Sir Francis Drake

(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: A flair for leadership, combined with fearlessness and a powerful spirit of adventure, afforded Drake the most prominent place among those Elizabethan explorers and naval commanders who pioneered England’s overseas expansion.

Early Life

Francis Drake was born around 1540 in Crowndale, a village near Tavistock, in Devonshire, England. Nothing is known of his mother. His father, Robert Drake, was the third son of John Drake of Otterton. Unsuccessful in business and committed to advancing the reformed religion, the father bore responsibility for his family living in humble circumstances. Many of Francis Drake’s twelve siblings reputedly were born in the hull of a ship moored in the Thames in Kent, where the family had been forced to relocate as a result of the father’s vocal Protestantism. There is a certain fitness in this connection with the sea, where most of the Drake offspring made their marks and ultimately died.

As a boy, Francis Drake was apprenticed to the master of a coasting vessel and acquired both a love for the sea and the skills that served him well during his career. Upon the death of the master, Drake assumed command of his ship and continued trading for a brief period. His spirit of adventure and his ambition proved, however, to be too strong, and by 1565 he joined expeditions that were mounted first to Africa and then to the Spanish Main. These voyages whetted his appetite for exploration and further stirred his ambition, so in 1567 he decided to join the third expedition organized by his cousin, John Hawkins, to capture black slaves in Africa and sell them to the Spanish colonists in the New World. Drake’s decision to join Hawkins’ third slaving voyage proved to be the turning point in his career, for Hawkins’ fleet, including the ship Judith, commanded by Francis Drake, was attacked at San Juan de Ulúa, a small island off Veracruz, by a powerful Spanish force commanded by the Viceroy of New Spain. In the ensuing battle, only two of Hawkins’ ships, the Jesus of Lubeck, commanded by Hawkins, and the Judith, captained by Drake, escaped and made their way back to England. Both Hawkins and Drake vowed to be avenged for what they viewed as the “treachery” of the Spaniards, and while both men made good on their vow, Francis Drake not only struck numerous and devastating blows against King Philip II of Spain, but also laid the foundation for the maritime traditions that spread England’s power and influence around in the world in subsequent centuries.

Life’s Work

In the years following the attack in Mexico, Drake embarked on a series of maritime adventures that established his reputation as the quintessentially daring English sea captain. Determined to strike a blow at Spain, Drake used his knowledge of the flow of Spanish treasure from America to Europe with dramatic effect. First, in 1570 and 1571, he mounted small reconnoitering voyages to the Gulf of Mexico to collect detailed information. Then, in 1572, he executed his masterstroke by sailing from Plymouth to attack the Spanish at their most vulnerable point, the area of the production of precious metals in the New World. Knowing that the produce of the silver mines of Peru was transported by mule train overland through Panama, Drake determined to attack the unescorted treasure trains and seize their booty. Upon landing in Panama, Drake made contact with the Cimaroons and developed a plan to waylay the Spanish treasure train that regularly crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Providentially, Drake was taken by his guides to a high point in Panama where he could see both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, which made him the first Englishman to see the Pacific. Vowing someday to sail an English ship on the Pacific, Drake and his force pressed on and soon enjoyed spectacular success by capturing an entire treasure train that yielded so much silver that they took what they could carry back to their ships and buried the rest. Drake arrived back in England on August 9, 1573. His expedition made him a wealthy man, endowed him with a reputation for courage and daring,...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)