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Francis Drake Biography And Visits

Plymouth Sound

Francis Drake was born into poverty, probably sometime in the spring of 1540, the eldest of twelve children. His family was part of a tenant farming community making a precarious living on the southern slopes of Dartmoor in Devon. When Francis was seven years old, a violent catholic rising in the west country meant that Drake's protestant family had to flee for their safety. They took refuge on an island in the middle of Plymouth Sound, which is still known as Drake's Island. This was followed by another move to Kent, the family living in a hulk on the river Medway, not far from Chatham Dockyard. While his father made a living as a preacher in the Royal Navy, Francis and many of his brothers became apprentices on ships. Francis started work on a coaster carrying coal and timber, and clearly made a good impression. When the old captain died he left his vessel to his apprentice. Francis Drake was now an owner, and he continued to work the coastal routes for a few years, before a combination of restlessness and envy forced a move. He had heard that his Devon relatives, the Hawkins family, had been getting rich challenging the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on Atlantic trade routes. John Hawkins was running ships from Africa to the West Indies carrying slaves, hides and gold, and was making a fortune. In 1563 Drake sold his vessel and joined John Hawkins' firm. He worked on Hawkins' ships for four years, making money from the slave trade with no apparent qualms, which was not unusual for the time. Then in February 1568, an event occurred that would mark Drake and mould his future. He was part of a group of ships forced to put into Juan de Ulua in Mexico to make repairs after a storm. Breaking the terms of a truce, Hawkins' ships were attacked by a Spanish fleet, the Spanish commander Don Martin Enriquez not wanting to pass up the opportunity to destroy Hawkins, one of Spain's most annoying enemies. The English survivors had to escape in unprepared ships, and make a nightmare journey home. In Drake's mind at least, the Spanish action was treacherous, resulting in an aggressive obsession with challenging Spain in any way possible.


Drake now dedicated himself to piracy at the expense of Spain. From May 1572 he went on a sustained fifteen month rampage in Spanish central America. During this period Drake staged an expedition across the isthmus at Panama. It was at Panama that silver brought by ships from Chile would cross the narrow neck of land to the Atlantic coast for shipping back to Spain. During his Panama adventure Drake climbed the Cordillera mountains, and from the top he got his first view of the Pacific Ocean. Drake knew that England had been denied the Pacific by Spanish and Portuguese power blocking routes to this unknown ocean. Drake thought that if England could break through into the Pacific, Spain could be challenged. A whole new world, or so it seemed, would open up for England. Drake didn't hang around looking at the view for long. He plundered and wrecked Spanish colonies and returned to England a rich man. A fine house in Plymouth and three ships were purchased with the proceeds. A long period was then spent trying to win influence at court. Drake already had the idea of a circumnavigation of the world in mind, and saw the necessity of winning favour with powerful figures in government if it was to happen. He joined Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex on the ill-fated 1573 - 1577 expedition to pacify Ireland. In Ireland he met professional courtier Thomas Doughty who opened doors at court and became an enthusiastic partner in the planned voyage. Finally in September 1577 official permission came through allowing a circumnavigation to be organised. 250 sailors were enlisted at Plymouth, and were told they were going on a voyage to Alexandria. Captain John Wynter arrived in his ship Elizabeth thinking he was going on a trip to look for a continent in the south seas, and find a new way through to the Orient. Almost everyone involved was kept in the dark about the voyage's true nature. Drake's fleet of five ships, Pelican, Elizabeth, Marigold, Swan and Christopher sailed on 15th November, but was forced into Falmouth by a storm three days later. After repairs the fleet sailed back to Plymouth, and did not finally set off on their journey until 13th December.



Golden Hind, London

Sailing south along the coast of Africa the expedition soon got down to business, hijacking some Spanish fishing vessels and pressing their crew into temporary service providing the fleet with food. Then in the Cape Verde Islands Drake managed to capture an experienced Portuguese pilot, Nuno da Silva, who knew the route to Brazil. Captured along with him was a merchant ship called Mary full of stores which would be vital to the voyage ahead. After initial tension Drake and da Silva established a good working relationship, the Portuguese pilot making a significant contribution to getting the fleet safely across the Atlantic to South America. Da Silva successfully navigated through unpredictable coastal fogs and storms to reach the Plate estuary in today's Uruguay in April 1578. After repair and replenishment the fleet sailed for the Straits of Magellan which would lead around the tip of South America into the Pacific. This was the crisis point of the voyage. Drake now had to tell his crew the real purpose of the voyage. It was also necessary to deal with his gentleman partner, the courtier Thomas Doughty, who had become a jealous and overbearing threat to Drake's authority. It did not seem right to Doughty that a low born sailor like Drake should be in a position of command over gentlemen like himself. Tensions had risen all the way across the Atlantic, Drake attempting to control the situation by sending Doughty off to command the smallest ship in the fleet. He had even lashed the turbulent gentleman to a mast for a few days to try and control him. But Doughty was gathering together his own group of disaffected souls, and it became clear that extreme measures were required. Drake was now to display an ability that would be very important in creating the historical figure he became. In dealing with Doughty he showed a great ability in the use of symbols and imagery of power. Drake arranged a trial of Doughty on an island at Port St Julian in today's Argentina. Ironically the trial did not focus so much on Doughty's shortcomings as a crew member, but rather on his role back in England, secretly politicking behind Drake's back at Court to enhance his own position with the expedition. Drake talked vaguely about having been given dispensation to administer justice, whilst refusing to reveal the document that would prove it. Then in his cross examination he used the word "treachery" a great deal, and kept mentioning the queen. By the end of all this he had manipulated his jury of seamen into charging Doughty with treason and condemning him to death. The sentence was carried out on 2nd of July 1578. This was an important moment in Drake's battle to control his men, and illustrated considerable ability in manipulating people. Soon after Doughty's execution at Port St Julian, Drake's ship Pelican was renamed Golden Hind. This was probably a gesture made in honour of Doughty's powerful government friend Christopher Hatton - Hatton's coat of arms included a golden hind. This renaming was a political move to try and offset problems that Doughty's' execution of dubious legality would cause when, and if, the expedition ever got back to England.


Golden Hind, Brixham



After consolidating his expedition into fewer ships to reduce the chance of the fleet breaking up, Golden Hind, Elizabeth and Marigold sailed through the Straits of Magellan. This was a maze of waterways between cliffs and islands off the southern tip of South America. Drake now faced physical challenges equal to that of the political challenge he had just come through. Picking his way through the narrow channel, Drake made it to the Pacific, only for a massive storm to blow his fleet helplessly south. Once the storm blew itself out Drake made his way back to the Straits, only to be blown back south again by another furious storm. Captain Wynter in the Elizabeth became separated from Drake, and after sheltering in the Straits, was forced into sailing back to England by his rebellious crew. Marigold sank in stormy seas. After all this only Golden Hind remained to finally sail up the coast of Chile. Here the expedition survived as it did during the Atlantic crossing, by capturing Spanish ships. Off the Chilean coast the Capitana was captured along with its valuable cargo. Shore raids yielded silver carried by Spanish couriers. Then in February 1579 came the big prize, the capture of Nuestra Senora, a Spanish treasure ship conveying silver from Chilean mines to Panama. Nuestra Senora was carrying 1300 bars of silver, fourteen chests of silver coins, as well as gold and jewels. At this point Drake tried to do what he did in the Atlantic, use a captured pilot to help him in his voyage. But unlike Nuno da Silva who had helped navigate across the Atlantic, the Spanish pilot Alonso Colchero, captured off Costa Rica, would not cooperate. Drake hung Colchero from the rigging to the point of unconsciousness, but still the brave Spaniard would not give in. Drake eventually sent him ashore in disgust. In a less than heroic move he also abandoned Nuno da Silva in central America, his usefulness now at an end. It must have been clear that da Silva would be judged a traitor by the Spanish, but he was abandoned anyway, despite all the help he had given. Da Silva was captured by the Inquisition and suffered in their jails for a number of years before being released.



On the poop deck of the Brixham Golden Hind, looking forward

In the Pacific Drake continued to use the guile which had got him this far. Most of the time he traded in fear and intimidation rather than actual terrible deeds. One captured group of Spaniards were given a letter apparently offering protection from the cruel captain of another English ship somewhere in the Pacific. Drake was thinking of the lost Elizabeth, which by now was back in England. He then let his Spanish captives go, to run off and report their capture, and the fact that an even more terrible pirate was loose in the Pacific. Sure enough panic spread through Spanish colonies in South America, and many "sightings" of illusory English ships were reported. Meanwhile Drake sailed up to California, and anchored at a bay near San Francisco. At this point he showed a welcome side to his nature in his dealings with Miwok Indians. Even though he had been injured by Mapucha Indians on an island off Peru, Drake did not over react when nervous Miwok's threatened to attack his Californian camp. Instead Drake motioned to the Indians to put down their weapons, which thankfully they did. After this, sailors and Indians got on well, the sailors giving medical help to the Miwok where they could. Leaving California, Golden Hind managed to escape pursuing Spanish vessels and crossed the Pacific to Java. Here Drake was offered the chance to meet China's ruler, and possibly arrange a military or trading alliance. But Drake felt he had to turn this opportunity down. He was running out of men. Only fifty eight were left, his ship was laden with looted treasure, and there was still a long way to go, through the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope and home. Drake sailed on, losing only one more man on the long final journey home. On Monday 26th September 1580 Golden Hind came in on the tide at Plymouth Sound.

But the voyage wasn't over, because now Drake had to make his way through treacherous political shoals. Heroes are never far from villains, and getting back to England it could have gone either way for Drake. He had returned to England at a turning point in international relations. The queen and her advisors had to decide whether to take the treasure Drake had brought back, or to denounce Drake as a pirate and hand his treasure to the Spanish. It was a difficult decision. Golden Hind had returned with a great deal of money. Queen Elizabeth's share represented enough money to cover all government expenses for almost a year. On the other hand Spain was a superpower, and provocation of such a country was highly dangerous. It might be in England's best interest to mollify Spain by branding Drake a pirate. This had been the favoured option when dealing with Captain Whynter who had returned early on the Elizabeth after getting separated from Drake in the Straits of Magellan. This was inspite of the fact that Whynter had always been strongly opposed to any idea of piracy, and had not been Drake's supporter in his more heavy handed moments during the voyage to South America. Whynter was imprisoned and his reputation destroyed. According to Derek Wilson, Drake could very easily have gone the way of Whynter, as illustrated by the fact that Golden Hind's cargo was initially catalogued to be handed over to the Spanish. Then Elizabeth changed her mind, the treasure being transferred to Saltash Castle near Plymouth. In 1580 the public mood required a hero, and Drake fitted the moment. It was decided that while the honourable and decent Whynter had been thrown in jail, the swaggering Drake, often given to bragging and bravado, should be a hero. And so with his share of the profits, Drake became the gentlemen he had always wanted to be, buying Buckland Abbey in Devon. But it could have all been so different. The merchant community of London was furious with Drake for damaging their trade with Spain, and senior government figures were appalled that Drake had disrupted the delicate state of international relations. Sober minds could see that while Drake's circumnavigation had been a great personal achievement, it actually meant little in the wider world. The loss of one treasure ship had inflicted no practical damage on Spain, and no adventurers followed Drake through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific to stake any kind of claim there. Drake was saved because practicalities were not really the point. More to the point was Drake's ability to deal in images. He was the image that England now required, and was the sort of man who could play his part well. He could appear to be a hero, taking on the Spanish, and invading their patch. Drake was fortunate that he came back to England when it was felt a hero was needed. How close Drake came to being judged a villainous pirate is ironically demonstrated in the banquet held aboard Golden Hind to celebrate the circumnavigation. The queen prepared to knight Drake in his cabin. As she did so she said: "Master Drake, the king of Spain has asked for your head, and we have a weapon with which to remove it." At this point she handed her ceremonial sword to a surprised French ambassador who was asked to be "headsman" in carrying out the knighting ceremony. If anything shows the close relationship between heroes and villains it was the knighting of Francis Drake, humorously presented by Queen Elizabeth as his execution. In fact the knighting ceremony itself, the strange tradition of touching both shoulders with a sword, is an ambivalent act. It confers great status, and yet as it does so it reminds the recipient of honour that they shouldn't start thinking too much of themselves, because the sword, which could chop off their head, is close. For Drake the sword touched his shoulders, and the delicately balanced scales came down on the side of hero. As befitting a hero, Golden Hind was put into dry dock in Deptford and became an "historical visit" in the "proud history" tradition. The original ship eventually rotted away, but there are replicas in London and Brixham in Devon. A chair reputedly carved from the Golden Hind's timbers can be seen in the Great Hall at Buckland Abbey in Devon. Drake's personal chest from the Golden Hind is kept at Berkeley Castle. An item from the haul brought back from South America, in the form of the "Drake Jewel," is kept at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.


The voyage had a small part to play as one of the irritations which damaged Anglo Spanish relations and resulted in the declaration of war with Spain in 1585. Drake was in the forefront of the English naval effort, sacking Spanish ports in the Caribbean and Florida. Once again these attacks provoked Spain, and encouraged Philip II of Spain to decide that only the most drastic of measures were required in dealing with England. In 1587 he planned a massive Armada to link up with ground troops in Holland and invade England. But it was pointless arguing that Drake should be reined in. He was a hero. A raid led by Drake against Cadiz in 1587 delayed the Spanish attack, but could not prevent it. A huge fleet of Spanish ships appeared in the English Channel in July 1588. Drake was second in command of the fleet sent out to oppose the Armada. A mythical element then seems to have been thrown into Drake's role, as he is supposed to have insisted on completing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before strolling off nonchalantly to face the enemy. According to Harry Kelsey in Sir Francis Drake, The Queen's Pirate there are no known eye witnesses to the game of bowls, and it didn't appear in writing until thirty seven years after it was supposed to have happened. Just as Drake was a manipulator of images, he became an image to which embellishments were added. The myth of the bowls match probably grew out of a much more mundane delay which was imposed on English ships by unfavourable tides or winds. Fortunately in the longer term, winds were against the Spanish, and the Armada was defeated. This was then followed by something of an anticlimax to Drake's career. In 1589 he led a disastrous attack on the Spanish port of La Corunna, in which he lost twenty ships and 12,000 men. In 1595 there were further failed raids on the port at Las Palmas, and San Juan in Puerto Rico. Drake finally died in 1596, aged 55, on board his ship, off the coast of Portobelo in Panama, and was buried at sea. This sad conclusion to his career is rarely remembered in Drake mythology.

Drake was an image manipulator. He was then manipulated by that other great image maker Elizabeth I, who used him in the services of national identity. In years to come when Britain became a maritime power, the heroic image of Drake would only become stronger. But heroes are never easy people, and it is always a close run thing, a knighthood being close to an execution.