Sir Francis Drake (1540 – January 28, 1596) was an English sailor, slave-trader, pirate, explorer and – during the Armada – vice-admiral of the British fleet. He captured a fortune in gold from raiding Spanish ships and ports. He was also the first Englishman to sail all the way around the world. Because of this, he was made a knight by Queen Elizabeth I. His rise from commoner to great war hero and influential person was rare for his time. In English, Drake means a male waterfowl, but in Spanish, such was his reputation that Drake came to mean ‘El Draque’ – a frightening dragon.
Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon around 1540, the eldest of twelve sons. In 1548, his father, Edmund Drake fled from Devon to Kent. He claimed it was due to religious persecution from his protestant beliefs. However, there is evidence, he was actually fleeing the law due to his association with the Hawkins family and their involvement in piracy and theft.
In Kent, his father was ordained a deacon and Francis was given an apprentice on a sailing boat used for coastal trade. Francis was a good worker who deeply impressed the boat’s captain and he became a key part of the boat’s crew. As the master of the boat had no children, he left the boat to Francis in his will. However, sailing a trading boat between England and France was not enough for Drake’s ambition. He began sailing further afield and became reacquainted with Sir John Hawkins, who took Francis on a voyage to the Americas. They were essentially acting as pirates and slave traders. They attacked Portuguese towns on the west coast of Africa and took plunder and slaves. Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins were both pioneers in the English participation in the transatlantic slave trade.
In 1568, English ships managed by Drake and Hawkins were attacked by the Spanish and they scarcely escaped with their lives, swimming to safety. This created an intense hostility between Drake and the Spanish, and he was motivated to seek revenge. In 1572, he led his own expedition to Panama, where he hoped to raid Spanish gold from the town of Tierra Firme. This was only partially successful, but in 1573, he struck gold – literally capturing 20 tons of silver and gold from a Spanish port. It was so much gold, they had to bury much of it on the beech (and possibly adding to the legend of pirates). He returned to England a hero, though the Spanish considered him a pirate and war-monger.
In 1575, Drake participated in the Rathlin Island Massacre, where English troops under Sir Henry Sidney killed 600 Irish and Scottish people who had been resisting the English/Protestant colonisation of Ulster. The massacre included the murder of 400 civilians after their surrender.
Circumnavigation of the earth
In the winter of 1577, Drake began a groundbreaking navigation of the globe. He set sail with six ships, but crossing the Atlantic they suffered a high mortality rate, and Drake abandoned two ships. In Argentina, he executed Thomas Doughty who Drake charged with treason and mutiny, though many feel he was unfairly treated by Drake. By September 1578, they passed the Magellan Strait at the southern tip of Argentina and proceeded into the Pacific. Violent storms broke one ship and forced one back to England. It left Drake with just one ship (the Golden Hind) from the initial six that had set sail from England. Sailing up the west coast of the Americas, Drake attacked many Spanish and Portuguese ships and gained more gold. He reached California which he claimed for the English crown, naming it Nova Albion (new Britain). Then he set sail across the Pacific and made good progress to Indonesia and then around the Cape of Good Hope and back to Plymouth by the 26 September 1580. In a period of two and a half years, Drake had successfully circumnavigated the globe, the second person to achieve the feat. He brought a rich treasure trove of gold and silver. He gave half to Queen Elizabeth I, a huge sum for the Crown revenues.
In appreciation for Drake’s services to the Crown he was knighted in April 1581 aboard the Golden Hind. His herald said
Sic Parvis Magna (Thus great things from small things (come)
It was a meteoric rise for a commoner to become knight; he became a close favourite of the Queen. Drake’s closeness in the affections of the queen, aroused some disquiet amongst the nobility, who saw Drake as little more than a commoner and pirate. There were rumours of a love interest between Sir Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth I, but this is hard to quantify. Though Queen Elizabeth I did appreciate the many jewels and riches he brought back from his plunder of Spanish shipping (even if Queen Elizabeth I sometimes rebuked him for political reasons)
In 1585, Spain and England were at war. Drake was ordered to lead punitive pre-emptive raids on Spanish properties in the Americas, He was successful – sacking the port of Santo Domingo and Santiago. He returned to a hero’s welcome on 22 July. The successful attacks of Drake only served to motivate king Phillip II of Spain to plan for an invasion of England. The war was partly motivated by religion. Catholic Spain felt it their duty to defeat Protestant England and place a Catholic back on the throne. Aware of the immanence of the invasion, Drake attacked two of Spain’s main ports and destroyed 37 ships. This delayed the invasion and Drake claimed he ‘had singed the beard of the King of Spain.”
Defeat of The Spanish Armada 1588
Drake’s most famous feat occurred when he was second in command of the English fleet – which defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. Drake’s role is rather overstated, on the first night of the invasion, he broke rank to seize a Spanish ship believed to be carrying money. The victory of the English was mainly helped by superior fire power of their ships, their greater manoeuvrability and also some very effective fire-ships – ships set ablaze and sent into the enemy’s path. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the English fleet succeeded in scuttling the Spanish and they were forced to abandon the invasion. The Spanish Armada sailed all the way around the British Isle coast – causing further losses on the way back to Spain. Defeated at sea and with the army dispersing, the Spanish were never able to contemplate invasion again. Whether he deserved it or not, Drake gained considerable fame and glory for being part of the naval victory.
A traditional tale says Drake was playing bowls when the Spanish fleet was first noticed. Sir Francis Drake is claimed to have said:
‘there’s still time to finish the game and defeat the Spanish.’
However, this remains unsourced, though interestingly tide conditions that morning would have prevented him sailing from Plymouth, so waiting to evening probably would have happened. A sourced quote shows Drake’s assessment of the Spanish fleet, as the Armada approached.:
“Coming up unto them, there has passed some cannon shot between some of our fleet and some of them, and so far as we perceive they are determined to sell their lives with blows. … This letter honorable good Lord, is sent in haste. The fleet of Spaniards is somewhat above a hundred sails, many great ships; but truly, I think not half of them men-of-war. Haste.”
Letter to Sir Francis Walsingham, from off Cape Sagres, Portugal (17 May 1587).
His naval exploits led King Philip II of Spain to offer a reward of 20,000 ducats, (US $6.5M in today’s money), for his life. After the success of his early voyages and the Spanish Armada, his later voyages to attack and plunder more Spanish ports and ships were less successful. He suffered a rare defeat at the Battle of San Juan, Puerto Rico and failed in his attack on Panama. A few weeks later he fell ill with dysentery and died in January 1597, aged 56. He was buried off the sea and his body has never been found.
Achievements of Drake
- Sir Francis Drake captures a powerful image in British culture for his stoical attitude in defeating the Spanish Armada. Although vice-admiral, it is Drake who his remembered and not the commander Lord Howard of Effingham.
- His circumnavigation of the globe by boat (1577-1588) was the second successful voyage, although in many ways, Drake’s voyage is better known than the first.
- Drake frequently beat the Spanish in battle. Before the Armada, Drake played a critical role in attacking and harrying Spanish ships which delayed their invasion.
- He was very successful as a pirate capturing huge quantities of gold and silver throughout his career. He made significant contributions to the English Treasury.
Criticisms of Drake
Drake’s place in popular culture as the defender of Britain against the invasion of the Spanish Armada has often overshadowed his much darker history.
- Pioneer of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Drake enthusiastically took part in early voyages carrying African slaves to the Americas to work on plantations. This horrific trade grew after Drake’s death – carrying several million slaves
- Pirate. Drake acted as a pirate, attacking ships motivated by a desire for gold. Sometimes he was able to dress it up as a patriotic act because he shared his booty with the crown. But, his acts of piracy were not confined to war-time but throughout his life.
- Rathlin Island Massacre. Drake took part in the massacre of 400 civilians, including women and children who had surrendered.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Sir Francis Drake”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, Published 15 March 2020.
Books on Sir Francis Drake
- Sir Francis Drake at Amazon.co.uk
- Sir Francis Drake at Amazon.com
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