Sir Francis Drake
In 1568, Sir John Hawkins, on his third slaving voyage, after trying with meager success to dispose of his slaves to Spanish colonies on the Caribbean coast of South America, was homeward bound when a tempest struck his ships, and the battered fleet put in at the port of San Juan de Ulúa for repairs. The new viceroy guaranteed the safety of the English during these procedures but broke his word and treacherously attacked Hawkins’ ships, sinking or capturing all but two of them. The remaining seamen who were not killed died in prison or suffered under the Inquisition. One of the two ships that escaped was captained by young Francis Drake, a sailor from Plymouth who had not yet made a name for himself. The battle was the first between England and Spain, who had hitherto maintained peaceful if tense relations, and Drake never forgot or forgave the Spanish treachery. Thereafter, he waged a personal vendetta against Spain that grew into a worldwide struggle for mastery between a small Protestant island and Catholic Spain, then ruler of the greatest and wealthiest empire in the world.
Most of Spain’s wealth come from the mines of Mexico and Peru and the pearl fisheries of the Spanish Main, and Drake was determined to seize it for England. The year after his return from San Juan de Ulúa, Drake fitted out an unauthorized expedition and made the first English raid on the Spanish ports in the West Indies. In subsequent years, he executed a series of consummately daring raids, including several ventures into Panama to intercept the trains carrying treasure across the isthmus to the flotas that would transport it to Spain. On his second attempt. Drake seized an enormous amount of gold and silver, equal to a fifth of Elizabeth I’s annual revenue. After his triumphant return to Plymouth, he took part in one of England’s ill-fated expeditions against Ireland.
Drake’s reckless daring had already made him renowned as the scourge of Spain, but in 1577 he embarked upon an enterprise unrivaled in its daring: to attack the Spanish in the Pacific, which he had viewed from Panama. In record time, Drake navigated through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific, the first English seaman ever to do so. Driven back to Tierra del Fuego by a ferocious storm that lasted for more than fifty days, Drake returned to the Pacific by sailing below Cape Horn, discovering what became known as Drake’s Passage. One of his ships was sunk by the storm and another returned to England, leaving Drake’s flagship, the Golden Hind, alone in the Pacific. Aided by a Portuguese pilot, Nuño da Silva, whom he had captured at the Cape Verde Islands, Drake cruised up the western coast of South America, raiding and plundering Spanish towns in Chile and Peru and taking many prizes, including the great treasure ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, which contained cargo worth half the annual revenue of the English government.
From there Drake sailed up the coast of California farther than any European had ever reached. Perhaps he was searching for the western outlet of the fabled Northwest Passage. Failing to find it, he was driven south by cold weather and anchored somewhere in the vicinity of modern San Francisco to refit his ship. He claimed the territory for England and named it “Nova Albion.” Unable to navigate through North America via the Northwest Passage and reluctant to return through hostile Spanish waters around the tip of South America, Drake boldly sailed across the Pacific on a much longer route than Ferdinand Magellan’s, reaching the Philippines and the Moluccas, where he took aboard six tons of cloves. Shortly thereafter, his ship struck a reef and almost foundered. By lightening the ship and having the good fortune of a change of wind, Drake was able to ease the Golden Hind off the reef, repair the damage, and complete the circumnavigation of the world by crossing the Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, sailing up the west coast of Africa to Sierra Leone, rounding the hump of Africa, and reaching Plymouth Sound on September 26, 1580, after an epic voyage of almost three years. To reward him for the exploit and for her share of the enormous treasure, Elizabeth knighted Drake aboard the Golden Hind.
With his share of...
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