more of Janice’s soap-opera-like past than the reader needs, and the authors have a tendency to dwell on the shallow (how many TV shows has Tony graced?). In fact, they feel it necessary to head off criticism of the practice of putting musical savants onstage by quoting a psychiatrist who argues, “It isn’t exploitation because Tony loves applause and a satisfied audience … . The quality of that sort of reinforcement and the family’s investment in it is terribly important.”

The important fact is that music has been the motivator for Tony and the means by which he can communicate with the world, and his story is one of hope.

Priscilla S. and John M. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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