Francis Drake

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500-1750; Historical figures

Francis Drake
Born About 1541
Tavistock, Devon
Died 1596- 01-28
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral, (c. 1540 – January 28, 1596) was an English privateer, navigator, naval pioneer and raider, politician and civil engineer of the Elizabethan era, considered by many a pirate. He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. He died of dysentery while unsuccessfully attacking San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1596.

Birth and early years

Miniature of Drake, age 42 by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581
Miniature of Drake, age 42 by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, one of two sons of Edmund Drake (1518–1585), a Protestant farmer who later became a preacher, and his wife Mary Mylwaye. Francis was a grandson of John Drake and Margaret Cole. He is often confused with his cousin Francis Drake (1573–1634), who was the son of Edmund's older brother, Richard Drake. (cf. John White, note 2). His maternal grandfather was Richard Mylwaye. John Drake and Margaret Cole were also great-grandparents of Sir Walter Raleigh.

He was reportedly named after his godfather Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, and throughout his cousins' lineages are direct connections to royalty and famous persons, such as Sir Richard Grenville, Amy Grenville, and Geoffrey Chaucer. However, James Froude states, "He told Camden that he was of mean extraction. He meant merely that he was proud of his parents and made no idle pretensions to noble birth. His father was a tenant of the Earl of Bedford, and must have stood well with him, for Francis Russell, the heir of the earldom, was the boy's godfather."

As with many of Drake's contemporaries, the exact date of his birth is unknown and could be as early as 1535, the 1540 date being extrapolated from two portraits: one a miniature painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581 when he was allegedly 42, the other painted in 1594 when he was alleged to be 53 according to the 1921/22 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, which quotes Barrow's Life of Drake (1843) p. 5. Francis was the second eldest of 12 children; as he was not granted legal right to his father's farm, he had to find his own career.

During the Roman Catholic uprising of 1549, the family was forced to flee to Kent. At about the age of 13, Francis took to the sea on a cargo barque, becoming master of the ship at the age of 20. He spent his early career honing his sailing skills on the difficult waters of the North Sea, and after the death of the his captain he became master of his own barque. At age 23, Drake made his first voyage to the New World under the sails of the Hawkins family of Plymouth, in company with his cousin, Sir John Hawkins. Together, Hawkins and Drake made the first English slave-trading expeditions, making his fortune through the sale of West Africans.

Conflict in the Caribbean

Around 1563 Drake first sailed west to the Spanish Main, on a ship owned by his cousin John Hawkins, with a cargo of slaves from Africa. He took an immediate dislike to the Spanish, at least in part due to their mistrust of non-Spaniards and the Spaniards' Catholicism. His hostility is said to have been increased by an incident at San Juan de Ulua in 1568, when, while delivering his load of slaves, a Spanish fleet came upon him by surprise. Although he was in his enemy's port, it was conventional for the Spanish to 'surrender' for a few hours in order to purchase slaves. Thus it was unusual for a fleet of enemy warships to appear out of the blue. Drake survived the attack in large part because of his ability to swim. From then on, he devoted his life to working against the Spanish Empire; the Spanish considered him an outlaw pirate (see also Piracy in the Caribbean), but to England he was simply a sailor and privateer. On his second such voyage, he fought a battle against Spanish forces that cost many English lives but earned him the favour of Queen Elizabeth.

The most celebrated of Drake's Caribbean adventures was his capture of the Spanish Silver Train at Nombre de Dios in March 1573. With a crew including many French privateers and Maroons — African slaves who had escaped the Spanish — Drake raided the waters around Darien (in modern Panama) and tracked the Silver Train to the nearby port of Nombre de Dios. He made off with a fortune in gold, but had to leave behind another fortune in silver, because it was too heavy to carry back to England. It was during this expedition that he climbed a high tree in the central mountains of the Isthmus of Panama and thus became the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean.

When Drake returned to Plymouth on August 9, 1573, a mere 30 Englishmen returned with him, every one of them rich for life. However, Queen Elizabeth, who had up to this point sponsored and encouraged Drake's raids, signed a temporary truce with King Philip II of Spain, and so was unable to officially acknowledge Drake's accomplishment.

Alleged Atrocities in Ireland

In 1575 Drake was present at Rathlin Island, part of the English plantation effort in Ulster when 600 men, women and children were massacred after surrendering.

Francis Drake was in charge of the ships which transported John Norris' Troops to Rathlin Island, commanding a small frigate called "Falcon", with a total complement of 25. At the time of the massacre, he was charged with the task of keeping Scottish vessels from bringing reinforcements to Rathlin Island. The people who were massacred were, in fact, the families of Sorley Boy MacDonnell's followers. (see John Sugden, "Sir Francis Drake", Simon+Schuster/New York, ISBN 0-671-75863-2)

Circumnavigation of the globe

Sir Francis Drake, circa 1581. After Drake became famous, portraits of him were in demand. This portrait may have been copied from Hilliard's miniature—note that the shirt is the same — and the somewhat oddly proportioned body added by an artist who did not have access to Drake.
Sir Francis Drake, circa 1581. After Drake became famous, portraits of him were in demand. This portrait may have been copied from Hilliard's miniature—note that the shirt is the same — and the somewhat oddly proportioned body added by an artist who did not have access to Drake.

Entering the Pacific

In 1577, Drake was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth to undertake an expedition against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of the Americas. He set sail from Plymouth, England, in December aboard the Pelican, with four other ships and over 150 men. After crossing the Atlantic, two of the ships had to be abandoned on the east coast of South America.

The three remaining ships departed for the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of the continent. This course established " Drake's Passage", but the route south of Tierra del Fuego around Cape Horn was not discovered until 1616. Drake crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Magellan Strait, after which a storm blew his ship so far south that he realized that Tierra del Fuego was not part of a southern continent, as was believed at that time. This voyage established Drake as the first Antarctic explorer, as his furthest south of at least 56 degrees (as evidenced by astronomical data quoted in Haklyut's "The Principall Navigators", 1589) was not surpassed until James Cook's voyage of 1773, and was the first known occasion that any explorer had travelled further south than any other human being.

A few weeks later Drake made it to the Pacific, but violent storms destroyed one of the ships and caused another to return to England. He pushed onward in his lone flagship, now renamed the Golden Hind in honour of Sir Christopher Hatton (after his coat of arms). The Golden Hind sailed northward alone along the Pacific coast of South America, attacking Spanish ports like Valparaíso as it went. Some Spanish ships were captured, and Drake made good use of their more accurate charts.

Nova Albion

On June 17, 1579, Drake landed somewhere north of Spain's northern-most claim at Point Loma. He found an excellent port, landed, repaired and restocked his vessels, then stayed for a time, keeping friendly relations with the natives. It is said that he left behind many of his men as a small colony, but his planned return voyages to the colony were never realized. He claimed the land in the name of the Holy Trinity for the English Crown as called Nova AlbionLatin for "New England."

The precise location of the port was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spaniards, and several of Drake's maps may even have been altered to this end. All first hand records from the voyage, including logs, paintings and charts were lost when Whitehall Palace burned in 1698. A bronze plaque inscribed with Drake's claim to the new lands, fitting the description in Drake's own account, was discovered in Marin County. This so-called Drake's Plate of Brass was later declared a hoax.

Another point often claimed to be Nova Albion is Whale Cove (Oregon), although to date there is no evidence to suggest this, other than a general resemblance to a single map penned a decade after the landing were "From Sea to Sea". The colonial claims were established with full knowledge of Drake's claims, which they reinforced, and remained valid in the minds of the colonialists when the colonies became free states. Maps made soon after would have "Nova Albion" written above the entire northern frontier of New Spain. These territorial claims became important during the negotiations that ended the Mexican-American War between the United States and Mexico.

Continuing the journey

Drake now headed westward across the Pacific, and a few months later reached the Moluccas, a group of islands in the southwest Pacific, east of Indonesia. While there, the Golden Hind became caught on a reef and was almost lost. After three days of waiting for expedient tides and dumping cargo, the bark was miraculously freed. Drake and his men befriended a sultan king of the Moluccas and involved themselves in some intrigues with the Portuguese there.

He made multiple stops on his way toward the tip of Africa, eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and reached Sierra Leone by July 22, 1580. On September 26 the Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth with Drake and 59 remaining crew aboard, along with a rich cargo of spices and captured Spanish treasures. The Queen's half-share of the cargo surpassed the rest of the crown's income for that entire year. Hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the Earth (and the second such voyage overall, after Magellan's in 1520), Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard the Golden Hind on April 4, 1581, and became the Mayor of Plymouth and a Member of Parliament.

The Queen ordered all written accounts of Drake's voyage to be considered classified information, and its participants sworn to silence on pain of death; her aim was to keep Drake's activities away from the eyes of rival Spain.

The Spanish Armada

War broke out between Spain and England in 1585. Drake sailed to the New World and sacked the ports of Santo Domingo and Cartagena. On the return leg of the voyage, he captured the Spanish fort of San Augustíne in Florida. These exploits encouraged Philip II of Spain to order the planning for an invasion of England.

In a pre-emptive strike, Drake "singed the King of Spain's beard" by sailing a fleet into Cadiz, one of Spain's main ports, and occupied the harbour for three days, capturing six ships and destroying 31 others as well as a large quantity of stores. The attack delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.

Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet (under Lord Howard of Effingham) when it overcame the Spanish Armada that was attempting to invade England in 1588. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the English Channel in closing darkness, Drake put duty second and captured the Spanish galleon Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdés and all his crew. The Spanish ship was known to be carrying substantial funds to pay the Spanish Army in the Low Countries. Drake's ship had been leading the English pursuit of the Armada by means of a lantern. By extinguishing this for the capture, Drake put the fleet into disarray overnight. This exemplified Drake's ability, as a privateer, to suspend strategic purpose if a tactical profit were on offer.

On the night of 29 July, along with Howard, Drake organised fire-ships, causing the majority of the Spanish captains to break formation and sail out of Calais into the open sea. The next day, Drake was present at the Battle of Gravelines.

The most famous (but probably apocryphal) anecdote about Drake relates that, prior to the battle, he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. On being warned of the approach of the Spanish fleet, Drake is said to have remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards. This battle was the high point of the remarkable mariner's career. In fact tidal conditions caused some delay in the launching of the British fleet as the Spanish drew nearer so it is easy to see how a popular myth of Drake's cavalier attitude to the Spanish threat may have originated.

In 1589, the year after defeating the Armada, Drake was sent to support the rebels in Portugal, which opposed the personal union of Spain and Portugal under King Philip II of Spain in 1580. En route, he sacked the city of La Coruña in Spain. This massive combined naval and land expedition (see " English Armada") was a dismal failure, attributed to a grievous lack of organization, poor training, and paltry supplies. It was a crucial turning point in the Anglo-Spanish War (1585).

Final years

Drake's seafaring career continued into his mid fifties. In 1595, following a disastrous campaign against Spanish America, where he suffered several defeats in a row, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish gunners from El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake's flagship, but he survived. In 1596, he died of dysentery while again unsuccessfully attacking San Juan, where some Spanish treasure ships had sought shelter. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin, near Portobelo, Panama.

Cultural impact

Drake's exploits as an explorer have become an irrevocable part of the world's subconsciousness, particularly in Europe. Numerous legends, myths, stories, and fictional adaptations of his adventures exist to this day. Considered a hero in England, it is said that if England is ever in peril, beating Drake's Drum will cause Drake to return to save the country. This is a variation of the sleeping hero folk-tale.

During his circumnavigation of the globe, Drake left a plate upon leaving his landing place on the west coast of North America, claiming the land for England. In the 1930s, it appeared that Drake's plate had been found near San Francisco. Forty years later, scientists confirmed that the plate was a hoax, as had been suspected. Later information attributed the hoax to E Clampus Vitus.

Drake's adventures, though less known in the United States, still have some effect. For instance, a major east-west road in Marin County, California is named Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. It connects Point San Quentin on San Francisco Bay with Point Reyes and Drakes Bay. Each end is near a site considered by some to be Drake's landing place.

Though England considers him a hero, Spaniards regard him as a cruel and bloodthirsty pirate who used to sack defenceless Spanish harbours. Drake, or Draco (" dragon") or "El Draqui," to use Spanish names for him, was used as a bogeyman for centuries after his "vicious" raids. Children through the Spanish-speaking world are still raised to fear "El Draqui."

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