My thoughts on Sir Francis Drake

July 29, 2016


Reflections on the circumnavigation of Sir Francis Drake:


Drake’s big voyage around the globe, more accidental than intentional was a milestone in English history. Not until then had any Englishman done anything quite like it. They had the wars and battles and heroes. Kings and queens, generals and chivalrous knights but at the time of his achievements nobody from England had done anything “noteworthy” on the world stage. Sure there were philosophers and scientists as well but that is not the kind of stuff that makes a nation stand up and take notice.


England was all but broke with Spain trying to push Catholicism back into favour and the Queen trying hard to assist the Dutch under the yolk of Spain and also trying to knock the Irish into shape. She was  a middle aged spinster without a direct heir to the throne. Pushed by one faction and pulled by another she was a master of doing nothing until it was absolutely essential. How She managed to let Drake slip out of the country on his madcap adventure is not known but the fact that she was one of his financial backers is.


Drake, was known to Spain as a trouble maker. After his narrow escape with John Hawkins during a corsair raid on the Spanish main he had vowed to get even with Philip of Spain and the Viceroy of the “Indies” who had broken a truce and slaughtered so many of Hawkins’ men. Spies in England kept a watch on him and his activities and he knew that he had to keep his plans to raid the Spanish in the new world a total secret. Yet when he did leave he was lumbered with spies of English factions working within the royal court. More of them later.


Drake’s fleet was small but for its time very efficient. He had only around one hundred and ninety four men, including his orchestra, body servant and Negro slave. His flagship was a double hulled timber vessel loaded with cannon, arquebuses, bows, arrows and slings. It was your proverbial floating fortress. Tough as an acorn and it floated just as well. Her consorts were smaller with only the Elizabeth actually rounding the Horn and then sailing back along it’s outward path home. The other ships were not much bigger than yachts but each had a vital part to play in the drama that was to unfold.


Drake kept the plans he had very close to his chest. Only perhaps two other people knew what his eventual goal was. English Sailors had never sailed where he intended to go. There were no charts and few maps and the sea was still full of untamed monsters. Surprisingly each ship survived horrendous storms and sustained virtually no hull damage and little spar damage. It is a sign that Drake had spent a lot of the time he had waiting for permission for his mission buying up ships, stocking them with spares and manning them with the best of Devon’s sailors. Apart from the “gentlemen” who were on board every man was a true sailor. Even the bandsmen were sailors. Doubt of course about his slave but even he had many sea crossings under his belt and could speak three or four languages so it would be a small matter for him to also be a sailor.


The first man Drake lost on his voyage was John Fry. Coming ashore on the coast of the African continent he was duped by local warlords who managed to capture poor Fry and ride off into the sunset with him as prisoner. No point in going after them as Drake’s party had no horses or camels to mount a pursuit. Fry it turns out was well treated by his captors and for answering all the questions asked of him, he was delivered to the Mediterranean and put on board and English ship. He was the first contact and news England had of there soon to be hero.


Drake was no slouch when it came to capturing his own prisoners and soon he had himself a Portuguese pilot called De Silva. This man was a true trans Atlantic pilot who was navigator for Spanish and Portuguese ships travelling to the new world. He was the man that Drake relied on to open the secrets of charts and rutters that he had gathered for his voyage.


A slight digression is due here. The position of the new world was a secret. The locations of the mines, ports and everything to do with distance, currents, tides and weather was in the hands of a small few. The charts, maps and pilots rutters were often copied and in code. Positions that were known were purposely varied so none but those in the know could follow. The kings of Spain and Portugal did not want every freebooter in every country turning up at their doorstep for a free dip in the lucky dip. They coveted huge tracts of land and ocean as well as trade rights and it was making them very rich. Why give it away?

Another problem was the calculation of longitude. It could be done and it could be done at sea but the calculations required were in the scope of budding Einstein’s, not the navigators of the day, no matter how good they were. Also, though it was well proved that the world was round. How round was it? Several mathematicians of note, even old Ptolmy had worked it out but they were out by a thousand miles or more.


So it was in to this abyss the Drake sailed with his stolen Portuguese pilot. He Captured ships and even went so far as to capture fisherman and their vessels if he thought it would be of use to him. Now it is a well known lore of the sea that fisherman are sacrocant, verbotten, out of bounds for pirates, freebooters, corsairs and buccaneers. Drake was one of the first Englishmen in this trade so a lot of the rules hadn’t been invented yet.  


Whenever he could, Drake would land and clean his boats. He would also top up his food supply at every opportunity. At the bottom of South America, Terra del Fuega, he discovered an island so crowded with flightless birds that he called geese (because that is what they tasted like) but the Welshman in his company called them in their own tongue white heads or Pen Gwuins. Thousands of these birds were slaughtered and salted down for the voyage. I have in my repertoire of recipes some very good recipes for penguin, both fairy and giant. Of course I can’t release them until it is decided that they are Kosher to eat.


Again Drake lost men to the local natives. Living on the edge of the stone age the inhabitants of this land, so far south that only recently had white man been able to survive here, the locals were quick to catch up with the wicked ways of the soon to be conquerors and filled them full of arrows at every opportunity.


Inside Magelan’s Straight, during a break in sailing and while waiting for favourable winds, Drake killed his best friend. This man was a courtier, linguist, astronomer, psychic and pretended to the crew to be a warlock in league with the devil or God, whichever he chose. It was Drake’s opinion that his friend was trying to undermine his authority and wrest control from him. In a kangaroo court he tried him and had him beheaded. Drake was some tough cookie as this was the first killing that had been done on purpose in this rollicking great adventure.


Still his captains and crew did not know his plans. Where were they headed and why? They headed out into the great Pacific, so named by Magellan. They found storm after storm which only receded to gales. At this stage he had cut his fleet to only three ships as he could not keep wasting time looking for laggards. His crew heard, during a particularly bad storm the cry of drowning crew from the little Magnolia. 24 men gone without a trace. Although neither Drake or any of his men actually saw the ship break up and sink it was almost certain that was what happened. Drake held out hope still for this ship and the accompanying Elizabeth, right up to the time he left the American coast somewhere near present San Francisco.


Raiding up and down the Peruvian coast was almost a comedy of errors for Admiral Drake. The Spaniards had no known enemy so they did not guard their ships all that well. They had little idea that a bold English corsair would find his way around the Horn with such an intense need to prove himself the master of the seas. Each town, village or port he came to, ships fell to his pirates. There was no need to board in the midst of powder an shot with blood curdling screams and brandished cutlasses. Just being able to sail up to his victim and fire off a few shots from the arquebus was at the time enough to send the men on guard scurrying away or allow themselves to be captured and put themselves at the mercy of “El Dracco”.


In one instance he was chased, by two ships, full of fighting men. They however were not keen to close with him as they were only armed with small arms, fowling pieces and the like. Drake on the other hand had cannon that could fire nine pound balls for long distances. In this competition he could conceivably stand off and batter his opposition to pieces. There is no account however of how well his men were practised in the use of the cannon.


By the time Drake found the Galleon bound for Lisbon he already had raided enough ships to have paid off his backers and retire with a tidy profit. He was making his point along the coast that Spain no longer had dominance of the sea. The English had arrived and were going to help themselves as they damn well pleased. Remember at this stage there was no state of war between England, Spain or any other country (except for the rebel Irish). What Drake was doing was pure piracy. He was an ambassador of the Queen of England but in the capacity of what is known as a “nod and a wink”. I can’t imagine Elizabeth actually doing that but she did put up a thousand pound of her own money as  an investment.


Drake knew that Galleon was slowly making its way up the coast, picking up gold, but mainly silver ingots. Because there was a levy on all metals carried home to Spain to be paid, many  mine owners had their loot carried as unspecified cargo to save this tax. I call it loot as the mines were worked by natives, who until recently were free to come and go as they pleased. Now they were slaves in their own land. By sailing out wide from the shore in his ship which he renamed THE GOLDEN HIND and in close to shore with his small pinnace, he covered a lot of ocean. From information he gleaned from local fishermen he found out he was only two days behind the NUESTRA SENORA DE LA CONCEPCION.


Finally the ships found their quarry. With only one man being severely wounded and the mizzen mast shot away the Spaniards were overcome. The Galleon was filled with Silver ingots, chests of silver and gold coin and an unspecified amount of gold bullion. Chests of jewels as well as silver and gold plate. Close to one million pesos of loot. It was not all going to be counted as Drake was also planning to do a little smuggling as well as piracy. What the queen didn’t know about she would not miss.


Eventually Drake turned his route to the fabled spice islands. He kicked Da Silva his enforced pilot off his boat as he was no longer needed. Poor Da Silva spent years in the torturous hands of the inquisition as a result of having helped Drake find his way to the Pacific.


Drake now had charts and rutters belonging to the pilot of the galleon and with these and Magelan’s maps, he intended to sail home. He still had little idea of where he was, only that if he sailed west he would reach Java and the Indian Ocean, Cape of Storms then home.


By the time he left the Spanish territories he had only accidentally killed one Spaniard and wounded several. He had not sunk any ships or burnt any towns or villages. His men had smashed churches, as it was their opinion that the cross and figures of Jesus were idolatrous and so fair game. Drake was very careful actually not to do any property damage and for good reason as it turns out.



Drake was a great convincer of men. One man he could not convince was the pilot of the treasure galleon. He wanted the pilot to accompany him and lead him across the ocean. Colchera, the pilot refused and even when hung from the neck, from a spar, refused to help Drake in any way. Drake eventually let the man go free. This trick of putting a noose around a mans neck and then drawing him off the deck was often used with stubborn prisoners.


Maria, a black slave was saved from the galleon along with two other slaves for the use of Drake and the crew. Months later, big with child, she was left on a lonely atoll along with the other two male slaves. A blessing perhaps but though the atoll had plenty of food, the only water was on another atoll several miles away. There is no record if a boat was left for their use!  


As a conqueror he is known to have landed on the North American mainland in the vicinity of San Francisco. Here he cleaned and careened his boat and repacked her so the treasure was safe. He also made friends with the local tribes and was made a chief of sorts over them all. He did leave a plaque on a post some miles inland claiming the land for Queen Elizabeth. Such a claim of course has little legitimacy today.


After 56 days at sea, Drake passed what may have been the Caroline Islands and was again tricked by natives rowing out in large outrigger canoes to trade. It was often needed to fire many rounds into the canoes to succumb the men to trade the way he preferred to trade. He was not going to play softy with these possible canibals. He did mange to load up again with fresh stores and was soon off  Ternate in the East Indies where he was made welcome by the local sultan and entertained with style.


Drake himself was a great entertainer and carried silver plate embossed and fringed with gold that he was fond of bringing out for his guests. His orchestra and his trumpeter were the toast of any town, village, island or captured ship they played for. The Sultan of Ternate was suitably impressed with this ambassador of queen Elizabeth as he self styled himself now. Here he managed a deal of six tons of spice that put his ship precariously close to her limit as far as stability was concerned. He was going to rely on his men eating their way through the food and drinking their way through the wine and water to make his craft safe again.


At this point he was carefully avoiding any contact at all with the Spaniards or Portuguese as this was now longer worth the risk. The lowliest of his men would retire and live like a gentleman for the rest of his life and so would their heirs for many generations to come. They were seriously rich and needed only to get home.


After just a little over thirty six months, Drake was home. He made his arrival in a quiet manner as his main concern was to find out if his queen still lived. He sent her a message and was eventually received at court. His stories of his adventures outgrew even his own bragging. And well could he brag. He had achieved everything he set out to do and then more. He proved himself to be a strong leader, a navigator without peer and a sailor that knew how to take care of his ship and men. He was a rogue by my standards but by his own standards and those of the time he badly wanted to be known as a gentleman and a well cultured man.


The treasure was beyond belief. Drake himself was allowed to take anything he wanted, even after he had his fill he was asked to come and take more. The national debt was written off and the queen could again spend as she wished without worrying how to pay. The Spaniards, bad sports that they were wanted it all back! Philip of Spain rattled his sabre and sent his ambassadors to do their work but as Drake had not actually declared war, nor had he actually done much physical violence not much could be done. In the end the owners of the loot were advised to go to civil court for restitution and as far as we know it could still be in court. The brother of the man Drake killed as a mutineer tried to get a fair hearing but that to was thrown out of court without getting a hearing.


I have skipped over his feats very lightly but this does not mean I feel that way about what he did. He was a rogue, a pirate, a corsair but he badly wanted to be the best and fairest of all seamen, a gentleman and great navigator. Without doubt he is a hero. 

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