Sir Francis Drake



c.1540 to 1596

Sir Francis Drake was born in Devonshire, England, the son of a yeoman, and was at an early age apprenticed to a ship captain. He made voyages to Guinea and the West Indies and in 1567 commanded a ship in a slave-trading expedition of his kinsman, John Hawkins. On this voyage the Spanish attacked and destroyed all but three of the English vessels. In 1572, with two ships and 73 men, Drake set out on the first of his famous marauding expeditions. He took the town of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama, captured a ship in the harbor of Cartagena, burned Portobelo, crossed and recrossed the isthmus, and captured three mule trains bearing 30 tons of silver. The voyage brought Drake wealth and fame. For the next few years he commanded the sea forces against rebellious Ireland.

In December 1577, he set out with five ships to raid Spanish holdings on the Pacific coast of the New World. He abandoned two ships in the Río de la Plata in South America, and, with the remaining three, navigated the Straits of Magellan, the first Englishman to make the passage. A storm drove them far southward; one ship and its crew were destroyed, and another, separated from Drake's vessel, returned to England.

Drake continued alone in the Golden Hind up the coast of South America, plundered Valparaiso and smaller settlements, cut loose the shipping at Callao, and captured a rich Spanish treasure ship. Armed now with Spanish charts, he continued north along the coast, looking for a possible passage to the Atlantic, feeling it would be unsafe to retrace his course. Sailing possibly as far north as the present state of Washington with no success, he determined to cross the Pacific.

He returned to San Francisco Bay to repair and provision his ship. He named the region New Albion (the Latin name for Scotland) and took possession of it in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. Then, crossing the Pacific, he visited the Moluccas, Sulawesi, and Java, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived at Plymouth on September 26, 1580, bearing treasure of extremely high value. Elizabeth endeavored for a time to justify Drake's conduct to Spain, but, failing to satisfy the Spanish, she finally abandoned all pretense and openly recognized Drake's exploits by knighting him aboard the Golden Hind.

In 1585, Drake commanded a fleet that sacked Vigo in Spain and burned São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands. Proceeding across the Atlantic, he took Santo Domingo and Cartagena (which were subsequently ransomed), plundered the Florida coast, including the settlement of St. Augustine, and rescued Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke colony under Ralph Lane on the Carolina coast.

Meanwhile, Spain had begun to prepare for open war. In 1587, Drake entered the harbor of Cádiz with 26 ships and destroyed about 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling. He had, he said, merely singed the king of Spain's beard and wished to carry out further expeditions against the Spanish ports, but Elizabeth would not sanction his plans. He was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada in 1588. He was in joint command of an attempted invasion of Portugal in 1589 but failed to take Lisbon.

Drake's last expedition, in 1595, undertaken jointly with Hawkins, was directed against the West Indies. This time the Spanish were prepared, and the venture was a complete failure. Hawkins died off Puerto Rico, and Drake shortly afterward, of dysentery, off Portobelo, where he was buried at sea.

Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, was also a pirate. It's easy to forget that these explorers of great achievement also often had a seamier side. Drake was born in Devon and went off to sea at an early age, travelling to Guinea and the West Indies. In 1567, he commanded a slave ship for his kinsman, John Hawkins. The expedition was attacked by Spaniards and only three ships survived.

Keen to make up for the goods stolen, Drake set sail in 1572 with his privateer's license courtesy of Queen Elizabeth I. He had his first successful expedition as a marauder on the Isthmus of Panama. It was there that he became the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean. He returned to England a wealthy and famous man.

In 1577, he headed to the Spanish-owned Pacific coast of the New World, where he became the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan. It was around this time that he changed the name of his ship to the Golden Hind. In the Pacific, his fleet met with dangerous storms which destroyed one ship, and sent another home, leaving Drake to continue north alone.

He traveled up to present day Washington state, but finding no route across the Atlantic, he turned Pacific-ward. His travels took him to the Moluccas, Celebes, Java, and the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived back in England with very valuable treasure and the distinction of being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Elizabeth was reluctant to acknowledge Drake's achievements, for fear of further alienating the Spanish, but realizing that they would never be placated, she visited him aboard the Golden Hind and knighted him.

In 1585 he traveled to the West Indies and the coast of Florida where he sacked and plundered Spanish cities. On his return voyage, he picked up unhappy colonists on Roanoke Island off the coast of the Carolinas, along with potatoes and tobacco.

In 1587, Drake entered the port of Cadiz and destroyed 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling against the British. In 1588, he became vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada.

His last expedition, with Hawkins, was to the West Indies. The Spanish were prepared for him this time, and the venture was a disaster. Drake died soon thereafter, of dysentery, off Portobelo. 


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