Sir Francis Drake

views updated May 29 2018

Sir Francis Drake

The English navigator Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1541-1596) was the first of his countrymen to circumnavigate the globe. His daring exploits at sea helped to establish England's naval supremacy over Spain and other European nations.

Francis Drake, the eldest son of a yeoman farmer, was born near Tavistock, Devonshire. His father later became a Calvinist lay preacher and raised his children as staunch Protestants. Young Drake received some education; he learned the rudiments of navigation and seaman-ship early and did some sailing near his home. The Drakes were related to the Hawkins family of Plymouth, well-to-do seamen and shipowners. The Hawkins connection got Drake a place on a 1566 slave-trading expedition to the Cape Verde Islands and the Spanish Main.

First Command

In 1567 John Hawkins made Drake an officer in a larger slave-trading expedition. Drake ultimately received command of one of Hawkins's ships, the Judith, and accompanied his relative to Africa, Rio de la Hacha, and Santa Marta, where Hawkins disposed of the slaves. The English were caught, however, in the harbor of San Juan de Ulúa by a Spanish fleet that opened fire without warning and destroyed most of their ships. Only Drake's Judith and Hawkins's small vessel escaped to England. Embittered by this, Drake resolved to devote his life to war against Spain.

Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain were not at war then, but grievances were steadily mounting. The Queen declined to offend Philip and would not allow Hawkins to go to sea again immediately, but she had no objections to a voyage by the obscure Drake. In 1569 Drake had married Mary Newman of Plymouth, but finding domesticity dull, he departed in 1570 for the Spanish Main with a small crew aboard the 25-ton Susan. He hoped to learn how the Spaniards arranged for shipping Peruvian treasure home, and he felt that the ports of Panama City and Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama were the key. His 1570 voyage was largely one of reconnaissance during which he made friends with the Cimaroons, who were escaped slaves dwelling out of Spanish reach on the Isthmus and stood ready to help him. During a 1571 expedition he captured Nombre de Dios with Cimaroon help but lost it immediately when, wounded, he had to be carried to safety. After depredations off Cartagena, he intercepted a Spanish gold train near Nombre de Dios and returned to England with the bounty.

His arrival embarrassed the Queen, who still hoped for peace with Spain, and Drake evidently received a broad hint to leave the country temporarily. He is known to have served in Ireland with the Earl of Essex, who was trying to crush a rebellion in Ulster. By 1576 relations with Spain had worsened, and Drake returned to England, where a new expedition was being planned in which Elizabeth had a financial share. Drake's main instructions were to sail through the Strait of Magellan and probe for the shores of Terra Australis Incognita, the great southern continent that many thought began with Tierra del Fuego. Drake received five ships, the largest being the Pelican (later named the Golden Hind), and a crew of about 160.

Adventures on the Golden Hind

The fleet left Plymouth in December 1577 for the southern Atlantic, stopping at Port San Julián for the Southern Hemisphere winter. Ferdinand Magellan had once crushed a mutiny there, and Drake did the same. He tried and executed Thomas Doughty, an aristocratic member of the expedition, who had intrigued against him in an attempt to foment a rebellion.

When Drake passed through the strait and entered the Pacific, only the Golden Hind remained; the other ships had been lost or had parted company. Contrary winds forced him southward, and he perhaps sighted Cape Horn; in any event, he realized that the two oceans came together and that Terra Australis would not be found there. He traveled along the coasts of Chile and Peru, capturing and destroying Spanish ships but sparing Spanish lives.

Between Callao and Panama Drake took an unarmed treasure ship, bearing gold, emeralds, and all the silver the Golden Hind could carry. Knowing that Spaniards would try to waylay him in the strait, Drake bypassed Panama and, near Guatalco, Nicaragua, captured charts and directions to guide him across the Pacific. Perhaps seeking the Strait of Anian, he sailed nearly 48 degrees north, and then descended to a point at or near Drake's Bay, in California, where he made friends with the Indians and overhauled the ship. He left a brass plate naming the country Nova Albion and claiming it for Elizabeth. (In 1936 a plate fitting the description was found near Drake's Bay.)

Drake then crossed the Pacific to the Moluccas and near there almost came to grief when the ship struck a reef. Skilled handling freed it, and his circumnavigation of the globe continued via the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. Drake arrived in Plymouth in 1580, acclaimed by the public and his monarch. In April 1581 he was knighted on the deck of the Golden Hind.

Drake did not immediately go to sea again and in 1581 became mayor of Plymouth. After his wife died, he married a young aristocrat, Elizabeth Sydenham. Drake, now a wealthy man, made the bride a substantial settlement. He had no children by either wife.

Expedition against Spain

By 1585 Elizabeth, after new provocations by Philip, felt ready to unleash Drake again. A large fleet was outfitted, including two of her own vessels. Drake, aboard his command ship, the Elizabeth Bonaventure, had instructions to release English vessels impounded by Philip, though Elizabeth certainly knew he would exceed orders.

Drake fulfilled the Queen's expectations. He sacked Vigo in Spanish Galicia and then sailed to Santo Domingo and Cartagena, capturing and holding both for ransom. He would have tried to cross the Isthmus and take Panama, a project he had cherished for years, but an epidemic so reduced his crews that he abandoned the idea. On the way to England he destroyed the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine, in Florida, and farther north, took home the last remaining settlers at Sir Walter Raleigh's unfortunate North Carolina colony.

The expedition, which reached Portsmouth in July 1586, had acquired little treasure but had inflicted great physical and moral damage on Spain, enormously raising English prestige in the bargain. Formal war was now inevitable, and Philip started plans to invade England. In February 1587 the Queen beheaded Mary of Scotland who had been connected with plots to dethrone or murder Elizabeth, to the outrage of Catholic Europe and many English Catholics. Philip began assembling his Armada in Portugal, which had been in his possession since 1580.

Spanish Armada

Elizabeth appointed Lord Charles Howard of Effingham commander of her fleet and gave Drake, Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher immediately subordinate posts. Drake advocated a strong preventive blow at Philip's unprepared Armada and received permission to strike. In April 1587 he recklessly sailed into Cadiz and destroyed or captured 37 enemy ships. He then occupied the Portuguese town of Sagres for a time and finally, in the Azores, seized a large Portuguese carrack bound homeward from Goa with a rich cargo.

The Cadiz raid damaged but did not cripple the Armada, which, under Alonso de Guzmán, Duke of Medina Sidonia, sailed in May 1588. It was alleged that Lord Howard was a figurehead and that the "sea dogs" Drake, Hawkins, and Frobisher won the victory in the July encounters. Recent evidence refutes this and shows Howard to have been in effective command. Drake took a conspicuous part in the channel fighting and captured a galleon, but he does not seem to have distinguished himself above other English commanders.

The Armada was defeated, and Drake's career thereafter proved anticlimactic. He met with his first formidable defeat in 1589, when he commanded the naval expedition sent to take Lisbon. He seemed to have lost some of his old daring, and his cautious refusal to ascend the Tagus River for a naval bombardment partly accounted for the failure. Drake did not go to sea again for 5 years. He concerned himself mainly with Plymouth matters. He sat in Parliament, but nothing of note marked his presence there.

Final Voyage

In 1595 Elizabeth thought she saw a chance of ending the war victoriously by cutting off the Spanish treasure supply from the Isthmus of Panama. For this she selected Hawkins, then 63, and Drake, in his 50s. The cautious Hawkins and the impetuous Drake could never work well together, and the Queen further complicated the situation by giving them equal authority; in effect, each commanded his own fleet. The Queen's order that they must be back in 6 months scarcely allowed time to capture Panama, and when they learned of a crippled Spanish treasure ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico, they decided to go there. Through Drake's insistence on first going to the Canary Islands, their destination was revealed, and the Spaniards sent word ahead to Puerto Rico. Hawkins died as they reached the island, leaving Drake in sole command. The Spaniards had strengthened their San Juan defenses, and Drake failed to capture the city.

Ignoring the Queen's 6-month time limit, the aging Drake, still trying to repeat his earlier successes, made for the Isthmus to capture Nombre de Dios and then Panama. He easily took the former, not knowing that it had been superseded by Puerto Bello as the Caribbean terminus of the Plate fleets. His landing party, which soon realized it was following a path long out of use, was ambushed by Spaniards and forced to retreat.

Drake knew the expedition was a failure; he cruised aimlessly to Honduras and back and then fell ill of fever and dysentery. He died off Puerto Bello on Jan. 28, 1596, and was buried at sea. Sir Thomas Baskerville, second in command, took the expedition home to England.

Further Reading

The most complete account of Drake's circumnavigation is provided by his nephew, Sir Francis Drake, in The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, published by the Hakluyt Society (1854). Primary material can be found in John Barrow, Life, Voyages, and Exploits of Sir Francis Drake, with Numerous Original Letters (1844). Julian S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy (2 vols., 1898; rev. ed. 1899), can be supplemented with more recent studies such as James A. Williamson, Age of Drake (1938; 4th ed. 1960) and Sir Francis Drake (1966), and Kenneth R. Andrews, Drake's Voyages: A Reassessment of Their Place in Elizabethan Maritime Expansion (1967). For general background see J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963). □

Drake, Sir Francis (1543-1596)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Sir Francis Drake (1543-1596)

English admiral


An English Hero. Sir Francis Drake was the most renowned and successful English privateer of the late sixteenth century. His raids on Spanish settlements and shipping in the New World made him a hero to his countrymen, a man of great wealth, and a thorn in Philip IIs side. Most important, his success inspired thousands of British merchants and gentlemen to organize privateering expeditions in the Caribbean as a way both to earn profits and to undercut Spanish power.

A Born Sea Dog. Drakes life at sea began at the age of thirteen when he became a pilot in the North Sea coastal trade. Around the age of twenty he joined his powerful and wealthy cousin, Sir John Hawkins, in the semi-illicit Spanish Caribbean trade. Harsh, heavy-handed treatment at the hands of Spanish officials during his first voyage to the New World (1566) inflamed Drakes already virulent hatred of Catholic Spain. Spanish actions further enraged Drake during his second voyage (1567) when forces under the command of Viceroy Martín Enríquez attacked a five-ship squadron commanded by Hawkins at San Juan de Ulúa. Only the ships commanded by Hawkins and Drake survived the battle.

Fortune and Reputation. Personal, patriotic, and religious motives led Drake to raid Spains New World possessions three times between 1570 and 1572. The first two expeditions proved unsuccessful, but the third ended with the capture of the annual Peruvian silver caravan at Nombre de Dios in Panama. In 1577 Drake embarked with a small flotilla on an exploratory and predatory voyage up the western side of the Americas. After raiding Spanish shipping and settlements along the South American coast and claiming present-day California for Britain he returned to Plymouth via the Cape of Good Hope, thus becoming the first English captain to circumnavigate the globe. Along with the Nombre de Dios raid, this trip secured Drakes fortune and reputation. More important, the two expeditions inspired hundreds of English merchants and gentlemen to take up privateering along the Spanish Main.

War with Spain. Drake played a pivotal part in the early phase of the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604). Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1585, Queen Elizabeth I sent a twenty-three-ship fleet under Drakes command to attack Spanish vessels and colonies in the New World. The yearlong raid was spectacularly effective: Drake sacked Cartagena, Santo Domingo, and St. Augustine and swept the Caribbean of Spanish shipping. In 1587, he led a crushing naval attack on the Spanish port of Cadiz that sank twenty ships and delayed the sailing of the Armada by a year. When the Armada put to sea in 1588, his leadership and daring proved critical in its defeat.

Later Career. Drakes fortunes declined rapidly beginning in 1589. That year he led a 150-ship attack on Lisbon that failed as spectacularly as the raid on Cadiz had succeeded. He consequently lost favor with Elizabeth and was forced into semiretirement. In 1595 he returned to service for a joint raid with Hawkins on Spains New World possessions. Despite high expectations, the cruise failed to match the success of Drakes earlier Caribbean sweeps because the Spanish had greatly improved their defenses and because Drake and Hawkins clashed over the expeditions objectives. The raid proved to be Drakes last. He died of dysentery on 28 January 1596 and was buried at sea off the coast of Panama.


Kenneth R. Andrews, The Spanish Caribbean: Trade and Plunder, 15301630 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978);

Karen Ordhal Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman&Allandheld, 1984);

James A. Williamson, Sir Francis Drake (New York: Colliers Books, 1962);

J. Leitch Wright Jr., Anglo-Spanish Rivalry in North America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971).

Drake, Sir Francis

views updated May 14 2018

Drake, Sir Francis

Sir Francis Drake was among the more daring and famous of all the great Elizabethan seafarers. Born into a prosperous family in Devonshire, England, around 1540, Drake's life as a sailor stemmed from his family connections with William Hawkins, a Plymouth merchant who had experience of piracy against the French and Spanish, and who put Drake to sea together with his own sons. By the early 1560s Drake had joined his cousin, John Hawkins (1532–1595), to undertake slaving voyages to Africa and then to the Americas. In 1568 he was part of an English fleet that was virtually destroyed by the Spanish in the Caribbean and his anger at what he perceived to be Spanish treachery initiated a life-long struggle with Spanish interests. However, there is no evidence that Drake was driven by religious zeal, even though his father was a cleric; hope of enrichment by trade and piracy were always the main motives for Drake's activities. As an experienced seaman Drake was given a privateer's license by Queen Elizabeth (1533–1603) to plunder Spanish treasure ships returning to Europe from the Caribbean. He quickly gained a reputation as the scourge of the Spanish and Portuguese by attacking their vessels and ports as he saw fit. Between 1572 and 1573 Drake traversed Spanish Panama from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean with the help of local runaway slaves (cimarrons) who guided and supported his expedition out of resentment toward the Spanish. Drake subsequently captured the Spanish silver train at Nombre de Dios in March 1573 and returned to England with a ship full of treasure.

Drake's most famous exploit was his circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580. Initially traveling with five ships, only one, the Pelican, was left as Drake entered the Pacific Ocean in October 1578. Rather than heading west into the Pacific, Drake sailed north up the coast of South America attacking Spanish settlements in Peru and capturing treasure ships, eventually reaching as far north as California (or "Nova Albion" as he named it). Only now did Drake head west, eventually reaching the East Indies where he loaded up with valuable spices. His return to England in 1580, with a wealth of treasure and spices on board the renamed Golden Hind, caused a sensation and earned Drake a knighthood. Drake continued to hamper Spanish ambitions in the Atlantic throughout the 1580s. In 1585 he burned down the town of Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, and a year later captured San Domingo in Hispaniola. On his way back from the Caribbean in 1586 he stopped at Roanoke Island, the new English colony in North Carolina, but instead of finding a prosperous settlement he ended up taking the half-starved settlers back to England. In 1587 he "singed the King of Spain's beard" with a daring attack at Cadiz, and played a crucial part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, including capturing the Spanish flagship Rosario. He remained active in the Atlantic until his death from dysentery off the coast of Panama in 1596.

Drake's exploits significantly raised the profile of the English in the Atlantic basin, demonstrating to the Spanish that their monopoly could be broken and to the English that both financial and imperial gains were possible in the Americas. The contribution his voyages made to the English treasury ultimately helped to finance Elizabethan imperial expansion.

see also Dee, John; Empire, British; European Explorations in North America.


Kelsey, Harry. Sir Francis Drake, the Queen's Pirate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Wilson, Derek. The World Encompassed: Drake's Great Voyage, 1577–80. London: Hamilton, 1977.

Drake, Sir Francis

views updated May 17 2018

Drake, Sir Francis (c.1543–96). In legend and perhaps in reality, Drake was the greatest of the Elizabethan ‘sea-dogs’. A skilled seaman and naval tactician, an inspiring leader of men, he was, nevertheless, capable of greed, disloyalty, injustice towards associates, and poor judgement as a naval strategist. His career was a key part of the process by which England emerged as an oceanic power. Though of yeoman stock, Drake became closely associated with a predatory and aggressive ruling aristocracy ready to sanction piracy and privateering against the French, Portuguese, and above all, the Spanish. The contests with the latter also had a religious edge as Drake was a determined protestant. Yet the Spaniards who knew El Draque admired him.

Originally from Devon, Drake learned seamanship apprenticed on a coastal bark plying from the Thames, but in the 1560s joined a kinsman, Hawkins, on ventures to Spain and then to west Africa and the Caribbean, procuring and selling slaves in the face of Portuguese and Spanish hostility. By 1569, Drake was in command of a ship. Details of his life are obscure, but he made at least three piratical expeditions to the Caribbean, with that in 1572 capturing 30 tons of silver, part of the Spanish treasure annually brought across the Isthmus of Panama. After an Irish venture, in 1577 Drake embarked on a circumnavigation of the globe financed by the queen and other great people. This was at once further plundering of the Spanish—now on the western coast of the Americas—a search for the Pacific end of the North-West Passage, and an attempt to reach the spice islands by going west. Drake's expedition was the second to circuit the globe and also led to his claiming California for Elizabeth. Just where Drake landed in California and whether a plaque which came to notice in 1937 was actually the one he left there in 1579 remain in dispute. On the return of the 70-foot-long Golden Hind in 1580, Drake, rich and famous, was knighted, while England, it has been said, began to think globally.

There followed further raids on Spain and, most notably, assaults on key Spanish positions around the Caribbean in 1585–6 and Cadiz in 1587. These actions, combined with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 with Drake second in command, ended Spain's unquestioned supremacy at sea, though they did not break Spain's naval power. Nor was Drake's role in the defeat of the Armada the key one.

In 1589, Drake led an expedition against Lisbon before settling to active involvement in the life of Plymouth, including becoming its MP. He was encouraged to resume a privateering career in 1595 since Elizabeth's policy favoured predation on Spain as a means of increasing England's stake in world trade. But the attacks in the West Indies failed and Drake died at sea. This disaster was soon forgotten as the legend was elaborated in subsequent years and centuries.

Roy C. Bridges

Drake, Sir Francis

views updated May 21 2018

Drake, Sir Francis (c.1540–96) English mariner. In 1577–80, he circumnavigated the world in the Golden Hind, looting Spanish ships and settlements in the Pacific, and claiming California for England. Elizabeth I knighted Drake on his return. In 1587, his famous raid on Cádiz postponed the Spanish Armada, which he helped to defeat in 1588. He died during a raid on the Spanish colonies.

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