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Portrait of Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake  (c.1545-1595)

SIR FRANCIS DRAKE, English admiral, was born near Tavistock, Devonshire, about 1545 according to most early authorities, but possibly as early as 1539 (see Corbett, vol. i., Appendix A). His father, a yeoman and a zealous Protestant, was obliged to take refuge in Kent during the persecutions in the reign of Queen Mary. He obtained a naval chaplaincy from Queen Elizabeth, and is said to have been afterwards vicar of Upnor Church (evidently a misprint or slip of the pen for Upchurch) on the Medway. Young Drake was educated at the expense and under the care of Sir John Hawkins, who was his kinsman; and, after passing an apprenticeship on a coasting vessel, at the age of eighteen he had risen to be purser of a ship trading to Biscay. At twenty he made a voyage to Guinea; and at twenty-two he was made captain of the "Judith." In that capacity he was in the harbour of San Juan de Ulloa, in the Gulf of Mexico, where he behaved most gallantly in the actions under Sir John Hawkins, and returned with him to England, having acquired great reputation, though with the loss of all the money which he had embarked in the expedition.

In 1570 he obtained a regular privateering commission from Queen Elizabeth, the powers of which he immediately exercised in a cruise in the Spanish Main. Having next projected an attack against the Spaniards in the West Indies to indemnify himself for his former losses, he set sail in 1572, with two small ships named the "Pasha" and the "Swan." He was afterwards joined by another vessel; and with this small squadron he took and plundered the Spanish town of Nombre de Dios. With his men he penetrated across the isthmus of Panama, and committed great havoc among the Spanish shipping. From the top of a tree which he climbed while on the isthmus he obtained his first view of the Pacific, and resolved "to sail an English ship in these seas." In these expeditions he was much assisted by the Maroons, descendants of escaped slaves, who were then engaged in a desultory warfare with the Spaniards. Having embarked his men and filled his ships with plunder, he bore away for England, and arrived at Plymouth on the 9th of August 1573.

His success and honourable demeanour in this expedition gained him high reputation; and the use which he made of his riches served to raise him still higher in popular esteem. Having fitted out three frigates at his own expense, he sailed with them to Ireland, and rendered effective service as a volunteer, under Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, the father of the famous but unfortunate second Earl of Essex. After his patron's death he returned to England, where he was introduced to Queen Elizabeth (whether by Sir Christopher Hatton is doubtful), and obtained a favourable reception. In this way he acquired the means of undertaking the expedition which has immortalized his name.

The first proposal he made was to undertake a voyage into the South Seas through the Straits of Magellan, which no Englishman had hitherto ever attempted. This project having been well received at court, the queen furnished him with means; and his own fame quickly drew together a sufficient force. The fleet with which he sailed on this enterprise consisted of only five small vessels; their united crews mustered only 166 men.

Starting on the 13th of December 1577, his course lay by the west coast of Morocco and the Cape Verde Islands. He reached the coast of Brazil on the 6th of April, and entered the Rio de la Plata, where he parted company with two of his ships; but having met them again, and taken out their provisions, he turned them adrift. On the 19th of June he entered the port of St Julian's, where he remained two months, partly to lay in provisions, and partly delayed by the trial and execution of Thomas Doughty, who had plotted against him. On the 21st of August he entered the Straits of Magellan. The passage of the straits took sixteen days, but then a storm carried the ships to the west; on the 7th of October, having made back for the mouth of the strait, Drake's ship and the two vessels under his vice-admiral Captain Wynter were separated, and the latter, missing the rendezvous arranged, returned to England. Drake went on, and came to Mocha Island, off the coast of Chile, on the 25th of November. He thence continued his voyage along the coast of Chile and Peru, taking all opportunities of seizing Spanish ships, and attacking them on shore, till his men were satiated with plunder; and then coasted along the shores of America, as far as 48° N. lat., in an unsuccessful endeavour to discover a passage into the Atlantic. Having landed, however, he named the country New Albion, and took possession of it in the name of Queen Elizabeth. Having careened his ship, he sailed thence on the 26th of July 1579 for the Moluccas. On the 4th of November he got sight of those islands, and, arriving at Ternate, was extremely well received by the sultan. On the 10th of December he made the Celebes, where his ship unfortunately struck upon a rock, but was taken off without much damage. On the 11th of March he arrived at Java, whence he intended to have directed his course to Malacca; but he found himself obliged to alter his purpose, and to think of returning home. On the 26th of March 1580 he again set sail; and on the 15th of June he doubled the Cape of Good Hope, having then on board only fifty-seven men and three casks of water. He passed the line on the 12th of July, and on the 16th reached the coast of Guinea, where he watered. On the 11th of September he made the Island of Terceira, and on (?) the 26th of September he entered the harbour of Plymouth.

This voyage round the world, the first accomplished by an Englishman, was thus performed in two years and about ten months. The Queen hesitated for some time whether to recognize his achievements or not, on the ground that such recognition might lead to complications with Spain, but she finally decided in his favour. Accordingly, soon after his arrival she paid a visit to Deptford, went on board his ship, and there, after partaking of a banquet, conferred upon him the honour of knighthood, at the same time declaring her entire approbation of all that he had done. She likewise gave directions for the preservation of his ship, the "Golden Hind," that it might remain a monument of his own and his country's glory. After the lapse of a century it decayed and had to be broken up. Of the sound timber a chair was made, which was presented by Charles II to the University of Oxford.

Queen Elizabeth Knighting Sir Francis Drake
Queen Elizabeth Knighting Sir Francis Drake
Aboard the Golden Hind. (19thc. Engraving)

In 1581 Drake became mayor of Plymouth; and in 1585 he married a second time, his first wife having died in 1583. In 1585, hostilities having commenced with Spain, he again went to sea, sailing with a fleet to the West Indies, and taking the cities of Santiago (in the Cape Verde Islands), San Domingo, Cartagena and St Augustine. In 1587 he went to Lisbon with a fleet of thirty sail; and having received intelligence of a great fleet being assembled in the bay of Cadiz, and destined to form part of the Armada, he with great courage entered the port on the 19th of April, and there burnt upwards of 10,000 tons of shipping — a feat which he afterwards jocosely called "singeing the king of Spain's beard." In 1588, when the Spanish Armada was approaching England, Sir Francis Drake was appointed vice-admiral under Lord Howard, and made prize of a very large galleon, commanded by Don Pedro de Valdez, who was reputed the projector of the invasion, and who struck at once on learning his adversary's name.

It deserves to be noticed that Drake's name is mentioned in the singular diplomatic communication from the king of Spain which preceded the Armada: "Te veto ne pergas bello defendere Belgas; Quae Dracus eripuit nunc restituantur oportet; Quas pater evertit jubeo to condere cellas: Religio Papae fac restituatur ad unguem." To these lines the Queen made this extempore response: "Ad Graecas, bone rex, fiant mandata kalendas." In 1589 Drake commanded the fleet sent to restore Dom Antonio, King of Portugal, the land forces being under the orders of Sir John Norreys; but they had hardly put to sea when the commanders differed, and thus the attempt proved abortive. But as the war with Spain continued, a more formidable expedition was fitted out, under Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake, against their settlements in the West Indies, than had hitherto been undertaken during the whole course of it. Here, however, the commanders again disagreed about the plan; and the result in like manner disappointed public expectation. These disasters were keenly felt by Drake, and were the principal cause of his death, which took place on board his own ship, near the town of Nombre de Dios, in the West Indies, on the 28th of January 1595.





      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol VIII.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 474.




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Books for further study:

Bawlf, Samuel. The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580.
           London: Penguin Boos, 2002. (Reprint).

Cummins, John. Francis Drake: Lives of a Hero.
           New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

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

Whitfield, Peter. Sir Francis Drake.
           New York: NYU Press, 2004.




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