Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 28 January 1596) was an English sea captain, privateer, naval officer, and explorer, best known for his circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition, from 1577 to 1580.
Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, England. Because of religious persecution during the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, the Drake family fled from Devon to Kent, where Drake's father obtained an appointment to minister the men in the King's Navy. He was ordained deacon and was made vicar of Upnor Church on the Medway.
Drake's father apprenticed him to his neighbour, the master of a barque used for coastal trade transporting merchandise to France. The ship's master was so satisfied with his conduct that, being unmarried and childless at his death, he bequeathed the barque to the young Drake.
At the age of eighteen he was purser of a ship which sailed to the Bay of Biscay, and at twenty (c. 1563–1564) he made a voyage to the coast of Guinea in a ship owned by William and John Hawkins, some of his relatives from Plymouth.
In 1566–1567, Drake, made his first voyage to the Americas, sailing under Captain John Lovell on one of a fleet of ships owned by the Hawkins family. They attacked Portuguese towns and ships on the coast of West Africa and then sailed to the Americas and sold the captured cargoes of slaves to Spanish plantations.
Drake's second voyage to the Americas and his second slaving voyage ended in 1568. Whilst negotiating to resupply and repair at a Spanish port in Mexico, the fleet was attacked by Spanish warships, with all but two of the English ships lost. He escaped along with John Hawkins, surviving the attack by swimming. Drake's hostility towards the Spanish is said to have started with this incident and Drake vowed revenge.
In 1570, his reputation enabled him to proceed to the West Indies with two vessels under his command. He renewed his visit the next year for the sole purpose of obtaining information.
In 1572, Drake embarked on his first major independent enterprise. He planned an attack on the Isthmus of Panama, known to the Spanish as Tierra Firme and the English as the Spanish Main.
This was the point at which the silver and gold treasure of Peru had to be landed and sent overland to the Caribbean Sea, where galleons from Spain would pick it up at the town of Nombre de Dios. Drake left Plymouth on 24 May 1572, with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha (70 tons) and the Swan (25 tons), to capture Nombre de Dios.
Drake's first raid was late in July 1572. Drake and his men captured the town and its treasure. However, when his men noticed that Drake was bleeding profusely from a wound, they insisted on withdrawing to save his life and left the treasure. Drake stayed in the area for almost a year, raiding Spanish shipping and attempting to capture a treasure shipment.
The most celebrated of Drake's adventures along the Spanish Main was his capture of the Spanish Silver Train in March 1573.
Drake tracked the Silver Train to the nearby port of Nombre de Dios. After their attack on the richly laden mule train, Drake and his party found that they had captured around 20 tons of silver and gold.
They buried much of the treasure, as it was too much for their party to carry. The small band of adventurers dragged as much gold and silver as they could carry back across some 18 miles of jungle-covered mountains to where they had left the raiding boats.
When they got to the coast, the boats were gone. Drake and his men, downhearted, exhausted and hungry, had nowhere to go and the Spanish were not far behind.
At this point, Drake rallied his men and built a raft to sail ten miles along the surf-lashed coast to where they had left the flagship.
It was during this expedition that Drake climbed a high tree in the central mountains of the Isthmus of Panama and thus became the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean. He remarked as he saw it that he hoped one day an Englishman would be able to sail it – which he would do years later as part of his circumnavigation of the world.
When Drake returned to Plymouth after the raids, the government signed a temporary truce with King Philip II of Spain and so was unable to acknowledge Drake's accomplishment officially. Drake was considered a hero in England and a pirate in Spain for his raids.
With the success of the Panama isthmus raid in 1577, Elizabeth I of England sent Drake to start an expedition against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of the Americas. Drake used the plans that Sir Richard Grenville had received the patent for in 1574 from Elizabeth, which was rescinded a year later after protests from Philip of Spain.
Drake and the fleet set out from Plymouth on 15 November 1577, but bad weather threatened him and his fleet. They were forced to take refuge in Falmouth, Cornwall, from where they returned to Plymouth for repair.
After this major setback, Drake set sail again on 13 December aboard Pelican with four other ships and 164 men. He soon added a sixth ship, Mary (formerly Santa Maria), a Portuguese merchant ship that had been captured off the coast of Africa near the Cape Verde Islands.
On his voyage to interfere with Spanish treasure fleets, Drake had several quarrels with his co-commander Thomas Doughty and on 3 June 1578, accused him of witchcraft and charged him with mutiny and treason in a shipboard trial.
Drake had Thomas Doughty beheaded on 2 July 1578. When the ship's chaplain Francis Fletcher in a sermon suggested that the woes of the voyage in January 1580 were connected to the unjust demise of Doughty, Drake chained the clergyman to a hatch cover and pronounced him excommunicated.
Drake's fleet suffered great attrition through violent storms on the way to the Magellan Strait at the southern tip of South America, and soon only the Pelican was left. After this passage, the Pelican was pushed south and discovered an island that Drake called Elizabeth Island.
In the Magellan Strait Francis and his men engaged in skirmishes with local indigenous people, becoming the first Europeans to kill indigenous peoples in southern Patagonia. During the stay in the strait, crew members discovered that an infusion made of the bark of Drimys winteri could be used as remedy against scurvy.
Drake pushed onwards in his lone flagship, now renamed the Golden Hind in honour of Sir Christopher Hatton (after his coat of arms). The Golden Hind sailed north along the Pacific coast of South America, attacking Spanish ports and pillaging towns. Some Spanish ships were captured, and Drake used their more accurate charts.
Near Lima, Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold, amounting in value to 37,000 ducats of Spanish money (about £7m by modern standards). Drake also discovered news of another ship, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, which was sailing west towards Manila. Drake gave chase and eventually captured the treasure ship, which proved his most profitable capture.
Aboard Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, Drake found 36 kilograms (80 lb) of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of royals of plate and 26 thousand kilograms (26 long tons) of silver.
Prior to Drake's voyage, the western coast of North America had only been partially explored in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who sailed for Spain. So, intending to avoid further conflict with Spain, Drake navigated northwest of Spanish presence and sought a discreet site at which the crew could prepare for the journey back to England.
On 5 June 1579, the ship briefly made first landfall at what is now South Cove, Cape Arago, just south of Coos Bay, Oregon, and then sailed south while searching for a suitable harbour for repairs. On 17 June, Drake and his crew found a protected cove when they landed on the Pacific coast of what is now Northern California. While ashore, he claimed the area for Queen Elizabeth I as Nova Albion or New Albion.
To document and assert his claim, Drake posted an engraved plate of brass to claim sovereignty for Elizabeth and every successive English monarch. When his ship was ready for the return voyage, Drake and the crew left New Albion on 23 July.
Drake left the Pacific coast, heading southwest to catch the winds that would carry his ship across the Pacific, and a few months later reached the Moluccas, a group of islands in the western Pacific, in eastern modern-day Indonesia.
Befriending Sultan Babullah of Ternate in the Moluccas, Drake and his men became involved in some intrigues with the Portuguese there. He made multiple stops on his way toward the tip of Africa, eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and reached Sierra Leone by 22 July 1580.
Above: The Drake Jewel
On 26 September, Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth with Drake and 59 remaining crew aboard, along with a rich cargo of spices and captured Spanish treasures. The Queen's half-share of the cargo surpassed the rest of the crown's income for that entire year. Drake was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the Earth.
The Queen declared that all written accounts of Drake's voyages were to become the Queen's secrets of the Realm, and Drake and the other participants of his voyages on the pain of death sworn to their secrecy; she intended to keep Drake's activities away from the eyes of rival Spain.
Drake presented the Queen with a jewel token commemorating the circumnavigation. Taken as a prize off the Pacific coast of Mexico, it was made of enamelled gold and bore an African diamond and a ship with an ebony hull.
For her part, the Queen gave Drake a jewel with her portrait, an unusual gift to bestow upon a commoner, and one that Drake sported proudly in his 1591 portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts now at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
On one side is a state portrait of Elizabeth by the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, on the other a sardonyx cameo of double portrait busts, a regal woman and an African male. The "Drake Jewel", as it is known today, is a rare documented survivor among sixteenth-century jewels; it is conserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Above: Queen Elizabeth awarding Drake a knighthood aboard Golden Hind on 4 April 1581
War had already been declared by Phillip II after the Treaty of Nonsuch, so the Queen through Francis Walsingham ordered Sir Francis Drake to lead an expedition to attack the Spanish colonies in a kind of pre-emptive strike.
An expedition left Plymouth in September 1585 with Drake in command of twenty-one ships with 1,800 soldiers under Christopher Carleill. He first attacked Vigo in Spain and held the place for two weeks ransoming supplies.
He then plundered Santiago in the Cape Verde islands after which the fleet then sailed across the Atlantic, sacked the port of Santo Domingo, and captured the city of Cartagena de Indias in present-day Colombia, and raided the Spanish fort of San Agustín in Spanish Florida.
After the raids he then went on to find Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement further north at Roanoke which he replenished and also took back with him all of the original colonists before Sir Richard Greynvile arrived with supplies and more colonists. He finally reached England on 22 July, when he sailed into Portsmouth, England to a hero's welcome.
Angered by these acts, Philip II ordered a planned invasion of England.
Above: Philip II of Spain
On 15 March 1587, Drake accepted a new commission with several purposes: disrupt the shipping routes to slow supplies from Italy and Andalucia to Lisbon, to trouble enemy fleets that were in their own ports, and to capture Spanish ships laden with treasure.
Drake was also to confront and attack the Spanish Armada had it already sailed for England. When arriving at Cadiz on 19 April, Drake found the harbour packed with ships and supplies as the Armada was readying and waiting for fair wind to launch the fleet to attack.
In the early hours of the next day, Drake pressed his attack into the inner harbour and inflicted heavy damage. Claims of the Spanish ship losses vary. Drake claimed he had sunk 39 ships, but other contemporary sources are lower, specifically some Spanish sources which suggest losses as low as 25 ships.
The attack became known as the “singeing of the King’s beard” and delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.
Over the next month, Drake patrolled the Iberian coasts between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, intercepting and destroying ships on the Spanish supply lines. Drake estimated that he captured around 1600–1700 tons of barrel staves, enough to make 25,000 to 30,000 barrels (4,800 m3) for containing provisions.
Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet when it overcame the Spanish Armada that was attempting to invade England in 1588. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the English Channel in closing darkness, Drake broke off and captured the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora del Rosario, known to be carrying substantial funds to pay the Spanish Army in the Low Countries.
Although the English fleet was overwhelmingly outgunned, Drake organised the use of fireships - ships filled with combustibles, or gunpowder deliberately set on fire and steered (or, when possible, allowed to drift) into an enemy fleet, in order to destroy ships, or to create panic and make the enemy break formation.
Ships used as fire ships were either warships whose munitions were fully spent in battle, surplus ones which were old and worn out, or inexpensive purpose-built vessels rigged to be set afire, steered toward targets, and abandoned quickly by the crew.
Drake deployed the fire-ships, sailing them into the Spanish Armada at anchor overnight, causing the majority of the Spanish captains to break formation, cut their cables and sail out of the English Channel into the open sea.
They never regained their anchorage and were scattered around the coasts of England, Scotland and Ireland, to be wrecked by sea-storms. The Spanish Armada lost about 100 out of 130 ships and about 15000 out of 18000 men.
The most famous (but probably apocryphal) anecdote about Drake relates 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, perhaps because he was waiting for high tide.
There is no known eyewitness account of this incident and the earliest retelling of it was printed 37 years later. Adverse winds and currents caused some delay in the launching of the English fleet as the Spanish drew nearer, perhaps prompting a popular myth of Drake's cavalier attitude to the Spanish threat. It might also have been later ascribed to the stoic attribute of British culture.
Drake's seafaring career continued into his mid-fifties. He had several lucky escapes while attacking Spanish strongholds around Puerto Rico. On one occasion the Spanish gunners from El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake's flagship, but he survived.
He attempted to attack over land in an effort to capture the rich port of Panamá, but a few weeks later, on 28 January 1596, he died (aged about 56) of dysentery, a common disease in the tropics at the time, while anchored off the coast of Portobelo where some Spanish treasure ships had sought shelter. Following his death, the English fleet withdrew.
Before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour. He was buried at sea in a sealed lead-lined coffin, near Portobelo, a few miles off the coastline. It is supposed that his final resting place is near the wrecks of two British ships, the Elizabeth and the Delight, scuttled in Portobelo Bay. Divers continue to search for the coffin, but Drake's body has never been recovered.