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Sir Francis Drake
1540? - 1596
 

 


The English navigator Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1541-1596) was the first of his countrymen to circumnavigate the globe. His daring exploits at sea helped to establish England's naval supremacy over Spain and other European nations.

Francis Drake, the eldest son of a yeoman farmer, was born near Tavistock, Devonshire. His father later became a Calvinist lay preacher and raised his children as staunch Protestants. Young Drake received some education; he learned the rudiments of navigation and seaman-ship early and did some sailing near his home. The Drakes were related to the Hawkins family of Plymouth, well-to-do seamen and shipowners. The Hawkins connection got Drake a place on a 1566 slave-trading expedition to the Cape Verde Islands and the Spanish Main.


First Command

In 1567 John Hawkins made Drake an officer in a larger slave-trading expedition. Drake ultimately received command of one of Hawkins's ships, the Judith, and accompanied his relative to Africa, Rio de la Hacha, and Santa Marta, where Hawkins disposed of the slaves. The English were caught, however, in the harbor of San Juan de Ulúa by a Spanish fleet that opened fire without warning and destroyed most of their ships. Only Drake's Judith and Hawkins's small vessel escaped to England. Embittered by this, Drake resolved to devote his life to war against Spain.

Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain were not at war then, but grievances were steadily mounting. The Queen declined to offend Philip and would not allow Hawkins to go to sea again immediately, but she had no objections to a voyage by the obscure Drake. In 1569 Drake had married Mary Newman of Plymouth, but finding domesticity dull, he departed in 1570 for the Spanish Main with a small crew aboard the 25-ton Susan. He hoped to learn how the Spaniards arranged for shipping Peruvian treasure home, and he felt that the ports of Panama City and Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama were the key. His 1570 voyage was largely one of reconnaissance during which he made friends with the Cimaroons, who were escaped slaves dwelling out of Spanish reach on the Isthmus and stood ready to help him. During a 1571 expedition he captured Nombre de Dios with Cimaroon help but lost it immediately when, wounded, he had to be carried to safety. After depredations off Cartagena, he intercepted a Spanish gold train near Nombre de Dios and returned to England with the bounty.

His arrival embarrassed the Queen, who still hoped for peace with Spain, and Drake evidently received a broad hint to leave the country temporarily. He is known to have served in Ireland with the Earl of Essex, who was trying to crush a rebellion in Ulster. By 1576 relations with Spain had worsened, and Drake returned to England, where a new expedition was being planned in which Elizabeth had a financial share. Drake's main instructions were to sail through the Strait of Magellan and probe for the shores of Terra Australis Incognita, the great southern continent that many thought began with Tierra del Fuego. Drake received five ships, the largest being the Pelican (later named the Golden Hind), and a crew of about 160.


Adventures on the Golden Hind

The fleet left Plymouth in December 1577 for the southern Atlantic, stopping at Port San Julián for the Southern Hemisphere winter. Ferdinand Magellan had once crushed a mutiny there, and Drake did the same. He tried and executed Thomas Doughty, an aristocratic member of the expedition, who had intrigued against him in an attempt to foment a rebellion.

When Drake passed through the strait and entered the Pacific, only the Golden Hind remained; the other ships had been lost or had parted company. Contrary winds forced him southward, and he perhaps sighted Cape Horn; in any event, he realized that the two oceans came together and that Terra Australis would not be found there. He traveled along the coasts of Chile and Peru, capturing and destroying Spanish ships but sparing Spanish lives.

Between Callao and Panama Drake took an unarmed treasure ship, bearing gold, emeralds, and all the silver the Golden Hind could carry. Knowing that Spaniards would try to waylay him in the strait, Drake bypassed Panama and, near Guatalco, Nicaragua, captured charts and directions to guide him across the Pacific. Perhaps seeking the Strait of Anian, he sailed nearly 48 degrees north, and then descended to a point at or near Drake's Bay, in California, where he made friends with the Indians and overhauled the ship. He left a brass plate naming the country Nova Albion and claiming it for Elizabeth. (In 1936 a plate fitting the description was found near Drake's Bay.)

Drake then crossed the Pacific to the Moluccas and near there almost came to grief when the ship struck a reef. Skilled handling freed it, and his circumnavigation of the globe continued via the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. Drake arrived in Plymouth in 1580, acclaimed by the public and his monarch. In April 1581 he was knighted on the deck of the Golden Hind.

Drake did not immediately go to sea again and in 1581 became mayor of Plymouth. After his wife died, he married a young aristocrat, Elizabeth Sydenham. Drake, now a wealthy man, made the bride a substantial settlement. He had no children by either wife.


Expedition against Spain

By 1585 Elizabeth, after new provocations by Philip, felt ready to unleash Drake again. A large fleet was outfitted, including two of her own vessels. Drake, aboard his command ship, the Elizabeth Bonaventure, had instructions to release English vessels impounded by Philip, though Elizabeth certainly knew he would exceed orders.

Drake fulfilled the Queen's expectations. He sacked Vigo in Spanish Galicia and then sailed to Santo Domingo and Cartagena, capturing and holding both for ransom. He would have tried to cross the Isthmus and take Panama, a project he had cherished for years, but an epidemic so reduced his crews that he abandoned the idea. On the way to England he destroyed the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine, in Florida, and farther north, took home the last remaining settlers at Sir Walter Raleigh's unfortunate North Carolina colony.

The expedition, which reached Portsmouth in July 1586, had acquired little treasure but had inflicted great physical and moral damage on Spain, enormously raising English prestige in the bargain. Formal war was now inevitable, and Philip started plans to invade England. In February 1587 the Queen beheaded Mary of Scotland who had been connected with plots to dethrone or murder Elizabeth, to the outrage of Catholic Europe and many English Catholics. Philip began assembling his Armada in Portugal, which had been in his possession since 1580.


Spanish Armada

Elizabeth appointed Lord Charles Howard of Effingham commander of her fleet and gave Drake, Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher immediately subordinate posts. Drake advocated a strong preventive blow at Philip's unprepared Armada and received permission to strike. In April 1587 he recklessly sailed into Cadiz and destroyed or captured 37 enemy ships. He then occupied the Portuguese town of Sagres for a time and finally, in the Azores, seized a large Portuguese carrack bound homeward from Goa with a rich cargo.

The Cadiz raid damaged but did not cripple the Armada, which, under Alonso de Guzmán, Duke of Medina Sidonia, sailed in May 1588. It was alleged that Lord Howard was a figurehead and that the "sea dogs" Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher won the victory in the July encounters. Recent evidence refutes this and shows Howard to have been in effective command. Drake took a conspicuous part in the channel fighting and captured a galleon, but he does not seem to have distinguished himself above other English commanders.

The Armada was defeated, and Drake's career thereafter proved anticlimactic. He met with his first formidable defeat in 1589, when he commanded the naval expedition sent to take Lisbon. He seemed to have lost some of his old daring, and his cautious refusal to ascend the Tagus River for a naval bombardment partly accounted for the failure. Drake did not go to sea again for 5 years. He concerned himself mainly with Plymouth matters. He sat in Parliament, but nothing of note marked his presence there.


Final Voyage

In 1595 Elizabeth thought she saw a chance of ending the war victoriously by cutting off the Spanish treasure supply from the Isthmus of Panama. For this she selected Hawkins, then 63, and Drake, in his 50s. The cautious Hawkins and the impetuous Drake could never work well together, and the Queen further complicated the situation by giving them equal authority; in effect, each commanded his own fleet. The Queen's order that they must be back in 6 months scarcely allowed time to capture Panama, and when they learned of a crippled Spanish treasure ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico, they decided to go there. Through Drake's insistence on first going to the Canary Islands, their destination was revealed, and the Spaniards sent word ahead to Puerto Rico. Hawkins died as they reached the island, leaving Drake in sole command. The Spaniards had strengthened their San Juan defenses, and Drake failed to capture the city.

Ignoring the Queen's 6-month time limit, the aging Drake, still trying to repeat his earlier successes, made for the Isthmus to capture Nombre de Dios and then Panama. He easily took the former, not knowing that it had been superseded by Puerto Bello as the Caribbean terminus of the Plate fleets. His landing party, which soon realized it was following a path long out of use, was ambushed by Spaniards and forced to retreat.

Drake knew the expedition was a failure; he cruised aimlessly to Honduras and back and then fell ill of fever and dysentery. He died off Puerto Bello on Jan. 28, 1596, and was buried at sea. Sir Thomas Baskerville, second in command, took the expedition home to England.
 


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The exact year of Francis Drake’s birth is unknown, but is believed to be between 1540 and 1543. He was born in Devon in the South West of England, but as a child was forced to move to Kent, nearer to the sea. It is possible that this is because his father was being persecuted for being a Protestant preacher in Catholic England.

As Drake grew up, it seemed unlikely that he would achieve hero status amongst his English brethren; at just over five feet in height as an adult few would have believed that he would become one of the great naval officers in the country’s history.

The first taste of the sea came to Drake by way of becoming an apprentice aboard a small coastal freighter in the early 1550’s. He took to the sea like a duck to water, and as a young adult had graduated to sailing to West Africa with his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, to purchase slaves. Subsequently he was given command of a ship in a fleet under the order of Hawkins, again to profit from the slave trade. Their voyage was ill fated though. The Spanish attacked the fleet and only those ships commanded by the two aforementioned returned back to England safely. This attack, coupled with his religious beliefs instilled by his father, caused Drake to pledge to spend the rest of his life warring with the Catholic Spaniards.

Thus, Drake recruited a group of seaworthy individuals to sail with him to the New World, places like the Caribbean and Panama. Here, they attacked Spanish settlements, taking any valuables, of which there were plenty. He also caught a first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, past the Isthmus of Panama and vowed to be the first Englishman to sail its waters.

By 1577, he had persuaded Queen Elizabeth I, to finance a voyage to the Pacific Ocean. It was a top-secret agreement initially – the Queen had watched enviously as Spain had amassed a great Empire in the New World, and she wanted a piece of the action. If the Spaniards found this out though, they would almost certainly declare war on England. So, five ships set sail from Plymouth, led by Drake’s ship ‘The Pelican’, under the pretence that they were seeking a North West passage through the Atlantic, in order to circumnavigate the globe.

Once sailing, the crew were made aware of the real purpose of the voyage – to plunder Spanish settlements on the west coast of the Americas. As they reached the Strait of Magellan underneath the southern tip of South America, matters became tense. Storms battered the boats, but worse, an Englishman who sympathised with the Spanish was attempting to drum up support for a mutiny. He was subsequently tried, found guilty and beheaded.

‘The Pelican’ was the only ship to make it to the Pacific, and upon doing so Drake renamed her ‘The Golden Hinde’. He set about plundering Spanish settlements along the coast of Chile and Peru, and managed to relieve a great Spanish treasure ship, ‘Cacafuego’, of its riches. After stopping in North America for repairs (believed to be somewhere near California), Drake sailed across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and then under the southern tip of Africa before returning to England. This made him the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

He returned to a hero’s welcome in the winter of 1580, and was promptly knighted aboard his ship by Elizabeth. It is rumoured that half a million pounds worth of treasure were aboard the ship, and Sir Francis Drake bought Buckland Abbey, near Plymouth, with his share.

England openly declared war with Spain in 1585, and Sir Francis was again at the fore, causing havoc in the West Indies, before leading a daring assault on the Spanish port of Cadiz, where he destroyed many vessels.

This delayed the planned invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, as much rebuilding had to take place. By the time of the invasion, Drake had been installed as the Vice Admiral of the English Fleet. It is rumoured that at hearing that the Spanish were sailing towards the English Channel, Drake was consumed in a game of Bowls, and replied, ‘There’s time to finish the game, and beat the Spaniards too!”

Whether he said this or not is irrelevant, because his reputation went before him – the petrified Spanish were no match for the fired up English, and the Battle was over within a few days. It would be Drake’s last famous victory over his great enemy. He died, probably of dysentery, in 1596 whilst commanding a ship off the coast of Panama.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008