Francis Drake Summary
by Ronald Syme

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Francis Drake Summary

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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 permission, he set out to sail around the world. Beginning with five ships in 1577, Drake headed for the Straits of Magellan, executed one of his captains on the way for attempting to turn back, and lost ships to storms, the dreadful cold, and the fear of the unknown when his crew gave up. Only the Golden Hind survived to raid Peru on the west coast of South America and to proceed up North America to Vancouver in search of the Northwest Passage before being turned back by storms and the cold. From Peru, Drake took tons of Spanish treasure, and on his way back down from Vancouver, he claimed “New Albion,” the area around San Francisco Bay, for Elizabeth and England. Syme quotes the exact words of the claim from the brass plate left by the English explorer, creating a sense of authenticity that he sustains throughout the text with brief quotations. Drake then sailed for home across the Pacific Ocean, receiving his...

(The entire section is 644 words.)