Privateers > Francis Drake

Francis Drake

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Background

Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 27 January 1596), also known as Sir Francis Drake or El Draque was a vice admiral and British sea captain and famous privateer of the Privateering Era. He was also a politician and one of the founders of slave trading to the New World. One of his most famous exploits was carrying out the second circumnavigation of the globe following Ferdinand Magellan between 1577 and 1580.

As a result of his achievements he was awarded a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth I. Later he went on to be the second in command of the British fleet when it destroyed the infamous Spanish Armada in 1588. He raided numerous Spanish ports around the world during his voyage and returned to England with great treasures. He was considered a pirate with a bounty on his head of about 20,000 ducats or about £4 million (US$6.5M) by King Philip II of Spain but in Britain he was regarded as a national hero. Thus is the ethics and morals of piracy.

He would later die of dysentery in January of 1596 after trying to unsuccessfully siege the port city of San Juan on the island of Puerto Rico. His legacy would reverberate throughout generations and not only inspire countless other English Sea Dogs but also later generations of buccaneers and outlaw pirates.

Early Years

Not much is known about the birth of Francis Drake other than he was born in Tavistock, Devon, England. It is also known that he was born while the Six Articles were in act which would date his birth to 1544. However, a date of circa 1540 is given because of two different birth dates given by a miniature painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1581 when he was allegedly 42 and another painted in 1594 when he was supposed to be 53. He was born as the eldest of twelve sons to Edmund Drake (1518-1585) who was a Protestant farmer and his wife Mary Mylwaye. Francis was named after his godfather Francis Russell who was the 2nd Earl of Bedford.

Due to religious persecution during the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 his family fled from Devonshire to Kent. There his father got a job working for the Kings Navy as a recruiter. Drakes father was an ordained deacon and gained the position of vicar of Upnor Church on the Medway. Here Drakes father apprenticed Drake to his neighbor who was the master of a barque used for coastal trading with France. Drake impressed the ship master so much that since he was unmarried and have no children of his own he bequeathed the ship to a young Drake.

Drake would marry Mary Newman in 1569 and she would die twelve years later in 1581. Drake would marry again in 1585 to Elizabeth Sydenham who was born in 1562. She was the only child of Sir George Sydenham, of Combe Sydenham,who held the position of High Sheriff of Somerset. Following the death of Drake his widow would remarry to Sir William Courtenay of Powderham. Since Drake had no children of his own all of estates and titles passed down to his nephew named Francis.

Privateering Era

Drake began his naval career by sailing with his second-cousin John Hawkins who owned a fleet of ships operating out of the city of Plymouth. He was twenty-three at the time and was part of the Hawkins fleet when it was trapped by the Spanish at the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa at the port of Veracruz in 1568. Drake and Hawkins managed to escape but the fleet was defeated and he forever held a grudge against the Spanish and vowed to get his revenge.

He made two later voyages to the West Indies in 1570 and 1571 but not much is known about these trips. His next major move was an independent campaign against the Spanish Main in 1572. Drake planned to strike at the town of Nombre de Dios where all of the plundered silver and gold wealth of the vanquished Incan civilization in Viceroyalty of Peru was to be collected before transported back to Spain.

Drake and his crew set sail from Plymouth on 24 May 2572 in two ships, the 70-ton Pascha and the 25-ton Swan in order to try and capture the city before the Spanish fleet arrived. Drake made it to the West Indies by July of 1572 and managed to siege the undefended city and capture its treasure. However, Drake had become severely wounded in the engagement and was bleeding very badly. They elected to save his life and left the treasure behind. Recouping from his wounds Drake would continue to harras Spanish shipping all throughout the following year.

In 1573 he teamed up the French corsair named Guillaume Le Testu and the two attempted to siege a Spanish Silver Train transporting wealth by mule overland. They successfully managed to attack the caravan and seized 20 tons of gold and silver. Guillaume Le Testu was wounded in the engagement and captured by the Spanish. He was beheaded and the remaining privateers hauled away as much treasure as they could carry across eighteen miles of jungle and mountains. They managed to make it back to the coast and found the boats they had arrived in on were gone.

The Spanish were not far behind them and Drake and his surviving men were hungry, tired and had no where to run to. Unable to transport their massive wealth they elected to bury it on the beach and this has given rise to many of the stories of buried pirate treasure. They built a raft and sailed ten miles down the coast to where they had anchored the flagship. Looking like he just ran through a jungle escaping musket fire while dragging treasure chests of stolen Spanish loot the crew wondered how the raid went. He looked down and then quickly pulled out a beautiful golden necklace and apparently said:

"Our voyage is made, lads!"

It is not known what happened next or if they managed to recover all of the treasure but by 9 August 1573, Drake and the rest of his crew had returned back to the city of Plymouth and began plotting their next voyage.

First Circumnavigation

Francis Drake made the first of his two circumnavigations in 1577 during which he plundered Spanish settlements all along the way and made a name for himself as one of the greatest privateers to ever live.

Second Circumnavigation

Singeing the King of Spain's Beard

In another pre-emptive strike, Drake "singed the beard of the King of Spain" in 1587 by sailing a fleet into Cadiz and also Corunna, two of Spain's main ports, and occupied the harbours. He destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships. The attack delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.[33] 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.[34]

Spanish Armada

Drake would serve as the Vice-Admiral in command of the English fleet under Lord Howard of Effingham who managed to defeat the Spanish Armada which was attempting to invade England in 1588. As the English fleet was chasing the Armada up the English Channel Drake and broke off from the rest of the fleet and managed to capture the Spanish Galleon called the Rosario which was captained by Admiral Pedro de Valdés along with his entire crew in the dead of night.

Sir Francis Drake whilst playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe is informed of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Bronze plaque by Joseph Boehm, 1883, base of Drake statue, Tavistock

The Spanish ship was known to have been carrying the resources necessary to pay the Spanish military located in the Low Countries. However, for Drake to capture the ship he had to extinguish the lantern which was used as the leading point for the English fleet. By capturing the Spanish galleon he threw his own fleet into chaos because they did not have a general leader.

Drakes next great exploit would come on the night of 29 July when along with Lord Howard they organized a series of fire ships which caused the Spanish Armada to break naval formation and sail out from the port of Calais in to the Atlantic. The following day Drake would be present at the Battle of Gravelines and would write about the engagement later to Admiral Henry Seymour while aboard the Revenge on 31 July 1588 (21 July 1588 O.S.).

Coming up to them, there has passed some common shot between some of our fleet and some of them; and as far as we perceive, they are determined to sell their lives with blows.

One famous anecdote from the Spanish Armada invasion of England that involves Drake was prior to the battle he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. After he was warned of the incoming Armada he supposedly said that there was plenty of time to finish the game and beat the Spanish. However, this is likely an urban myth because there are no first hand accounts of the incident and the first telling of the story was thirty-seven years after the fact. One of the historical realities that could have given rise to this legend was that strong winds and currents delayed the launch of the English fleet as the Spanish Armada drew closer to the mainland.

Norris-Drake Expedition

The year after Drake defeated the Armada in 1589 he was given three tasks from the Queen along with Sir John Norreys. From there they were to venture out and find all the remaining Spanish ships and destroy them. They were also told to give material aid and assistance to the rebels in Lisbon who were attempting to overthrow Philip II of Spain. The third task of this expedition was to take the Azores Islands.

Drake and Norreys would be succesful at first and destroy some ships in the harbor of A Coruña but would eventually lose over 12,000 sailors and twenty ships in their fleet. This would delay his attempts to finish off the Spanish Armada so instead they headed to Lisbon instead.

Final Years & Death

Drake continued to be a mariner throughout his fifties and in 1595 he tried to assault the port city of Las Palmas. He was unsuccessful and the rest of this expedition throughout Spanish America would end in defeat. He would try to siege the city of San Juan on the island of Puerto Rico but would also be unsuccessful there as well. During the Battle of San Juan the Spanish soldiers at El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of the flagship but Drake would survive

A few weeks later in January of 1596 while the British fleet was anchored off the coast of Portobello dysentery would overcome Drake and he would die when he was about 55. After he died the British fleet withdrew from the region and was buried at sea in a lead coffin near the city in full armor. To this day the coffin still rests on the sea floor seeking to be found by archaeologists and treasure hunters.

Legacy

Francis Drake was the inspiration for generations of privateers and pirates following his death and immortalization. His works were read by many intrepid maritimers and the general public as a whole and suddenly the glory and romanticized view of privateering and piracy was born in England. His deeds throughout the Privateering Era would set the stage for the Buccaneering Era where the Buccaneers would raid and plunder the Spanish Main and pave the way for other European powers to colonize the West Indies.

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Sources

Primary Sources

Bigges, W.(1589). A Svmmarie and Trve Discovrse of Sir Frances Drakes VVest Indian Voyage. London: Roger Ward.

Secondary Sources

Masefield, J. (1906). On the Spanish Main: Or, Some English forays on the Isthmus of Darien. London: Methuen & Co.

Whymper, F. (1877). The Sea: Its Stirring Story of Adventure, Peril & Heroism. (Vol. 3). London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin.