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Shilling discovery could rewrite Canadian history

VICTORIA, Canada -- An amateur treasure hunter with a hand-held metal detector has turned Canadian history on its head after finding a 16th century shilling buried in clay on the shores of Vancouver Island.

The 435-year-old coin discovered in western-most Canada has rekindled a theory that a British explorer made a secret voyage here two centuries before it was discovered by Spanish sailors.

Official historical records show the Spanish were the first Europeans to set foot in what is now Canada's British Columbia province in 1774, followed four years later by British Royal Navy Captain James Cook.

Retired security systems installer Bruce Campbell found the coin in mid-December, along with a rare 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s dime and penny from 1900.

“I was getting fat and tired of watching TV,” he said about what got him into his hobby, surrounded in his Victoria, British Columbia home by a trove of adventure novels and a few dug up treasures.

He never imagined, he said, stirring up controversy with his latest find.

According to conspiracy theorists and some historians, the silver coin (produced between 1551 and 1553) is evidence that English explorer Sir Francis Drake traveled as far north as Canada's Pacific Coast during an expedition to California in 1579, in search of the famed Northwest Passage.

But he covered it up at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I, who supposedly wished to avoid confrontation over the new territory with Spain.

At the time, Spanish explorers had kept to more southern parts of the continent after disappointment (seeing few apparent resources and natural ports) in California.

Samuel Bawlf, a leading proponent of the so-called Drake theory and author of a 2003 book on the subject, says the coin is proof the English arrived here first.

He noted two other finds that support the theory: a 1571 sixpence dug up in 1930 in the backyard of a Victoria home and another Tudor-era coin unearthed on nearby Quadra Island.

Drake would have given the coins to aboriginals he met “to show to later comers that England had already found (and staked a claim to) these lands,” Bawlf told AFP.

Royal British Columbia Museum curator Grant Keddie, tasked with examining the evidence, is skeptical.

He said his analysis typically looks at “what was written at the time, and archeological artifacts.” And there is currently not enough evidence to support this theory, he said, noting that Drake's logs were burned in a London fire a century later.

If it is ever corroborated, it could have implications for Canada and the United States, whose shared border was drawn based partly on past European colonial land holdings.

The 49th parallel was chosen in 1818 as the western boundary between the United States and the British colony, but disputes over interpretations of the treaty erupted on several occasions since then.

The last dispute was settled in 1903 by a joint British, Canadian and U.S. tribunal establishing Canada's boundary with Alaska.

For Campbell, the coin is nothing more than a lucky find that will be hard to match. “It's gonna be impossible to find something older,” he quipped.

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A rare Edward VI shilling, minted in London between 1551 and 1553, is seen in Victoria, British Columbia on Jan. 23. (AFP)

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