Francis Drake (c1542-1596), English seaman, trader, pirate, politician and circumnavigator, was born near Tavistock, a town in Devon on the western edge of Dartmoor, about 19 km (12miles) north of Plymouth. His father, Edmund, a prosperous shearer, had become a priest but the identity of his mother is uncertain. The ban on clerical marriage during this time of the reign of the Catholic Mary I almost certainly means that Francis was born illegitimate.
He was a cousin of John Hawkins and it was in the Plymouth household of John’s father, a prosperous merchant and occasional pirate, that he grew up and in whose ships he learnt both his nautical skills and trading acumen. Through the 1560s he participated in slave trading voyages to Africa and by 1567 had been given his first command – of the Judith in one of John Hawkins’ three sided voyages to Africa, the Caribbean and back to England. The enterprise was to end in rancour between the two men when, after a fight with the Spaniards, Drake sailed home in the undamaged Judith, leaving Hawkins to an uncertain fate. Over the next few years Drake was to visit the Caribbean at various times – by now piracy seemed to be more important than trade – and whilst he was not always successful, his reputation grew, both at home and with the Spaniards who had begun calling him El Draque. (The Dragon.)
He seemed the obvious man to be chosen to lead an expedition to harry and plunder Spain’s relatively undefended American Pacific flank, with the added possibility of finding the western end of the Northwest Passage. The high possibility of great profit from the silver-rich Spanish dominions meant that many of the high and powerful in England, including (secretly) Elizabeth I herself had invested in the enterprise.
Five ships left Plymouth in December 1577. Before they had reached the Cape Verde Islands they had captured several Portuguese ships, taking booty and what provisions they thought necessary, had swapped one of their smaller vessels for a much larger Portuguese ship and had kidnapped its Portuguese captain, a man with knowledge of South American waters. They reached Brazil in early April and, some weeks later, they arrived at San Julian Bay in Patagonia where, like Magellan before him, he wintered. (And where, like Magellan, he was faced with mutiny that ended in the execution of a second-in-command.)
With winter over and with the fleet now down to three ships, they entered the Straits of Magellan. They passed through in only a fortnight; but three days into the Pacific a storm hit which sank one ship and separated the other two. In the three weeks of the gale, Drake was blown southeast into what is now known as Drake Passage between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. By now, Drake had renamed his ship - the Pelican became the Golden Hind(e). Ever the realist, Drake had realised that, whatever the outcome of the adventure, it would not do him any harm to name his ship after the crest of the ship’s owner, Sir Christopher Hatton, then Captain of the Queen’s Guard.
Drake commenced his foray up the Pacific coast of South America. Between October 1578 and June 1579, the Golden Hind and a small pinnace, put together from a “kit” brought from England, sailed from the southern coast of Patagonia to about the latitude of Seattle. They fell upon a coast completely unprepared for a predator. The ships they came across were mostly unarmed, at least had no major ordinance; the towns and villages undefended; the people utterly surprised when the ship they assumed to be friendly turned out to be English. Examples of this unpreparedness include the farcical example of the English coming across a Spaniard asleep beside his mules carrying 13 bars of silver. In another instance they relieved an unfortunate Spaniard of 800 pounds’ weight of silver from his llama train. The Spaniards had not seen the need for armed protection for deliveries of silver from the mines to the coast for shipment to Panama where armed escort began as it was carried across the isthmus to await the next convoy to Spain.
He also came across a “treasure ship” which he relieved of 13 chests of pieces of eight, 26 tons of silver, 80 pounds’ weight in gold plus various items of plate and jewellery. The Golden Hind was bursting - it had gold bullion for ballast.
An interesting point can be made here: although perhaps up to 20 English were killed during the raids, mostly from small arms fire, not one Spaniard died . Drake was proud of this. His men made a lot of noise and there was a lot of shot and shouting but (the shot at least) was all over the heads of the defenders or aimed at the rigging of the ships attacked. Even when he heard off thePeruvian coast that 16 Protestants (read Englishmen) had recently been burnt at the stake in Lima he refused to be unnecessarily violent .
Drake chose to go home via the East Indies, and across the Indian Ocean. Before he did, he went ashore at a place somewhere near modern San Francisco, (probably modern Drake’s Bay) emptied the ship and cleaned and prepared it for the voyage ahead. He reached the Moluccas in about three months, struck a treaty of trade and mutual defence against the Portuguese with a local Islamic ruler, managed to find room for 6 tons of cloves (half of which, along with various armaments and other weighty non-bullion items, he was forced to jettison when the Golden Hind lodged on a reef shortly after.)
He found his way through the interminable shoals and reefs of what is now Indonesia and into the Indian Ocean – the first English ship to sail on it. He admired the Cape of Good Hope as he passed it, and headed north for home. After watering in Sierra Leone he reached Plymouth in September 1580, 2 years and 9 months since he had departed.
It is debated just how much value was contained in the Golden Hind. After Drake had been allowed by Elizabeth to remove a portion for himself and a similar portion to be split amongst the crew, and not allowing for the jewellery and artefacts given directly to the queen, it is generally agreed that the voyage made a profit to its backers of 47 Pounds for every Pound invested. Elizabeth’s share – about half – was sufficient to pay off the kingdom’s national debt with a fortune left over. This money was invested in the Levant Company, the profits of which would become the base capital of the East India Company, which itself would become the main source of British mercantile power during the next two centuries. In the shorter term, it allowed England to afford its defence during the Spanish attacks culminating in the Spanish Armada of 1588.
In April 1581, at what these days would be called a glittering occasion, Drake was knighted – by the French envoy, a deliberate slight by the queen of the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza. She also wore new jewellery, made from stones and silver obviously taken from the Spanish in South and Central America. She had already argued with Mendoza, privately, about the legitimacy of Drake’s endeavours. Now she felt confident enough – as did the nation – to publicly insult the envoy of the King of Spain and, through him, Phllip II himself. Even the venue was a calculated insult – the deck of the Golden Hind. In effect, it was a declaration of war.
Drake had climbed some rungs up the social ladder. For a while he enjoyed the life of a country gentleman, bought an ex-Cistercian monastery, within walking distance of his birthplace, accepted the revenue from manors given to him by the Queen, became mayor of Plymouth, even became a Member of Parliament. His wife of 12 years, Mary, died in 1582, and he remarried in 1585 – by all accounts a happy union.
In May 1585 an English ship in Bilbao Harbour, Spain, had been boarded by the Spanish king’s representative and soldiers dressed as merchants. In the ensuing fracas, the English ship had not only managed to escape, but had taken with it the king’s agent. On him was found a document ordering the ship’s seizure, signed by the king himself. This removed any doubt within the English government that full-out war was imminent and plans that had been made during the previous months should be put into action.
During July and August a fleet of 21 ships, under the command of Drake with Martin Frobisher as second-in-command was assembled in Plymouth harbour. This harrying of the Spanish on both sides of the Atlantic was to be no piratical adventure – it had the full approval of the Queen and the government of England and the banner of its flagship would be the royal standard of England. Its actions were blatant acts of war. The fleet first threatened and exacted ransom from Vigo in north-west Spain, fanned out as it sailed down the coast of Portugal hoping to catch sight of the annual treasure fleet (the Flota) coming in from the Caribbean (which it missed) then to the Cape Verde Islands where settlements were destroyed before it set off across the Atlantic.
Drake’s first target was Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. The city in the Caribbean was all but destroyed before a ransom was agreed and Drake left. Cartagena on the South American coast was Drake’s next objective – it was taken after fierce fighting, ransomed and pillaged. The English left as soon as they could - it was a disease-ridden place - and sailed for home with a detour to visit Raleigh’s colony on Roanoke Island.
The venture was not a commercial success; it was not meant to be; but neither was it a complete disaster despite the failure to capture the treasure fleet. It failed on one political point in that Spain was not brought to the bargaining table. It was however a moral victory – it showed that the English had the will and wherewithal to strike at the heart of the Spanish pride. And it consolidated Drake’s prestige as the foremost captain of the age. Drake’s next venture was to cap his career. He set sail in April 1587 – a fleet of 17 major ships and six pinnaces under orders to do all he could to frustrate the assembling of the ships that day by day were joining the fleet that would become the Spanish Armada. Less than three weeks later, on 19th July, off the Portuguese coast, he received intelligence that Cadiz harbour was full of ships – part of the Armada assemblage. Never one to under-estimate the element of surprise, he sailed straight for Cadiz and entered the outer harbour at 4 0’clock in the afternoon of the 29th July. He brushed off a number of galleys stationed there, and over the next 3 days laid waste to the mass of shipping in the port – destroying well over thirty major craft in total (about a quarter of the number that would sail in the Armada) and an unknown quantity of stores and equipment. The undertaking has come down to us in Drake’s words as “singeing the king of Spain’s beard”. He next headed for the Azores where he captured a Portuguese carrack carrying a thousand pounds of silver (approximately 4 million pounds sterling today.) This dent in the finances of the Spanish king, together with the damage in Cadiz, put back the Armada until the next sailing season.
Drake was made second-in-command of the English fleet preparing to meet the Armada. In charge was Charles Howard of Effingham, Elizabeth’s high-admiral since 1585. A competent and aggressive commander, he agreed with Drake that the English should make every effort to meet the Spaniards in their own ports – an attempt to repeat the success of Cadiz. Weather was against them, though and they were blown back to the waters at the head of the English Channel where the Armada arrived on 29 July. Fighting began two days later and was to continue until 6 July when the Spanish fleet dropped anchor off Calais. Harried ceaselessly by Drake and the rest of the English fleet, shepherded away from any opportunity to land on the English coast and bombarded constantly even as it lay at anchor in the Calais broads, it nevertheless remained intact. Their only losses were due to accidents on the first day of battle (from which Drake had benefited the following night when he took the stricken ships, the Rosario, as prize - he would ransom its captain for 3000 pounds.)
In Cadiz Bay the year before, the Spaniards had used fireships against the English. Drake had had no problem in the light airs of that day averting the danger by using his ships’ boats to push the flaming vessels to either side of his ships and letting them burn out across the harbour. The situation was different off the French coast with the wind and the currents pushing towards the shore and the Spanish ships, nearly 130 of them packed and at anchor – Drake had eight vessels packed with flammable materials and loaded canon that would fire when the flames reached their breaches. They were not set alight until they were about ten minutes out from the Spanish fleet. Panic ensued as the Spaniards cut their anchor-ropes and made out to sea whichever way they could
The Armada lost all cohesion and began to be picked off individually by the English. For the first time Drake gave the order to close in on the enemy to enable the English heavy guns to be used . The fracas was only halted by a storm. Then a wind change – from the southeast - began forcing the Spaniards to the north. Drake ordered that a flotilla be left at the Straits of Dover to guard against any invasion from France and he and his fellow captains began harrying and shepherding the fragmented Armada ever more into the North Sea.
Drake did well out of the Armada. His share of the prize money for the Rosario alone enabled him to buy the lease of a fine house in London. He however, as well as others, was not satisfied with the damage inflicted on the Spaniards. While superior English seamanship and gunnery had kept the enemy from gaining its goal he felt more could have been done, even by himself. He even wrote to the Queen implying this. And he and other senior captains admitted surprise at the Spanish determination and courage. Drake gained permission to plan and mount a counter-attack.
A private stock company was created with Elizabeth the major shareholder. Drake and Sir John Norreys, a distinguished and successful soldier, were to lead a major expedition, the main aim of which was the capture of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal which, since 1580, had been under the Crown of Spain. It was thought that the Portuguese, many of whom hated Spain, would assist them once they arrived, but the prince the English wanted to install on the Portuguese throne was extremely unpopular so they found themselves on their own. They failed to take Lisbon, weather forced them to abandon raids further south and sickness was rife in the fleet. The adventure was a financial success, mainly because of the amount of shipping captured, but, at least by Drake’s standards, not so much as to weigh against the heavy loss of life and the failure to carry out their stated objectives.
For the next few years, while others were earning themselves glory (and keeping the Queen’s finances afloat – a major component of England’s imports during these years consisted of booty from Spanish shipping and ports.) Drake stayed at home or in London and did his civic duty. He spoke often in Parliament, he organised and partly financed major improvements to Plymouth’s water supply and saw to the strengthening of the town’s defences. During those same years Spain was learning from the debacle of the Armada. It designed better ships. It organised swifter communications between Iberia and the Caribbean. It reinforced the defences of its American ports. So, that when Francis Drake and John Hawkins started pestering the Queen in 1594 to let them loose on Spanish possessions in the Caribbean they were unaware of what awaited them.
Two squadrons – a total of 27 ships – sailed from Plymouth for the West Indies in August 1595. The venture was ill-favoured from the start; a water-party was ambushed by locals in the Canaries and news of the fleet was rushed to the Indies. They lost one of their ships to the Spaniards off Guadeloupe. A major blow was the death of Sir John Hawkins off Puerto Rico. The town of San Juan in Puerto Rico was well prepared for their arrival and able to resist them. The weather turned against them, slowing their progress towards the Isthmus of Panama and dysentery had started to sweep the fleet. The attack on Panama was a disaster, capped shortly after by the death from dysentery of Drake himself on 27 January 1596.
Drake was perhaps the greatest of the Elizabethan “sea-dogs” and the years have only increased his legendary status. He was certainly a superb leader of men, fearless in battle, a fine tactician and capable of confounding the enemy by the very daring of his actions. He was not as assured as a strategist however, and while loved by his men (and the yeoman folk of England) he could be disloyal to his fellow captains and was known to let greed get in the way of common purpose. The belief that “Drake defeated the Armada “ is completely wrong; as is the belief he introduced the potato to England.
Lore has it that at the times of need Drake will return to confound the enemy if the drum that accompanied his circumnavigation and now resides in Buckland Abbey, the ex-monastery he bought on his return to Devon, is beaten. The last reports of it being heard were during the Dunkirk operation in 1940. The legend was put into poetry by Sir Henry Newbolt, and later set to music by Charles Villiers Stanford. 
- Drake he's in his hammock an' a thousand mile away,
- (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?)
- Slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
- An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe.
- Yarnder lumes the island, yarnder lie the ships, 5
- Wi' sailor lads a-dancin' heel-an'-toe,
- An' the shore-lights flashin', an' the night-tide dashin'
- He sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.
- Drake he was a Devon man, an' ruled the Devon seas,
- (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?), 10
- Rovin' tho' his death fell, he went wi' heart at ease,
- An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe,
- "Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
- Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
- If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven, 15
- An' drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago."
- Drake he's in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
- (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?),
- Slung atween the round shot, listenin' for the drum,
- An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe. 20
- Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
- Call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
- They shall find him, ware an' wakin', as they found him long ago.