Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake, c. –.
Sir Francis Drake, c. 15401596.

Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540January 28, 1596) was an English privateer, navigator, naval pioneer, pirate, politician, and civil engineer of the Elizabethan period. He was the first Englishman (and the first of any nationality not on a Spanish ship) to circumnavigate the globe, from 1577 to 1580 and was knighted on his return by Queen Elizabeth I. He was second in command of the English fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.


Birth and early years

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, the son of Edmund Drake and his wife, Protestant farmers. (Edmund Drake later became a preacher). His maternal grandfather was Richard Mylwaye. He was reportedly named after his godfather Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. 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 is taken from a portrait painted quite late in his life. Francis was the eldest or second eldest of twelve children.

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 bark, becoming master of the ship at the age of twenty. He spent his early career honing his sailing skills on the difficult waters of the North Sea, and eventually, after the death of the captain for whom he was sailing, becoming the master of his own bark. At age 23 Drake took his first voyages 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.

First adventures

Around 1563 Drake first sailed west to the Spanish Main, drawn by the immense wealth accruing from Spain's monopoly on New World silver. Drake took an immediate dislike to the Spanish, at least in part due to his mistrust of non-Spaniards and their Catholicism. His hostility is said to have been increased by the incident at San Juan de Ulloa in 1568, when Spanish forces executed a surprise attack in violation of a truce agreed to a few days before, nearly costing Drake his life. From then on, he devoted the rest of his life to working against the Spanish Empire; the Spanish considered him an outlaw pirate, but to England he was simply a sailor and privateer. On his second such voyage he fought a costly battle against Spanish forces, which claimed many English lives but earned Drake 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 of 1573. With a crew including many French privateers and Cimaroons (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 became the first English man to see the Pacific Ocean. He achieved this by climbing a high tree in the central mountains of the isthmus of Panama. When Drake returned to Plymouth on August 9, 1573, a mere thirty Englishmen returned with him, but each survivor was 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. Such intrigues were typical during Drake's era.

Circumnavigation of the globe

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. During the course of the voyage, Drake discovered that Tierra del Fuego, the land seen to the south of the Magellan Strait, was not part of a southern continent as had been believed previously, but an archipelago, or group of islands.

The three remaining ships departed for the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of the continent. This course established Drakes Passage but the route around the bottom of South America, south of Tierra del Fuego where the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans met at Cape Horn was not discovered until 1616.

A few weeks later they made it into the Pacific, however, violent storms destroyed one of the ships and caused another to turn back to England. Drake pushed on in his flagship, now renamed the Golden Hind in honour of Sir Christopher Hatton (after his coat of arms).

The final ship sailed northward along the Pacific coast of South America, attacking Spanish ports like Valpara� as it went. He also captured Spanish ships on the journey north, making good use of their more accurate charts. On his search for the Northwest Passage Drake may have made it as far as today's US-Canadian border. Unable to find the fabled "North-West" passage back to the Atlantic he turned and headed southward.

On June 17, 1579, Drake landed somewhere above Spain's most northerly claim at Point Loma. Drake found an excellent port, landed, repaired and restocked his vessels, then stayed for a time and kept friendly relations with the aboriginal natives. Drake named the port New Albion (New England) and claimed it for England. It is usually assumed that Drake's port was somewhere near the northern San Francisco Bay — anywhere from Bodega to San Pablo Bay. A bronze plaque inscribed with Drake's claim to the new lands, fitting a description in Drake's own account, was discovered in Marin County. The so-called Drake's Plate of Brass was later declared a fraud. Although Drake's port has also been theorized to have been at Whale Cove (Oregon), and as far north as Comox, British Columbia, no one knows exactly where Drake's port was. Drake's brother endured a long period of torture in South America at the hands of Spaniards who sought intelligence from him about Drake's voyage. The precise location of Drake's port was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spaniards, and several of Drake's maps may have been altered to this end. It is unlikely that the riddle of Drake's port will ever be unraveled, for the relevant records burned in Whitehall Palace in London.

It is said that Drake left behind many of his men as a small colony, but planned voyages back to the colony were never realized. The land Drake claimed in the name of the Holy Trinity for the English Crown was Nova Albion — that is in Latin, "New England." After leaving the port, Drake and his men sailed north in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. His account of the voyage describes icy waters, but historians do not all agree as to how far north he reached.

Drake's voyage to the west coast of North America is important for a number of reasons. When Drake landed, his caeser and right and our bounden duty so to do." This was one of the first Protestant church services in all the New World. (French Huguenots had founded an ill-fated colony in Florida in the 1560s.) This was seen as a chink in the armor of the feared Papal world order.

What is certain of the extent of Drake's claim and territorial challenge to Papacy and the Spanish crown is that his port was founded somewhere north of Point Loma; that all contemporary maps label all lands above the Kingdoms of New Spain and New Mexico "Nova Albion," and that all colonial claims made from the East Coast in the 1600s were "From Sea to Sea." The colonial claims were established with full knowledge of Drake's claims, which they reinforced, and remained valid 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 would later become important during the negotiations that ended the Mexican-American War between the United States and Mexico.

When Drake set sail, they headed westward across the Pacific, and a few months later reached the Moluccas, a group of islands in the southwest pacific (east of today's Indonesia).

He made multiple stops on his way towards the tip of Africa, eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived in England in September of 1580. He brought with him a rich cargo of spices and captured Spanish treasures, and was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the Earth. Later, Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard the Golden Hind, and became the Mayor of Plymouth and a Member of Parliament.

The cargo of spices and captured Spanish treasure demonstrated the wealth and vulnerability of the Spanish empire. The Queen was entitled to a half share of the cargo and that share's value was more than the crown’s income for a whole year.

The Queen ordered all written accounts of Drake's voyage considered top secret, 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

Missing image
Statue of Drake on Plymouth Hoe

War broke out between Spain and England in 1585. Drake sailed to the new world and sacked the ports of Santo Domingo and Cartegena. On the return leg of the voyage he captured the Spanish fort of San Agust�in Florida. These exploits encouraged King 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, occupying the town for three days, destroying 31 enemy ships as well as a large quantity of stores and capturing 6 ships. This attack delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.

Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet (under Lord Howard of Effingham) when they overcame the Spanish Armada that was attempting to invade England in 1588. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the Channel, Drake captured the Spanish galleon Rosario along with Admiral Pedro de Vales and all his crew, but causing confusion in the English fleet in the process. The Spanish ship was known to be carrying substantial funds to pay the Spanish Army in the Low countries. Drake's responsibilities including carrying a stern lantern intended as a guiding light at night for other English vessels in the armada. This exemplified of Drakes' ability as a privateer to suspend strategic purpose if a tactical profit was on offer.

On the night of 29 July, along with Howard, Drake organised the fire-ships which caused 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's life tells 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.

Final years

Drake's seafaring career continued into his mid fifties. In 1595, following a disastrous campaign against the Spanish America, in which 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 after a new defeat while again attacking San Juan, where some Spanish treasure ships had sought shelter. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin with his crew burning the unprotected city of Puerto Bello in his honour.

Drake in popular culture

There is a popular legend which recounts that if England is ever in peril, if Sir Francis Drake's drum is beaten, he will return to save the country.

Drake's exploits were extolled by the patriotic Victorian poet Sir Henry Newbolt in the poem Drake's Drum. A similarly named poem was also written by the late Victorian poetess Norah M. Holland.

During his circumnavigation of the globe, Drake posted a plate upon leaving Drake's Bay, claiming the land for England. In the 1930s, it appeared that Drake's plate had been found. Forty years later, scientists confirmed that the plate was a remarkably successful hoax.

There is a high school named for Drake in San Anselmo, California.

One of the four houses of British public school Churcher's College is named for Drake.

Obviously, on the other side, the Spaniards regard Drake as a cruel and bloodthirsty pirate who used to sack defenseless Spanish harbors.


  • "The Safeguard of the Sea; A Naval History of Britain 660-1649", by N.A.M. Rodger, (London, 1997).
  • "The defeat of the Spanish Armada", Garett Mattingly, (1959), Pulitzer Prize winner in 1960 – a fascinating account of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
  • "The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580", by R. Samuel Bawlf, (Douglas & McIntyre, 2003)

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