Great Sea Explorers: Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake was an English Sea Captain, privateer, navigator, slaver and a politician of the Elizabethan era.
He was born in Tavistock, Devon in England around February or March of 1544. He was the eldest of twelve sons born to a protestant farmer and his wife. During the prayer book rebellion of 1549 the Drake family fled to Kent from Devonshire, where Drake’s father was appointed to minister to men in the King’s Navy. Francis was apprenticed to a neighbor who was master of a barque used for coastal trade, transporting merchandise to France. He was so satisfied with Drake’s conduct, that upon his death he bequeathed the barque to Drake.
At 23 , Drake made his first voyage to the new world, sailing with a cousin on a fleet of ships owned by their family, the Hawkins family of Plymouth (known for slave trading). In 1568, he was trapped by the Spaniards on a Hawkins vessel in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua, however he and his cousin were able to escape. Following this, Drake vowed revenge.
In 1572, Drake embarked on his first independent enterprise. He planned to attack the Isthmus of Panama, known to the English as the Spanish Main. This is the place where the silver and Gold treasure of Peru had to be brought to land and sent overland to the Carribean Sea, where the Spanish Galleons would pick it up at the town of Nombre de Dios. Drake left Plymouth with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha and the Swan.

In the first raid, Drake and his men captured the town and its treasure, but his men noticed that he was bleeding and forced him to retreat, leaving the treasure. Drake stayed in the area for almost a year, raiding Spanish shipping, attempting to capture a treasure shipment.
In 1573 , Drake joined forces with a French Buccaneer, Guillaume Le Testu, in an attack on a richly laden mule train. Drake and his men found that they had captured around 20 tons of silver and gold. They buried much of the treasure, as it was too much for them to carry. Le Testu was captured and beheaded, so the small party dragged as much as they could back across some 18 miles of jungle covered mountains to where they had left the raiding boats, but when they got the coast, the boats were gone.
Drake rallied his men , buried the treasure on the beach, and built a raft to sail with two others , 10 miles along the surf-lashed coastline to where they had left the flagship. They made the journey successfully and arrived back in Plymouth in August of 1573.
In 1577, Elizabeth I sent Drake to start and expedition against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of the Americas. After a delayed start due to bad weather he set out aboard the Pelican with 5 other vessels.
It’s a good thing he brought spares because he had to scuttle two before making landfall in San Julian, in what is now Argentina. There they discovered that another had rotting timbers and had to burn it. Drake executed a mutineer, his co-commander, Thomas Doherty, whom he accused of witchcraft. He then remained in San Julian for the winter before attempting the Strait of Magellan.
On reaching the pacific , Drake had lost two more ships. One was destroyed by the violent seas and the other turned back for England. Drake was left with his own flagship, The Golden Hind. He sailed north along the Pacific coast of South America, attacking Spanish ports and rifling towns, using more accurate Spanish charts from the captured Spanish ships.
Near Lima Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25000 pesos of Peruvian Gold (about 7 million pounds worth in modern money) , and got wind of another ship the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, which was sailing towards Manila. Drake gave chase and captured the ship discovering 80lb (36kg) of Gold, a gold crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of royals of plate, and 26 tons of silver.
In 1579 Drake landed somewhere north of Spain’s northern most claim at Point Loma. There he restocked his vessels and rested and kept friendly relations with the locals. It is said that he may have started an embryo colony there. The exact location of this port was a carefully guarded secret, lest the Spanish find out and attack.
After this break, Drake headed west across the Pacific reaching the Moluccas, a group of islands in the South West Pacific, in what is now Indonesia. After an incident where the Golden Hind was almost sunk, Drake befriended the sultan King of the Moluccas, and became involved in some intrigues with the Portuguese there. He made multiple stops on his way towards the tip of Africa, eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached Sierra Leone by July 1580.
By September, Golden Hind was back in Plymouth, with Drake and the 59 remaining crew and a rich cargo of spices and captured Spanish treasures. The queen’s half share of the treasure surpassed the rest of the crown’s income for that year. Drake was officially hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. Drake was presented with a jewel, now known as the ‘Drake Jewel”, which is still on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Drake was granted a knighthood and in September 1581, Drake became the Mayor of Plymouth, and a member of parliament.

In 1585, war broke out between Spain and England and Drake sailed for the new World again. He ransacked the ports of Santo Domingo and Cartagena in what is now Colombia. On the return leg he captured the Spanish port of San Augustin in Spanish Florida. This encouraged the King of Spain to order the invasion of England. In a pre-emptive strike, Drake sailed his ships into two of Spain’s main ports and occupied the harbours, destroying a number of naval and Merchant vessels, and delaying the invasion by a year. Drake remained on patrol along the Iberian coast intercepting and destroying as he went. He was the Vice Admiral in charge of the English fleet when it overcame the Spanish Armada that attempted to invade England in 1588. There is an anecdote about Drake that relates that, just before the battle he was playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. On being warned of the Spanish fleet approaching, he is reported to have commented that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still defeat the Spanish.
Drake’s seafaring continued into his mid fifties. In 1596 he died of dysentry whilst moored off the coast of Portobello , Panama. Before dying he asked to be dressed in his full armour . He was buried at sea in a lead coffin, near Portobello. After his death the English fleet withdrew.
Recent news reports indicate that divers and archeologists are about to find the coffin, after many years of searching.

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