Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake, was an English privateer, navigator, politician and his most famous and well-known achievement was being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. He was also second in command of the English fleet assembled to fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Though he was a famous privateer, there was historical evidence to point that Sir Francis Drake was also involved in the slave trade during his early years in seafaring career.
Sir Francis Drake was born in either June or March 1540 in a small market town called Tavistock, located in West Devon, England. He was the eldest son among 11 other siblings born to Mary Mylwaye and her husband, Edmund Drake (1518–1585), a Protestant farmer turned preacher. He was often mistaken and confused with one of his nephew, John Drake (1573–1634), the son of Edmund’s elder brother, Richard Drake.
Francis Drake was named after his godfather Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, and along the family lines, there were actually lineage and direct connections between them and the royal family who included famous personages, such as Sir Richard Grenville, Amy Grenville, Ivor Callely and Geoffrey Chaucer. Though, Sir Francis, was born in a family with humble and noble beginning, he made no pretense to cover up the truth, and in fact stated that he was proud to be part of it.
Similar, like other historical figures in his time, his exact birth date cannot be accurately determined but there are sources, which indicate that the date could be as early as 1535. The 1540 mentioned earlier is actually extrapolated based on sources obtained from different two paintings. The first one by Nicholas Hilliard was with a painting done in 1581 when Sir Francis Drake was allegedly 42, which means his birth date should be somewhere around 1539. Another piece of painting completed in 1594 was said to be painted during his age of 53, which puts the birth date as 1541 instead.
During the Prayer Book Rebellion, which started in 1549, the whole family was forced to evacuate to Kent in order to escape the violence that soon erupted. Before Sir Francis Drake reach the age of thirteen years old, he was already participating and developing his seafaring career serving as an apprentice on board a bark trading ship sailing between the Thames River and the cross-Channel ports. Soon, at 20 years of age, he became the owner of the ship after the death of its previous captain, who handed and passed along the captaincy of the ship to him. By 23, he returned to Devon and together with his relative, Sir John Hawkins, who owned a fleet of ships, sailed across the sea venturing into the New World.
In 1569, the fleet was attacked by the Spaniards and it happened along the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua. Though defeated, he managed to escape the ordeal together with Hawkins and vowed revenge to make the Spaniards pay for what they did to him.
In 1577, Queen Elisabeth I of England entrusted the task to Sir Francis Drake to begin an exploration conquering new lands along the pacific coast of the Americas before the Spaniards does. He set out his ship from Plymouth harbor on 15 November 1577, but due to bad weather that wrecked his fleet, he had no choice but to take refuge in Falmouth, Cornwall before returning back again to Falmouth for repair. Despite the setback, Sir Francis Drake was determined to set sail again and on the 13th of December, he left Plymouth, this time onboard the Pelican along with five other ships manned by 164 crewmen. Soon after that, he added the sixth ship, Mary (formerly Santa Maria) which was originally belonged to the Spaniards and captured off the coast of Africa. He also made a wise move selecting Nuno de Silva as a captain and he was known to be an experienced navigator familiar with the waters off South America.
The expedition did not go as smoothly as planned, as Sir Francis Drake’s fleet suffered great attrition in which he ordered that both Christopher and the flyboat Swan be destroyed as the number of crew needed to man both ships became less. Another ship, Mary, was later order to be burned when he found that the ship was badly damaged and rotten. After the trial and execution involving Thomas Doughty, Sir Francis Drake decided to stay put and remain in San Julian during the winter before making an attempt to sail across the Strait of Magellan.
With only three remaining ships under his command, all of them set sail for the Strait of Magellan located at the southern tip of South America. Sometime around September 1578, Sir Francis Drake managed to reach the Pacific but due to violent storms, that has caused one of the remaining 3 ships to be destroyed and another one being forced to return to England and left only the Pelican continuing the journey. Pelican sailed further south and though Sir Francis Drake believed he had reached Cape Horn or the eponymous Drake Passage, the descriptions stated by him seem to suggest otherwise. First, according to astronomical data as quoted in Hakluyt’s “The Principall Navigators” of 1589, just like navigators before him, probably he had reached latitude of 55°S right along the Chilean coast and not Cape Horn. Second, based on crew members’ account, they also denied having seen an open sea, which further supported the argument. Even though Sir Francis Drake claimed that he has found an open channel south of Tierra del Fuego, this was only done after 1618 publication of the voyage of Willem Schouten and Jacob le Maire around Cape Horn in 1616.
He renamed the Pelican to Golden Hinde, as a tribute to Sir Christopher Hatton (after his coat of arms) and with his lone flagship, sailed north along the Pacific coast of South America. During the journey, the single ship managed to attack and plunder Spanish ports and towns, and also successful captured several Spanish ships. Using the charts seized from the Spaniards, he was able to obtain a more precise and accurate navigational data.
Before reaching the coast of Peru, Sir Francis Drake and his crew made a stop at Mocha Island but during the visit, he was seriously injured by Mapuches, an indigenous inhabitant living on the island. He later looted the port of Valparaíso further north in Chile.
Near Lima, Sir Francis Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold, which according to Spanish currency, the value was equivalent to almost 37,000 ducats. That was similar to current modern day standard that puts the value at 7 million pound. Drake also learned that there was also another Spanish Galleon, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, or nicknamed Cacafuego, which was loaded with treasure, and the ship would be sailing towards Manila. Drake gave chase and eventually caught up with it and what confiscated abroad was 36 kg of gold, 26 tons of silver, a golden crucifix, jewels and 13 chests full of royal plates. It proved to be Sir Francis Drake’s most famous prized capture. Apart from the treasures, it also revealed one thing, which exposed the participation of the Spanish in Far East trade, a concessionaire originally awarded by the Pope in Rome to the Portuguese. This was the reason that gave Philip II of Spain to invade Portugal in 1580 to claim the Portuguese crown.
On 17 June 1579, Sir Francis Drake landed his ship somewhere above Spain’s northern-most claim at Point Loma. He managed to find a good port whereby he used it to restock his vessel and then stayed there for some time, maintaining good relationship with the local natives. He named the port Nova Albion (New England) and claimed the land in the name of Holy Trinity for the English Crown. Other than that, it was said that Sir Francis Drake also left behind some of his men to establish a small colony but however, the planned returned voyages back to the colony never took place. This was backed up by evidence of reduced number of crew members that were with him in Moluccas.
The location of the port was kept secret and the information carefully guarded in order not to reveal to the Spaniards. In fact, some of his maps were also altered to protect the secret location and finally the riddle of Drake’s port was never discovered after the relevant records, which was kept at London’s Whitehall Palace were destroyed when the place was burned down. A bronze plaque inscribed with Drake’s claim to the new lands was later discovered in Marin County California, but however, it was declared as a fraud. Although there was another theory that suggests that Drake’s port, Nova Albion was in fact Whale Cove (Oregon), however there was not enough evidence to backup the claim other than a resemblance reflected in a map penned a decade after the landing.
Samuel Bawlf made an argument to claim that “Nova Albion” was established at Comox on Vancouver Island based on an undocumented “secret voyage” north. It was made known that Drake and his men sailed north from Nova Albion in search of a western opening to the Northwest Passage, a potentially valuable finding to the English because the route would cut down a lot of travelling time. During this exploration, his crew accurately mapped the westward trend of the north-western corner of the North American continent which was present-day British Columbia and Alaska. They had a rough voyage among the islands of the Alaskan panhandle but were forced to turn back due to the freezing weather.
Bawlf also made his claim saying that Sir Francis Drake’s ship reached as far as 56°N, farther than previously recorded. In fact, the reason why the records were falsified was because Queen Elizabeth wanted to keep any information on the Northwest Passage secret, so that she can protect her interest and avoid competition with the Spaniards. Until today, the actual location of Nova Albion and the highest latitude the expedition covered still remains a much-debated controversy.
This has even cause Drake’s brother to suffer a long period of torture in South America inflicted by the Spaniards, who were desperate to find out information related to Sir Francis Drake’s voyage.
In terms of historical value, Drake’s voyage to the West Coast of North America is important for several reasons. When Sir Francis Drake landed, his chaplain held Holy Communion, and it went down in history to become one of the first Protestant church services in all the New World (though French Huguenots had founded an ill-fated colony in Florida in the 1560s). Drake was also seen to be gaining the level of respect regarded to be honorable and in the expense of the Papacy.
However, to certain extent of the claim and territorial challenge made to the Papacy and the Spanish crown, was that the port was founded somewhere north of Point Loma. And this bears another meaning, that all contemporary maps label all lands above the Kingdoms of New Spain and New Mexico as “Nova Albion”, and that all colonial claims made from the East Coast in the 1600s were “From Sea to Sea.” The colonial claims on the land were also based on Drake’s reinforced claim, and later remained valid to be used as a guideline by the colonialists, even though after the colonies became free states. In fact, all maps would identify the entire northern frontier of New Spain to be written as “Nova Albion” and later part, these territorial claims were also used during as a basis for negotiations between the United States and Mexico that ended the Mexican-American War.
Sir Francis Drake’s journey continued westward across the Pacific, and few months later, reached the Moluccas, a group of islands in the southwest Pacific (east of today’s Indonesia). Drake befriended and earned the respect of sultan king of the Moluccas and was involved themselves in some secret or underhand scheme with the Portuguese there. During the journey, there were few incidents with one, Golden Hind became caught on a reef and was almost lost. After three days of waiting for change of tides and continued dumping of cargo, the ship managed to set free.
On his way to Africa, he made a few stops, crossed the Cape of Good Hope and reached Sierra Leone by 22 July 1580. On 26 September, Golden Hind, finally sailed back home to reach Plymouth with only 59 crewmen left remaining on aboard but they succeeded in bringing home with them tremendous amount of treasures, captured from the Spanish together with highly valued spice. In fact, half of the value of the cargo allocated to the Queen surpassed the rest of the crown’s income for that entire year. For his effort, Sir Francis Drake was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the Earth and was duly awarded a knighthood. However, there were conflicting views as it was believed that Sir Francis Drake was actually knighted by a French nobleman called Monsieur de Marchaumont and not by the Queen aboard Golden Hind as initially thought. Between 4 April 1581 and September 1581, Sir Francis was also made the Mayor of Plymouth. He was also made the Member of Parliament in 1581, for an unknown constituency, and again in 1584 for Bossiney.
In 1580 Drake purchased Buckland Abbey, a large manor near Yelverton in Devon, which was made his home for the next 15 years until his final voyage. The house remained within his family lasted for several generations and today, the building was earmarked as a national heritage with great significance of historical value with a number of his life mementos displayed there.
The Queen also ordered that all related written document covering Sir Francis Drake’s expedition to remain highly classified information, in order to protect the knowledge from prying eyes of rival Spain. Those who had knowledge and involved in keeping the documents were even made to sworn to silence on pain of death. In order to protect interest and avoid further conflict with Spain, Queen Elizabeth I handed the sword to the Marquis de Marchaumont, ambassador from France, and asked him to dub Drake as the knight. However, during the Victorian era, in the spirit of nationalism, the story was changed to reflect that the actual knighting was carried out by the Queen herself.
Upon his return from circumnavigation around the globe, Sir Francis Drake presented the Queen with a commemorative jewel, that symbolizes a token of his achievement and the piece of jewel was made of enameled gold taken from a prize off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The item also bores the shape of a ship with an ebony hull, and encrusted with an African diamond. For the Queen, she gave Drake a jewel with her portrait, an uncommon gift bestowed to a commoner. It became Sir Francis Drake’s prized belonging and he even proudly wore it, in his portrait painting done by Marcus Gheeraerts in 1591. The Drake Jewel as it is widely known today, contains a miniature of portrait of Queen Elisabeth I on one side and another side bearing the sardonyx cameo of double portrait busts, a regal woman and an African male. The jewel, survived the test of time remained until today, and it is kept at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
In 1585, when war broke out between Spain and England, Sir Francis Drake sailed to the New World and plundered the ports of Santo Domingo and Cartagena. On the return leg of the voyage, he captured the Spanish fort of San Augustín in Spanish Florida and these acts angered Philip II of Spain so much that he ordered the planning for an invasion of England.
In another preemptive strike, Drake “singed the beard of the King of Spain” by sailing a fleet into Cadiz and also La Coruña, both are Spain’s main ports, and occupying the harbor for days and in between destroyed as many as 31 enemy ships. This attack had caused the Spanish to delay their planned invasion of England by a year. The next month, Sir Francis Drake patrolled the Iberian Coasts between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent intercepting ships and the main aim was to destroy and cripple the Spanish supply lines. He estimated that during the raid, he managed to capture around 1600-1700 tons of barrel staves, enough to make 25,000 to 30,000 barrels (4,800 m3) for containing provisions.
During the war to thwart the Spanish Armada’s plan to invade England, Sir Francis Drake was appointed the position of vice admiral in the English Fleet, second in command under Lord Howard of Effingham. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the English Channel, Drake managed to capture the Spanish galleon Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdes and all his crew. However, in the process of doing that, it had caused confusion and disarray to the English fleet because his ship was tasked to lead the pursuit carrying a lantern intended as a guiding light and during the raid, the lantern had to extinguished for the capture. However, it was worth the effort because the Spanish ship was carrying substantial funds to pay the Spanish Army in the Low Countries. The achievement exemplified Drake’s ability both as a natural leader and a privateer.
On the night of 29 July, along with Howard, Drake organized fire-ships that eventually cause 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 achievement relates that, prior to the battle, he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. After being warned of the impending approach of the Spanish fleet, Drake never took it seriously and instead even make a remark saying that there was still plenty of time to finish the game and still beating the Spaniards. Although there wasn’t any eyewitnesses to verify the claim, retelling of the incident was only printed 37 years later. Adverse winds and strong currents had caused some delay in the launching of the English fleet but as the Spanish drew nearer, it was easy to conclude how a popular myth of Drake’s cavalier attitude to the Spanish threat may have come about.
In 1589, the year after defeating the Armada, Drake together with Sir John Norreys was given three tasks. The first was to help the rebels in their effort to liberate and overthrow King Philip II of Spain, second was to seek out and destroy remaining enemy ships, and third to take the Azores if possible. Drake and Norreys managed to destroy few ships in the harbor of La Coruña in Spain but in the process lost more than 12000 servicemen including 20 ships. The losses had put a dent of his future effort, and he was left with no choice but to forgo the task of hunting the rest of the surviving ships and instead head to Lisbon.
Sir Francis Drake’s seafaring career continued even though age is catching up. In 1595, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan, Puerto Rico and this was part of a series of disastrous campaign against Spanish America, where he suffered heavy defeats. He managed to escape the face of death when at one time, the Spanish gunners from El Morro Castle fired a shot of cannonball that penetrate through the cabin of Drake’s flagship, but he survived the ordeal. Finally, in 1596, Sir Francis Drake died of dysentery, at the age of 56 while anchoring his ship off the coast of Portobelo, Panama where some Spanish treasure ships had sought shelter. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin, near Portobelo.