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by Jeff Howell
To the Spaniard of the late sixteenth century, few sights terrified
him more than to see on the horizon, a fleet of British brigands led by Sir Francis Drake.
To the Spaniards, he was El Draque, the Dragon.(1)
Drake earned this title through his privateering exploits from 1570 to 1595 in the Spanish
West Indies. To the English, he was seen as a glorious Protestant hero, while to the
Spanish, he was seen as a marauding demon or monster.(2)
In this brief paper, I will show that Drake was neither. Like most men, Drake was a man of contradictions. By his admirers, he has been lauded for being a man of deep religious convictions, a champion of Protestantism in the face of oppressive Spanish Catholicism. Yet, this "devout" Protestant made his claim to fame by piracy. While bringing to England some measure of national pride through his naval exploits, Drake's two driving motivations for going on his expeditions were the acquiring of treasure and making a name for himself. He would ravage Spanish interests and then placate the wrath of his Queen, who feared his efforts would bring war, by bequeathing to the crown a large portion of his bounty. A saint? Hardly. A demon? Not really, just a man of the times in which he lived. Francis Drake, though unsuccessful in his ultimate goals, was one of many: English, French, Dutch, who showed that the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly was not made of iron.(3)
II. Early Influences
Drake was no different from the rest of us, he was a child of his
times. He was born at Crowndale, near Tavistock, Devon in 1543. England rocked with
religious turmoil, torn asunder by the conflict between the established Catholic church
and the fairly new Protestant Church of England that had been ushered in by Henry VIII
less than a decade before.
In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull dividing the new and unknown lands, west and east, between Spain and Portugal. The Tordesillas line, named after the 1494 treaty between Spain and Portugal, split the new world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres.(4) This pretentious division was hotly contested by France, England, and later the independent Netherlands. King François I of France offered this conclusion, "The sun shines for me as for others, and I should very much like to see the clause in Adam's will that excludes me from a share in the world."(5)
The Spanish and the Portuguese aggressively sought new land and new treasures. By the time of Drake's birth, Portugal had settled in Brazil, visited Greenland, and reached the East Indies, China, and Japan. From these lucrative spots, they established trade in spices, silks, and other Oriental luxuries. The rest of Europe was green with envy. Spain had discovered a new continent, circumnavigated the world, and conquered the Aztecs and Incas. Wealth poured out of New Spain back to the mother country.(6)
By 1480, English ships from Bristol began exploring the Atlantic. The Venetian navigator, John Cabot, commanded a Bristol ship which rediscovered North America in 1497. Until the 1550's, England had been satisfied with the wool trade with Europe. But the sudden collapse of the market in this decade, caused the English to cast their eyes for new markets and upon the Iberian wealth flowing out of the new world.(7) England wanted a piece of the pie as well. Thus began an unprecedented period of maritime expansion.
Into this mix was thrown young Francis Drake. This combination of religious conflict and naval expansion would plot his destiny. The oldest of twelve children, his beginnings were meager. The religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics marred his early life. His father, Edmund Drake, took the family and fled Devonshire during the Catholic rebellion over Edward VI's imposition of the first English prayer book in 1549. Young Francis was only five. The family ended up on the river Medway in Kent, where the King's ships were anchored. Edmund Drake found a position as preacher and Bible reader to the naval workers. The family lived on an old hull. Young Francis grew up around seamen and ships, and while his father instructed him in Puritanism and in anti-Catholicism.(8) This portrait of Drake is common among older historians, but one recent scholar rejects it.(9)
Because of scarce income, Drake was apprenticed as a seaman by age thirteen. The work was hard, but young Francis learned his life's trade sailing up and down the Thames and across the Channel.(10) The sea became a route for a commoner to make his way in the world.
By the 1550's, the English established trade in west Africa, trafficking in sugar, pepper, ivory and gold.(11) Drake's kinsmen, the Hawkins, made their living in overseas trade and piracy. William Hawkins, of Plymouth, traded southward to Africa (upper Guinea) and southwestward to Brazil. His ship was fully armed. He not only traded, but when opportunity arose, he raided weaker Portuguese vessels.(12) By 1562, William's son, John Hawkins, had made his first slaving run to the west coast of Africa around 1562. Hawkins would then take his "cargo" and sell the slaves in the Caribbean. Drake was spurred on to seek his future in the New World. In 1566-67, he sailed on a Hawkin-financed slaving voyage to west Africa and then to the Spanish main. John Lovell served as captain of the crew. Like the Spanish in regards to Amerindians, these English Protestants justified slavery by stating that the enslaved blacks were not "human".(13) The Spanish West Indies would be the stage for Drake's greatest triumph, as well as his greatest defeat.
III. Drake's Exploits (Successes and Failures)
A. San Juan de Ulua (1568)
Drake underwent a baptism of fire on another slaving run with John
Hawkins in 1568. Spain followed the economic policy of mercantilism. This meant that all
trade was confined within the empire. Yet many Spanish officials turned a blind eye and
made deals with smugglers.(14)
Hawkins sought to capitalize on this illicit trade. His flagship was the Jesus of Lubeck. Drake captained the Judith. On the coast of Africa, Hawkins acquired 500 slaves by intervening in a tribal war. The English traders also raided several smaller Portuguese ships. Eventually, Hawkins and his fleet make their way to Río de la Hacha, on the Colombian coast. On the previous journey, Lovell had been denied trade. Hawkins sent Drake's ship and another, the Angel, ahead. The Spanish fired upon the English. Drake fired back, and eventually Hawkins' landed with a ground force and forced the town to trade. Half the town was torched. The English pirates also forced the town of Santa Marta to trade, but was repulsed by a stronger force at Cartagena.(15)
It's obvious that these men were not innocent traders, or national heroes, but simple pirates. Two storms forced Hawkins' fleet to the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua, the receptor of the main Spanish flota. From San Juan de Ulua, the flota would depart for Spain loaded with riches. The official at San Juan de Ulua were expecting the flota and mistook Hawkins' fleet for them. Hawkins and his ships were allowed to berth on an off shore island.
The next day the new Viceroy of Mexico, Don Martín Enríquez, arrived. Not wanting to offend Queen Elizabeth, Hawkins allowed safe Spanish entry. But things came to a head quickly. Hawkins' fleet was attacked. Only the Judith and the Minion got away, with Hawkins aboard the Minion. The venturer was a disaster. The Minion and the Judith got separated, Hawkins thought Drake deserted him. Seventy five percent of the crew did not make it back to England, and most of the ship tonnage (1,000 of the original 1,333 tons) was lost.(16) Some see this humiliation in a religious context, that Drake later sought revenge because of the treachery of the Spanish Catholics. But it might be better to see this battle as the Spanish inflicting on the English what the English had wanted to wreak on the Spanish. Drake's attempts to gain treasure was foiled, but he would return.
B. Nombre de Dios (1573)
Drake returned to the West Indies in 1571 with the goal of raiding the port of Nombre de Dios on the Panamanian coast. Silver was brought up the Pacific side of Panama from Peru. Then it was carted across the Isthmus by pack mules to Nombre de Dios. Then a flota would take it to Spain. Drake wanted to attack when the silver arrived on the Isthmus. After several unsuccessful tries, Drake hit the jackpot in March 1573. Teaming up with escaped black slaves (cimarrones) and French pirates, Drake hit the mule train outside of the city.(17) Drake made off with over 450,000 pesos, offset by the death of his brother John(18). Drake's efforts gained him a fortune and the beginning of a name in England.
C. Circumnavigation (1577-80)
One is taught in elementary school that Francis Drake was the first
Englishman to circumnavigate the world, as if this feat had been his ultimate goal. In
reality, circumnavigation was not Drake's main concern. Drake wanted to acquire treasure.
He convinced Queen Elizabeth to send him on a "trading" voyage to Alexandria,
Egypt. In reality the trip was for the commandeering of treasure in the Spanish colonies.(19) Drake set out with five ships, the largest, the Pelican, he
later renamed the Golden Hind. Drake captured a Portuguese ship and its captain, Nuno da
Silva, off the African coast, near the Cape Verde islands. Drake used da Silva's detailed
maps to sail along the Brazilian and Argentine coasts. Sickness, battles, and storms
eventually left the Golden Hind alone off the west coast of Peru.(20)
Drake spent several months off the coasts of Peru, Ecuador, and Chile, attacking Spanish ports and ships. Drake struck paydirt when he captured a Spanish vessel, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. The ship was laden with gold, silver, and jewels. Later he landed at what is now San Francisco bay, declaring the land for England. He christened it Nova Albion, "New England." With captured Spanish maps and charts, he made his way across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, back to England.(21) This commoner became a national hero and a titled gentleman. Queen Elizabeth knighted him aboard the Golden Hind in 1581.(22)
D. West Indies Expedition (1585-86)
It needs to be understood that there was no official English navy
during most of Drake's career. Captains took their ships on privateering raids, financed
by a syndicate that might even include the Queen. The syndicate expected to receive a
profit by the captain's piracy.(23)
In 1585, Drake received a commission by Queen Elizabeth. A syndicate backed him, including Sir Walter Raleigh. Originally, he was to lead a fleet into the Moluccas Islands in the south Pacific, but those plans did not come to fruition. Later the Queen's plans turned toward the West Indies. Unofficially, he was to intercept the Spanish flota bringing treasure from the West Indies. If this proved unsuccessful, he was to venture to the Caribbean and carry out raids on Santo Domingo, Cartagena and Panama. No formal declaration of war would be declared, thus shielding the Queen from Spanish reproach.(24)
Drake, commanding a fleet of twenty ships, attacked and destroyed much of Cartagena and Santo Domingo. Sickness on board ship prevented him from attacking the Isthmus. Adverse weather kept him from attacking the Spanish treasure flota. Unable to meet most of his goals, he sailed home in June 1586.(25)
For Drake's investors, the expedition proved a failure. But for the public, it signaled a great victory over the hated Spanish. A book, The Summarie and True Discourse of Sir Francis Drake West Indian Voyage, trumpeted Drake's exploits. The book went through several editions and it made Drake a "Protestant leader of heroic proportions, fighting against the tyranny and bigotry of Catholic Spain."(26)
Spain was horrified and humiliated by Drake's exploits. Several colonial towns had been destroyed; fortunes had been lost; and military fortifications and supplies were destroyed. Funds that had been earmarked to be used in the Spanish conflict with the Low Countries had to be re-channeled to the colonies in America. To the Spanish, El Draque embodied the terrifying might and power of the British naval forces.(27) Drake's name once again resounded in the ears of his countrymen and his enemies.
E. Cádiz (1587)
It seems evident that for the most part, Drake and other privateers
were the unofficial agents of the crown. The Queen would disavow any complicity in the
piracy efforts of Drake and others, but then would receive a portion of acquired bounty.
This strategy was again employed in the raid of Cádiz, an Iberian port, in 1587. It was
in England's best interest to disrupt the treasure route from the New World to Spain,
because Spain used this revenue to fight the Dutch, an English ally.
Drake's orders were left intentionally vague in his commission on March 15, 1587. He was not commanded to refrain from combat. This allowed the Queen the appearance of not sanctioning war. On April 19, Drake's forces fought for twelve hours in Cádiz harbor, and sank close to thirty ships. Later, Drake moved south of the Iberian peninsula to the Azores, where he seized the San Felipe, a ship crammed with eastern produce valued at 114,000 pounds sterling.(28)
F. The Defeat of the Armada (1588)
Besides circumnavigation of the globe, Drake is most popularly known for being a key ingredient in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The English encroachment in the Spanish colonies, and their attacks off the Iberian coast, alarmed the Spanish. They felt their only course of action was a direct attack on England. While the English defeated the Spanish in one of the greatest naval battles of all time, it did not for the immediate future signal the end of the Spanish empire and its stranglehold on the Americas. Drake and the English did, however, keep the seas open for British trade and privateering, and it forced Spain to spend funds needed for European conflicts in the colonies.(29) Ironically, these defensive measures led to the downfall of Francis Drake.
G. Fall from Grace (Lisbon 1589)
The last decade of Drake's privateering career was an unmitigated disaster. His reputation was tarnished and he fell out of favor with the Queen because of the fiasco at Lisbon. The English feared another attack by the Armada, and thus decided to go on the offensive, and attack the port of Lisbon. The mission was ill conceived and ill provisioned from the start. Drake led a fleet of 150 (many too small) vessels and a grossly untrained volunteer army of 10,000 troops (many probably like Drake, hoping for treasure and glory). Disease wiped out over a third of the men. Lack of initiative and lack of adequate arms doomed the offensive.(30) Two of the more recent biographers of Drake agree that Drake was a master at seamanship and piracy (a chance to take treasure), but a bust at commanding a large fleet in a prolonged battle.(31) Drake's financial backers received no profit. Drake was disgraced. This can be seen in the fact that he did not lead another expedition for six years.
H. Back Where It Started -The End in the West Indies (1596)
During the six year interval of Drake's absence from the West Indies, the Spanish had
to some degree learned from past defeats. They realized they needed to shore up their
defenses in the colonies in order to repel French, and English, and later Dutch,
In a move to regain some of his reputation, Drake and his kinsman John Hawkins convinced Queen Elizabeth to finance another raid on the Isthmus of Panama. In 1595, the news came of a rudderless and dismasted galleon, holding two and a half million ducats, resting in the Port of San Juan de Puerto Rico. Permission was granted to make the voyage. While to be sure, Drake wanted to help the English cause by raiding Spanish ships, it is also clear he had a lot personally riding on the voyage. He wanted to bolster his reputation, please the Queen, and grab some loot.(32)
News of his coming had reached the Spanish, who had time to prepare. Drake was repelled at San Juan de Puerto Rico, Cartagena, and at Porto Bello on the Isthmus: a more defensible harbor than Nombre de Dios. Hawkins died during these defeats, and Drake caught bloody dysentery and died January 23, 1596.(33)
It is easy see the irony in that Drake, who had made his name in the Caribbean, was buried at sea off the coast of Panama.
IV. Drake's Significance
From a military angle, Francis Drake's exploits as a privateer was a
failure. Despite several successes against the Spanish, he and other privateers did not
dislodge Spain from their colonies in the new world. The Spanish maintained their
superiority in the western hemisphere for almost two more centuries.
From a naval angle, Francis Drake was not the father of the English navy as common legend has it. England had emerged as an oceanic power in the sixteenth century, but at best, it was a rag tag outfit. Drake was a product of England's naval emergence, but he was not the source. Drake did not come up with a comprehensive naval strategy, he was an adventurer. His exploits did give England a sense of national and naval pride, but his ultimate value was that of legend. As previously mentioned, in hit and run tactics, he excelled. As a commander of a fleet in a prolonged battle, he was a failure.
Pure and simple, he was a pirate. He served the crown by hampering the Spanish, but his primary concern was the the bottom line, "What's in it for me?" Patriotic? Partly. Entrepreneur and self promoter? Most definitely yes. Blazing Protestant zealot? The facts do not seem to bear up to that title. Drake seemed to care more for mammon than for the kingdom of Heaven.
If there is any lasting impact of Drake, it might be that he helped show his countrymen and allies that Spanish empire was not an unconquerable giant. In a small way, he helped lay the groundwork for establishing England as an oceanic power and pointed his country to the treasures awaiting them in the new world. If one pirate with a small fleet of ships could annoy and prick the Spanish colossus, what could a well organized navy do?
1. Donald Mabry, Colonial Latin America. (Starkville, MS: HTA Press, 2002), 101.
2. Blake D. Pattridge, Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, Volume 2. ( New York: Charles Scribner's Sons), 406. A good synopsis of the life and exploits of Francis Drake.
3. John Hampden, Francis Drake Privateer, (University, AL: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1972).
4. Ibid, 19.
5. Simon Collier, et al ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press), 201.
6. Hampden, 14.
7. Ibid, 15.
8. Ibid, 25.
9. See Frank Kelsey, Sir Francis Drake The Queen's Pirate, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 401.
10. Sir Julian Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy, Vol. 1, (New York: Burt Franklin, 1899), 70.
11. Hampden, 15.
12. Kenneth R. Andrews, Drake's Voyages, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972), 7.
13. Hampden, 27.
14. Mabry, 101.
15. Andrews, 24-25.
16. Ibid, 26-27.
17. Ibid, 37.
18. James D. Henderson, et al ed. A Reference Guide to American History, (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), 41.
20. Ibid, page 3.
21. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean, 74-75.
22. Kelsey, 219, 239.
23. John Hampden, 16.
24. Kelsey, 240-41.
25. Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, 406.
26. Kelsey, 278-79.
27. Ibid, 279,398.
28. Andrews, 118-124.
29. Ibid, 133.
30. Ibid, 141-145.
31. Andrews, 146, and Kelsey, 393
32. Andrews, 158-162.
33. Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, 406 and Andrews, 177.
Andrews, Kenneth R. Drake's Voyages. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.
Corbett, Sir Julian. Drake and the Tudor Navy, 2 Vol. New York: Burt Franklin, 1899.
Collier, Simon et al., ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Hampden, John, ed. Francis Drake Privateer. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1972.
Henderson, James D., et al, ed. A Reference Guide to Latin American History. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.
Kelsey, Harry. Sir Francis Drake The Queen's Pirate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.
Mabry, Donald. Colonial Latin America. Starkville, MS: HTA Press, 2002.
Pattridge, Blake. D. Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, ed. Barbara A. Tanenbaum, 2 Vol. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996.