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Francis Drake (1540-1596)

Francis Drake was probably born in Devon around 1540 and, though they denied it, was almost certainly distant kin to the gentle family of Drakes of that county. Hardly anything certain is known of him until he appears as engaged in the trade to the Guinea coast in 1565. Two years later, he leaped into fame as commander of a ship in the squadron of his kinsman, Hawkins, trading, in defiance of prohibitions, to Spanish America. Hawkins and Drake were treacherously set upon in the harbour of St. Juan de Lua and all their vessels, but two, were destroyed. On their return, they moved the English government to demand redress but, failing in this, decided to recoup themselves by 'piratical' expeditions against Spanish commerce.

In 1570, 1571 & 72, Drake made three successive voyages to the West Indies and, on the third of these, took and sacked the town of Nombre de Dios, then the Atlantic depot of the gold and silver from the mines of the Pacific coast. Much of the plunder of the town had to be abandoned owing to a severe wound received by Drake in the attack, but much was gained and brought home; and it was upon this voyage that Drake, for the first time, saw, from the top of a great tree, the Pacific Ocean and vowed to sail an English ship on it.

In 1577, therefore, he undertook, in his famous ship the Pelican or Golden Hind of 100 tons, and with four smaller vessels, the passage to the 'South Seas' by the Straits of Magellan. In the course of this voyage, in which he was deserted by one ship, lost another in a storm and had to break up the other two as unseaworthy, Drake successfully accomplished the dangerous passage, was driven south as far as latitude 57 degrees, sailed up the Pacific coast of South America, plundered Valparaiso, took the Cacafuego (the richest prize in history) and cruised north as far as San Francisco. Then, thinking it safer not to return by the Straits, struck, without chart or pilot, across the Pacific to the Ladrones Islands. Off Celebes the Golden Hind stuck on a rock for twenty hours, floated off unhurt, touched at Java and again at Sierra Leone and finally reached England, laden with spices as well as with Spanish treasure, in September 1580.

The Spanish ambassador, naturally enough, demanded that the crew should be hanged as pirates; but Queen Elizabeth I was able to prove that the Spaniards were perpetually stirring up insurrections in Ireland and England against her government and treating English ships in much the same way as Drake had treated Spanish. Further, she asserted the right of Englishmen to sail any seas, in defiance of the Spanish claim to regard the Pacific as a mare clausum; and she emphasized her protest by knighting Drake.

In 1582, the successful adventurer became Mayor of Plymouth and also, unofficially, the government's chief adviser on naval affairs. He sat in Parliament, in 1585, and in the autumn of that year was sent in command of twenty-five sail to exact, in Spanish America, reprisals for the embargo which Philip had just laid on all English ships. On that voyage, Drake plundered Vigo in Spain, then crossed the Atlantic and took and held to ransom San Domingo, Carthagena and several towns in Florida, relieved and brought home the first colonists of Virginia and returned to England in the Summer of 1586.

In the following spring, he was sent to repeat his exploits in the harbours of Spain herself, where ships were now being openly prepared for the invasion of England. He pushed right into Cadiz and sank, burned or carried away thirty-eight ships. If the Queen had allowed him to go on and do the same thing in Lisbon the Armada would never have been able to sail when it did. In the defeat of that fleet, when it came at last, Drake's share was the primary one and he was constantly urging the government to greater and greater exertions by sea.

In the 'Counter Armada' of 1589, he was less successful but managed to burn the shipping and part of the town of Coruna. Troops were landed for an attack on Lisbon, which failed, and Drake was accused of staying outside the harbour, picking up prizes. For the next five years, there is little trace of his activity and his last expedition (1595) with Sir John Hawkins to the West Indies was utterly unsuccessful. The Spaniards were forewarned and every port in America was fortified. Hawkins died off Porto Rico and Drake off Porto Bello. He was buried at sea.

Drake was, essentially, the greatest of all the Elizabethan sailors: a man ready for any adventure, beloved and followed by his men, yet absolute master on his own deck. A man, moreover, of the highest practical intelligence in all walks of life and, of this, no better example can be given than the 'leat' which still bears his name and still carries the pure water of Dartmoor to the town of Plymouth. His letters are models of shrewd common sense and many picturesque touches in them are still remembered.  

Edited from Emery Walker's "Historical Portraits" (1909).

See also: In Search of Sir Francis Drake

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