From humble beginnings, Drake made his way by force of will and pluck. Syme shows him as the underdog from the beginning, when he takes on the monopolistic and arrogant Spanish empire, and even when he is transporting slaves from Africa to the New World. (Syme addresses this moral problem briefly, pointing out that moral reservations about the practice did not exist at the time.) Syme’s Drake is kindly and open to New World natives, escaped slaves, and even defeated Spaniards—a quality unexpected in the harsh society of merchant vessels of the age, let alone on pirate ships. He is shown as physically stalwart, ignoring a bullet wound in his leg in order to carry on a raid. In Syme’s version, Drake’s motives may begin with profit, but they soon turn to adventure, as he regularly buries or dumps treasure in order to continue explorations of the unknown.
What is undeniable in both Francis Drake and in the historical record is Drake’s physical courage. His raids on superior Spanish forces carry the hint of a bravery close to madness, with odds of six to ten Spaniards to one Englishman seen by Drake as apparently acceptable. The famous victories at Cádiz and against the Spanish Armada beg for more explanation than Syme provides. The reader is left wondering what courage would possess someone to face odds so great and, no less interesting a question, what qualities of leadership Drake called on to lead others into what must have seemed...
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Syme aims at a youthful subteen and early teen audience and thus spares his readers footnotes, scholarly apparatus, and complex psychology. Instead, he presents Drake as he indubitably was: a fascinating romantic figure of virtually superhuman courage and fortitude. By opening with a scene of Drake’s family in ruin, refugees from religious oppression, sympathy is created and a psychological explanation for Drake’s drive and daring implied: He was overcoming the traumas of his childhood and would let nothing stand in his way. Young readers should also appreciate the picture of Drake and his young brothers as ship’s “monkeys,” falling overboard and swarming up anchor ropes in their youth aboard the ruined hulk in Plymouth bay on which they lived.
Syme’s other books about explorers—such as on Ferdinand Magellan, Henry Hudson, Jacques Cartier, and many others—betray his fascination with seafarers in the age of discovery. The romance of explorers in a time when very little was known of the world holds an eternal fascination for the young, who are themselves explorers in a brave new world.