Ronald Syme’s Francis Drake: Sailor of the Unknown Seas has no formal chapter or section divisions but is divided loosely into a series of roughly chronological scenes, beginning with the Drake family escaping by night over Dartmoor from the depredations of Queen Mary’s Catholic agents. The narrative then skips to Francis Drake’s boyhood aboard a hulk of a ship in Plymouth harbor and his early voyages with John Hawkins, his uncle and early mentor who became his companion in his voyages to the New World. Sketches and one map of Drake’s travels help to break up the otherwise uninterrupted text, but Syme provides good visual descriptions that anchor scenes in specific locales.
The young Drake set off with John Hawkins to West Africa in order to transport slaves to the West Indies, and the reader shares his adventures raiding the Spanish colonies in Veracruz, Mexico, and in other coastal towns around the Caribbean. Sailing with his brothers John and Joseph, Drake took on the Spanish Empire at Nombre de Dios in Panama and throughout the area (Drake was the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean). Syme shows Drake adventuring in tropical jungles, harassing the Spanish unmercifully, and capturing and sometimes burying treasure in the best piratical tradition. Yet he also served his country’s ambitions in the New World by challenging the monopoly of the dominant European empire.
The young reader is next shown Drake’s most famous achievement: His view of the Pacific whetted his appetite for further westward exploration, and with Elizabeth’s...
(The entire section is 644 words.)