|As Captain of the Revenge Drake helped defeat the Armada.|
On December 13, 1577 Francis Drake on board the Pelican led four other small ships out of the harbor of Falmouth, Cornwall. Ostensibly on a private expedition of trade, Drake carried secret orders from Queen Elizabeth I to round Cape Horn, explore the western coast of the Americas, and establish an English claim on the coast north of Spanish possessions. And, by the way, he could pursue opportunities for plunder among the Spanish coastal cities and ships at sea. The Queen would be glad to accept 50% of the proceeds from this piracy against a nation with which she was at least technically at peace.
No doubt about it, Drake cut a dashing figure and had made a name for himself as a daring mariner and audacious pirate.
He was born sometime between 1535 and 1544—no birth records have been found and he gave widely varying account of his age at various parts of his career—to a tenant farmer in Devonshire. Most likely evidence points to February through March of 1540. His father was a passionate Protestant and came under some persecution during that period of Henry the VIII’s reign when he strove to keep the newly separate Anglican Church essentially Catholic in theology and ritual and not unite with continental Reformers. Drake himself always stoutly defended Protestantism and hated the Catholic Church.
Despite the “lowly station” of a tenant farmer, the Drakes were related to the Earl of Bedford, their landlord and Drake’s Godfather.
After fleeing persecution in Devonshire the family settled in Kent. When the persecution of Protestants eased the elder Drake became a chaplain to men of the King’s Navy and eventually was ordained a deacon. At the age of about thirteen, he had his son Francis apprenticed to the captain of a costal and cross Chanel sailing barque. The boy turned out to be a natural seaman—and a shrewd businessman. When the owner of the ship died childless, he left the craft to Drake, who was about 20.
In 1563 he was second in command to his second cousin Captain John Hawkins on a lucrative voyage as a slaver, taking captives from West Africa and slaves captured from Portuguese traders to the Caribbean to be sold to the Spanish. It was just the fourth English slaving expedition, but by far the most successful and helped establish a regular trade.
Drake made more voyages to the Spanish Main, now commanding his own ship in Hawkins’s fleet. He alternately traded slaves with the Spanish and preyed on their shipping, often in the same voyage. In 1568 Hawkins and Drake were taking supplies and trading at San Juan de Ulua, fortress near Veracruz, New Spain when the small fleet was surprised and attacked by a superior Spanish flotilla. All but two of Hawkins’s ships were sunk and Drake had to swim from the wreckage of his ship to safety. The episode was said to have turned him to a furious hatred of the Spanish.
Out to get even, in 1572 Drake with a crew of mostly French privateers and Maroons—slaves who had escaped the Spanish—attacked the treasure port of Nombre de Díos on the Isthmus of Panama. Ashore, Drake and his men captured the legendary Spanish Silver Train, a mule train carrying Peruvian gold and silver across the Isthmus. Capturing nearly 20 tons of precious metal, far more than his small crew could handle. Drake buried the bulk of the treasure and took with him only some of the gold. After adventures and narrow escapes, he returned to England a fabulously wealthy—and famous—man. Drakes buried treasure has never been found, though it has long been sought. It is probably the origin of all of the legends of buried pirate treasure. It was also on this trip that Drake saw the Pacific from the top of a tall tree and vowed to sail its waters.
In 1575 Drake entered the service of the Queen under the command of her lover, the Earl of Essex, charged with pacifying Ireland. Drake commanded a small fleet that attacked Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ulster. The island was being colonized by Scottish Catholics of the MacDonald Clan. While Drake’s naval forces prevented rescue by the Scots, English troops massacred more than 300 residents, mostly women, children and the infirm as the men were away at war.
With this additional notch in his belt, the Queen selected Drake, by now a favorite, for her world-girdling expedition two years later.
Drake added a sixth ship to his fleet, the Portuguese trader Santa Maria captured off of the Cape Verde Islands. He convinced her captain, who had experience in South American waters, to join him and renamed the ship Mary.
The rugged Atlantic crossing began the attrition of men and ships that plagued the expedition. The Christopher and Swan had to be scuttled because of losses to the crew because of illness and their remaining men transferred to the other ships.
Drake put into the bay at San Julian in what is now southern Argentina in June. He decided stay through the approaching harsh Southern Hemisphere winter in the barren bay. More than fifty years earlier Magellan had done the same thing and executed dozens of mutineers while there. Drake’s crew found the skeletons still tied to gibbets. The Mary was found to be rotten and was taken apart to be used as firewood to get the crews through the winter.
While there Drake dealt, somewhat mysteriously, with a charge of witchcraft levied at his second in command Thomas Doughty and high handedly had the man executed. Doughty was a nobleman and had been the personal secretary to the powerful Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor of England and with the Queen a major investor in the voyage. To assuage Hatton’s probable wrath, Drake renamed his flagship The Golden Hind after the principal feature in Hatton’s coat of arms.
Upon leaving San Julian, the three remaining ships headed south to cross into the Pacific. They were battered by the legendary storms in that region. One ship foundered and another was too badly damaged to continue and had to return to England. In mid September Drake and the Golden Hind finally made the passage through the Straights of Magellan. Despite later claims, he did not go further south around Tierra de Fuego and make the crossing by the erroneously named Drake’s Passage.
Pushing northward along the coast, Drake utterly surprised several Spanish towns and settlements, looting and sacking them. None of these towns were fortified, as were town on the eastern coast and Caribbean because no enemy was ever expected to reach them. He captured several small coastal vessels. The greatest value of these prized were their charts, which he used as he pushed north. He had a near brush with death when he was injured by native Mapuches on Mocha Island.
After raiding the port of Valparaiso, Drake found his richest plunder off the coast of Peru. First he took more than 25,000 pesos worth of Peruvian gold—worth about $7.5 million today. Then he got word of the Manila galleon headed to the Philippines with a year’s worth of treasure from the old Inca mines. Drake gave chase to Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. The haul was staggering—26 tons of silver, 8 lbs of pure gold, 13 chests of plate, bags of jewels, and a large gold crucifix.
Despite the huge hall, Drake puzzled the crew, which knew nothing of his secret orders, by continuing north instead of running for home and safety. He went all the way up the coast of South America, Central America, and New Spain (Mexico.) Eventually he was north of the final Spanish outpost, Point Loma at the entrance of San Diego Bay.
Further north at a point he named Nova Albion, Drake lay in for supplies which he bartered from the natives and to rest. He claimed the coast in the name of the Queen and the Holy Trinity and buried a bronze plaque to verify the claim.
The exact location of Nova Albion is in dispute. Drake altered his charts in case he was captured by the Spanish. Later all of his logs, charts, and records were ordered under lock and key by the Queen who considered them a high state secret. These papers were lost when Whitehall Palace burned in 1698. Most believe it was somewhere along the northern California coast. Marin is often cited, but others place Nova Albion at Whale’s Bay in what is now Oregon, or even Vancouver Island. We know at least that side expeditions from Nova Albion charted the waters off Vancouver and up the coast to the Inner Passage along the Alaska panhandle.
What made these discoveries as state secret for Elizabeth is that apart from Newfoundland, they were the first English claims in North America. Thereafter all charters granted to fledgling colonies on the east coast extended all the way to the Pacific, at least in theory. The British later used Drake’s claims to shore up their claims on British Columbia against the Spanish and Russians in Alaska. The United States also used the claims to legitimize land grabs from Mexico in California and New Mexico.
Drake finally abandoned his explorations and headed southwest across the broad Pacific. He ran aground in the Moluccas in modern Indonesia. The Golden Hind refloated by jettisoning some cargo—but no treasure. Drake made friends with a local ruler and in exchange for supplies intrigued with him against the Portuguese.
Then it was across the southern Indian Ocean. After stops along the African Coast, Drake rounded Cape Horn. He was in Sierra Leone by July 1580 and home in Plymouth on September 25.
In less than three years, Drake had become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and only the second mariner to come back in a ship on which he departed. At the end only 58 members of the crews of his ships—minus the one that had returned before crossing into the Pacific, survived the adventure. But Drake and his investors were rich. The Queen’s 50% take exceeded all other royal revenue for the year. And she was in now in secret possession of valuable intelligence and a possible claim to a whole continent. Drake presented the Queen with a jewel commemorating the voyage made of enameled gold, taken as a prize off the Pacific coast of Mexico with an African diamond and a ship with an ebony hull. No wonder she was happy.
In return Elizabeth, who could now afford it, gave Drake another jewel with an enamel miniature portrait of the Queen on one side and an elaborate cameo on the other. In April, 1581 she also personally visited the Golden Hind to honor Drake with knighthood. But because Drake was considered a pirate by the Spanish, with whom she was still at peace, she handed the sword to the French ambassador, a brother of the French king, to perform the dubbing, thus also signally French endorsement of the whole affair.
Honors continued to be piled on Drake. He was elected Mayor of Plymouth and twice a Member of Parliament. With his new wealth he bought Buckland Abbey, a large manor near Yelverton in Devon.
When war officially broke out with Spain in 1685, Drake sailed again for the Caribbean. He sacked the great fortress ports of Santo Domingo and Cartagena and captured St. Augustine in Florida. By now he was a fearful legend among the Spanish in the New World. Parents frightened their children by telling them that Drake would get them. Folklore arose around El Draque, the Dragon. King Phillip II was simply furious. He posted enormous rewards for Drake’s capture and death. He is said to have plotted the Spanish Armada in revenge.
Getting word that the Spanish were amassing a large new fleet, Elizabeth called upon Drake to “singe the beard” of the Spanish king. He raided the ports of Cadiz and Corunna destroying 37 naval and merchant vessels and then spent months raiding shipping in Spain’s home waters. The raid delayed the Armada by a full year and helped Elizabeth raise her own naval power.