The Voyages of Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake by Jodocus Hondius [Public domain]

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake was one of the most celebrated mariners of the Elizabethan era and one of the greatest heroes of British naval history.   In his career he had many spectacular victories, but also some serious defeats.  It is his victories which he is most remembered for. In the modern age for some people his reputation is tarnished by his involvement with the slave  trade and his part in the Rathlin Island massacre in 1575. Nevertheless, to the English he was the scourge of the Spanish Main and a hero who played a key part in saving the nation from the Spanish armada.  To the Spanish he was a bloodthirsty pirate who plundered the treasure ships carrying the gold and silver they had plundered from the Native Americans. Presented here is a brief retelling of his adventures and his exploits concluding with a brief look at some of the legends that surround him.

Drake’s Early Career

Francis Drake began his seafaring career becoming apprenticed to a merchant who owned a small freight boat trading between England and France.  He proved an adept seaman, a skilled navigator and a such a highly regarded employee that when his employer died childless and without an heir, he left the vessel to Drake.

Drake had cousins by the name of Hawkins who were traders and privateers.  They owned a fleet of ships based in Plymouth In those days a privateer was not much different to a pirate except that a privateer had the backing of Queen Elizabeth I who took a portion of the plunder.

First Voyage to the Americas

Drake made his first voyage to the Americas at the age of 23 with Sir John Hawkins, his cousin.  He was given the command of his own vessel in 1568 called the “Judith.”  In San Juan de Ulua, a port in Mexico the two ran into trouble.  Although Drake and Hawkins escaped many of their men were captured, or killed.  From then on Drake developed a burning hatred for Spain. In 1570 and 1571 he again returned to the Americas though both voyages were uneventful.

Return to the  Spanish Main

Queen Elizabeth I granted Drake a privateer’s commission in 1572. In effect, this gave him her permission to attack and rob Spanish ships and property wherever he found it much to the fury of King Philip II of Spain.  With the permission and encouragement of Elizabeth he set sail for the Spanish Main planning to attack the strategic port of Nombre de Dios in Panama. Along with him were two other ships, the Passcha and the Swan and 73 men for the planned raid on  Nombre de Dios, the nearest Atlantic port to the Pacific. Nombre de Dios was important because gold and silver from Chile and Peru on the Pacific coast was transported overland across the narrowest part of Panama to the Caribbean port. It was then loaded onto ships and taken by the Spanish through the Caribbean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.

Although he and his men captured Nombre de Dios, Drake was seriously injured in the fighting. This forced the attackers to pull back without winning much treasure and  Drake was forced to find a safe haven in the area to recover from his wounds. When he was fully recovered, he and his crew embarked on a series of raids on Spanish shipping along the Spanish Main.  From these raids Drake captured a great deal of gold and silver taking it back to England in 1573.

Back to the New World

Queen Elizabeth was delighted with the success of his expedition having also gained much in profit herself.  In 1577, she sent Drake along with Thomas Doughty and John Wynter, back to the New World on an expedition to raid the Spanish settlements on the western South American continent along the Pacific coast.  The three men were to jointly share command of a small fleet of five ships and men that comprised the expedition. After raiding Spanish settlements in the Azores, Drake assumed command. Doughty resented this and tensions between the two festered as they crossed the Atlantic.

Drake Executes Doughty

On reaching the coast of Argentina, tensions came to a head and Drake had Doughty arrested and tried for witchcraft and treason.  He was found guilty and beheaded. Drake then made all officers responsible directly and only to him, effectively giving him full control of the fleet.   A short time after this Drake changed the name of his flag ship, the Pelican, to the Golden Hinde. This may have been a move to placate Sir Christopher Hatton, one of his sponsors because Doughty had been Hatton’s personal secretary. The Hatton family coat of arms featured a golden hind so the name may have been deemed an apt compliment.

A Storm 

Now in total command of the fleet he set sail for the Straits of Magellan and then on to the Pacific Ocean.   A storm arose and two ships could not keep up. One commanded by John Wynter gave up and returned to England. The other was lost in the storm.  Only his flagship, now renamed the Golden Hinde, remained of his fleet, but Drake pressed on with his expedition. Navigating through the Straits into the Pacific Ocean and sailing up the coast of Chile and Peru he attacked and plundered many unsuspecting and unprotected Spanish treasure ships. Eventually he reached the California coast claiming it for Queen Elizabeth.  

Here he landed and repaired his ship, rested his men, and replenished supplies and provisions, before sailing across the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.  Then rounding the Cape of Good Hope he returned to England. In 1580, he finally arrived in Plymouth to become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

The treasure he had plundered from the Spanish made him a very wealthy man.  Queen Elizabeth and his investors were delighted at the highly profitable enterprise and with their share of the booty.  In 1581, the Queen gave him a knighthood and he was elected to the House of Commons.

Back to the Spanish Main

When relations between England and Spain reached a new low between 1585 and 1586, Queen Elizabeth sent Drake back to the Americas to harry and plunder Spanish ships and settlements.   Apart from the huge financial incentives, the hope was to damage their economy and morale. Drake successfully raided or captured several Spanish settlements in both South and North America, angering King Philip II of Spain.

The Spanish Armada

King Philip of Spain ordered the construction of a massive armada planning to invade and conquer England. Drake, as bold as ever, led a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish city of Cadiz where the armada was anchored.  He destroyed over 30 vessels and thousands of tons of supplies. Furthermore, he mocked King Philip referring to the raid as “singeing the king of Spain’s beard.”  

After this Queen Elizabeth made him vice admiral of the English Navy and second in command, under Lord Charles Howard.   But the danger for England was not yet over. Drake had damaged the armada but not destroyed it and what remained was still a mighty force and his attack had only delayed its sailing.

Under the command of Medina Sidonia the armada comprising of 130 vessels and 25,000 men moved menacingly into the English Channel in a crescent-shaped battle formation.   The English fleet met and engaged them in battles that lasted several days. Although the Spanish galleons were bigger and heavier than the English ships the battle did not go their way.

The English ships were smaller, faster and more manoeuvrable and engaged the Spanish in a series of hit and run attacks.  Two Spanish ships were disabled and Drake, always in the right place whenever there is plunder to be had, captured one of the galleons that carried the pay chest of the Spanish army.

Finding the going tough against the English navy, the Spanish commander Sidonia, decided to rest up off the coast of Calais.  He hoped he would be joined there by Spanish soldiers for the invasion of England. This was a mistake as while the armada kept its crescent battle formation the English navy found it difficult to attack them decisively.

English ships battle the Spanish Armada, August 1588 – Public Domain

The Battle of Gravelines

Sir Francis Drake and Lord Howard were not content to stop the fight just yet.  The next day they sent fire ships sailing into the Spanish armada. The fire ships did little damage to the Spanish ships but caused great panic in their captains with many cutting anchor and scattering out of the way.

In doing so they were caught in a strong south westerly wind that took them into the English Channel with the fast English ships in hot pursuit. The battle formation of the armada was broken and the huge, slow galleons, struggled with the hit and run tactics of the English navy.  The big Spanish ships were trying to come alongside the English vessels and board them. But the English came in close in a line and turned their ships broadside firing their cannons blasting the Spanish vessels before quickly moving out of reach effectively ruining the Spanish battle plan.

The Armada Runs

Many English ships were running out of powder by the end of the afternoon and had to hold back   At this stage the battle was still not fully decisive. Sidonia, the Spanish admiral, now believed he had no choice other than to take what was left of the armada north to sail around the Scottish coast and around Ireland to return to Spain.  But as they rounded the Scottish coast they ran into a strong gale and many ships were forced on to rocks. Many of the sailors and soldiers on board were drowned, or if they reached land, were killed by English soldiers or local people. Less than 10,000 of the 25,000 who set off returned to Spain.

Drake Meets With Disaster

Queen Elizabeth was still not satisfied with the victory and in 1589, commanded Drake to search out and destroy any vessels that remained of the armada.  He was also ordered to aid the Portuguese rebellion against the Spanish occupiers in Lisbon. This proved to be a disaster with Drake losing 20 ships and 12,000 men.  On his return to England he kept himself out of naval affairs taking up office as mayor of Plymouth.

Drake’s Last Voyage

In a bid at severing Spain’s revenue from the Americas and hopefully ending the war, Queen Elizabeth commanded Drake and his cousin, Sir John Hawkins to sail to Panama in a bid to capture as much treasure as possible.  In the Caribbean, Drake’s fleet clashed with Spanish ships before anchoring off the coast off Portobello, Panama. Here, Drake contracted dysentery dying of fever on the 28th of January, 1596. He was placed in a lead coffin and buried at sea off Portobello.

Legend In His Own Lifetime

Drake was very much a legend in his own lifetime.   To the English he was a great national hero who had given his best for his queen and country.  Perhaps one of the greatest compliments of his prowess came from the Spaniards. They called him “El Draque” and King Philip II was believed to have offered a reward of 20,000 ducats, for him dead.  This would be the equivalent of around £4 million, or roughly $6.5 million in today’s terms.

The Legend of Drake’s Drum

Drakes Drum – No machine-readable author provided. Throwawayhack assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Drake had a snare drum that he took with him on may of his voyages and was with him on his last. According to legend, just before he died he instructed that the drum be taken back to England where it was kept at his family home of Buckland Abbey.  He vowed that should England ever be in danger someone should beat upon the drum and he would return to save his country. The legend also says that the drum can be heard when England is at war or when events of national importance occur.

The legend of the Drake’s drum is a variation of the classic folklore motif or theme of the king under the mountain who lies either dead or asleep to awake and save his people in times of danger.  Allegedly the drum has been heard to beat several times when the nation has been threatened, in danger or at other significant times. 

It was said to have been heard in 1620 when the Mayflower left Plymouth for the New World and was also reportedly heard when Admiral Lord Nelson was made a freeman of Plymouth.  It was said to have been heard again when Napoleon Bonaparte was brought to Plymouth Harbour by ship as a prisoner after he had been defeated. The drum was said to have been heard in 1914 at the beginning of World War I.  A victory roll was reported to have been heard on HMS Royal Oak that was attributed to Drake’s drum when the German navy surrendered. It was also allegedly heard when Dunkirk was evacuated by British troops during the Second World War.

© 07/08/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 7th, 2019 zteve t evans

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