Studying the history of naval exploration and combat provides us with an insight into many interesting characters. Some are remembered today for the daring expeditions they undertook, discovering new lands ripe with opportunity, while others may be remembered for less favorable dealings.
Sir Francis Drake might be classified as a bit of both. He sailed the seas, exploring new places and marking them for the English, but he also partook in violent naval battles and dabbled in the slave trade. For the English, he was a brave knight that won for the glory of the British Empire, to others; he was nothing more than a criminal that needed to be put down. Let us dive in to a brief account of the fascinating life of Sir Francis Drake.
Sir Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon to parents Edmund Drake and Mary Mylwaye. The exact specifics of the dates related to Francis Drake’s early life are muddy, with only vague guesses to when he might have lived out his childhood. Francis Drake’s family fled from Devon to Kent due to the ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ in 1549. In Kent, Francis Drake eventually became the apprentice of his neighbor, a man who operated a barque (a type of boat). Having remained a faithful and helpful apprentice, Francis Drake was given the boat when his master passed away.
The First Few Years at Sea
Francis Drake began his life out at sea quite young. He was the purser (the person that handles all the money on a boat) on vessel at the young age of 18. Only two years later, Francis Drake sailed all the way to Guinea. By the age of 23, he was headed for the Americas with his cousin Sir John Hawkins. John Hawkins, known for being the first English slave trader, accompanied Francis Drake on future expeditions as well. These expeditions would see them attacking towns and ships, rounding up prisoners, and then selling them off as slaves back in the Americas.
On his third expedition with this fleet, the ships came under attack by Spanish warships. Francis Drake and John Hawkins swam to safety, and Francis swore revenge. By the year 1572, Francis Drake was leading his own independent operation, and planned to raid the town of Nombre de Dios, where a shipment of silver and gold was inbound. Though the raid was successful, Drake’s men insisted they withdraw because of Drake’s sever injuries, and the treasure was left behind. Francis Drake remained in that part of the world for another year, raiding Spanish ships wherever he could.
The Silver Train Raid
The most successful of Francis Drake’s raids during the time spent near Nombre de Dios is the time he trailed a train to a port of the town, and then succeeded in raiding it. What they thought would have been an ordinary train was, in fact, filled to the brim with silver and gold. Drake and his men made off with as much as they could carry. They crossed 18 miles of mountainous and forested landscape, only to discover the boats they had arrived on were gone.
They buried most of the treasure there, and then set off on a raft for their main fleet. This incident is probably why pirates and buried treasure is parroted so much in stories. Rich from their raid, Drake and his men went home, where they were applauded as heroes while the Spanish considered him a dirty pirate, which in all fairness he was to them. Francis Drake was also a participant of the ‘Rathlin Island massacre’ where, despite Rathlin Castle’s surrender, 200 soldiers and 400 civilians including children were murdered. Francis Drake ensured no reinforcements made it to the island.
Beginning His Campaign Against the Spanish
Elizabeth I of England sent Francis Drake on a campaign against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of the Americas due to his success in previous raids. They set out in November of 1577, but the expedition encountered trouble right off the bat. Bad weather rendered their expedition’s start moot, and they had to return home for repairs.
They set out again in December with a fleet of five ships, which soon saw a sixth ship added to it as well. The Mary was a captured Portuguese merchant vessel, and her captain was included into the crew because of his experience around these waters. Soon after however, the expedition ran into trouble once more. A lot of men were lost while crossing the Atlantic, and Francis Drake had to deliberately sink two of his ships because of a lack of crew members.
Drake and his co-commander Thomas Doughty had had quite a few quarrels up till this point. When the fleet landed at the port of Saint Julian, they were greeted with the skeletons of the mutineers Ferdinand Magellan had had executed there. Here, Francis Drake had Doughty executed on accusations of witchcraft and treason after denying him a trial back in England. When the chaplain suggested the voyage’s bad luck might be due to Doughty’s execution, Drake chained him to a hatch cover and declared him excommunicated (official exclusion from participation in Church). Francis Drake and his fleet spent the Winter at the port of Saint Julian before setting out for the Strait of Magellan. They burned the ship Mary during this time, on account of rotting timbers.
The Continuation of the Voyage Through the Pacific
With three ships remaining, the fleet made it through the Strait of Magellan and reached the Pacific. However, stormy weather destroyed one of the ships, and sent another packing back to England. This left only one ship, the Pelican, in this expedition. The voyage soon discovered a new island, which Drake named Elizabeth Island, and they also became the first Europeans to kill indigenous peoples in Southern Patagonia.
The voyage continued on ever forward, and the crew didn’t waste any opportunity to raid a Spanish port or pillage a town. Some Spanish ships were also periodically captured, including two ships carrying bountiful treasure. Francis Drake would also be seriously injured by indigenous peoples at Mocha Island.
The Discovery of California
Wanting to avoid further tussles with the Spanish, especially in a relatively weakened state, Francis Drake chose a slightly altered route that ended up with the voyage making landfall at South Cove, South of Coos Bay, Oregon. The voyage continued South, as the crew was searching for a safe place to stay while they made essential repairs to the ship for the return trip home.
On the 17th of June, Francis Drake and his crew landed at the coast of what is today Northern California. Francis Drake claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth I and named it Nova Albion (New Albion). As the men worked on ship for a few weeks, Francis Drake would explore the land on foot and, for once, have friendly interactions with the locals. The ship left New Albion on the 23rd of July.
The Return Home and the Awarding of the Knighthood
The voyage almost didn’t make it back home from New Albion. When the ship reached the Moluccas, it got caught on a reef. The crew had to wait out three days before the tides favored the ship, and even then they had had to dump some cargo to free themselves. On the 26th of September the ship finally made it back to Plymouth – from where it had departed – and the haul that it had brought back surpassed all expectations.
Francis Drake was hailed as the first Englishman to have circumnavigated the Earth. Francis Drake presented the Queen with a jewel token, and the Queen gave him a jewel with her portrait in return. Considering how lowly Francis Drake’s family had been, and that he was still technically a commoner, this was a very unusual gift and Francis Drake sported it proudly. On the 4th of April, 1581, the Queen awarded Francis Drake with a knighthood aboard the sole ship that had survived the voyage. The dubbing was performed by a French diplomat.
Leading an Armada
When war had been declared by Phillip II, the Queen ordered Sir Francis Drake to lead a fleet of warships and attack Spanish colonies. Sir Francis Drake left in September of 1585 with 21 ships and 1,800 soldiers. Vigo, Santiago, Santo Domingo, Cartagena de Indias were all raided, captured, and ransomed for supplies. A Spanish fort was also raided as the fleet returned back to Plymouth.
He reached England on the 22nd of July to lots of praise and applause from the English people. Sir Francis Drake also led a wildly successful attack against the Spanish armada that was planning to retaliate by invading England, and ended up sinking dozens of ships and delaying the invasion by a year.
Sir Francis Drake’s Death
In the time leading up to his death, Sir Francis Drake suffered a number of defeats in a row. During the siege of Coruna, more than 12,000 lives were lost and 20 ships were destroyed. This forced Drake to abandon his attack and carry onward to Lisbon. Soon after, he lost the Battle of San Juan.
After surviving a cannonball through his cabin’s wall by Spanish gunners he attempted to retaliate but was once again defeated. Only a few weeks after that, he died in January of 1596. After all his great battles, victories, and expeditions, it was dysentery that did him in. It’s nothing of note of course; dysentery being a common cause of death back then. But perhaps, had it not chosen that time to take Sir Francis Drake, he might have been able to make a comeback. He was buried at sea, and his body has not been recovered to this day.
Unexpected, more complex than anticipated and full of lessons, human history is a fascinating topic to study. Seeing how the world operated back then, how it has evolved since, and how, despite everything, we still have so much we can relate to from that time is something that is kind of humbling in a way. We are definitely privileged that we live in a time where we can comfortably study history and learn from it.