Who was Francis Drake? Information on English admiral Francis Drake biography, life story, facts and works.
Sir Francis Drake; (c. 1543-1596), English admiral, whose circumnavigation of the earth and predatory attacks on Spanish shipping made him a legend during his lifetime. His life spanned the “heroic” age of English maritime enterprise, the period in which the English first became a “nation of sailors.”
Drake’s family were yeomen fanners in Devon, in southwestern England. They had some pretensions to gentility but no great means. Edmund Drake, Francis’ father, was an early adherent and lay preacher of the reformed, rather than the established, religion. For this reason he and his family had to leave Devon in 1549 for the east coast.
Young Francis grew up in an atmosphere of relative poverty and religious persecution. Although he learned to read and write and inherited his father’s eloquence, he had little formal education. He was apprenticed early to the master of a coasting bark, became a skipper in his turn, and learned his mastery of ship handling and pilotage in the Thames estuary and the English Channel.
In 1566, Drake shipped as seaman with John Lovell on a slaving venture to the Spanish West Indies. The following year he sailed with John Hawkins, a master in the slave trade, in the Jesus of Lübeck. In the course of this voyage he was given command of the 50-ton Judith. Drake was present at the Battle of San Juan de Ulüa (how Veracruz, Mexico), where Hawkins, trapped in harbor by the Spanish viceroy Martin Enriquez, lost three of his five ships and much treasure. The circumstances in which Drake and his Judith “foresook us in our great misery” (in Hawkins’ words) have never been fully explained. The episode added to Drake’s hatred of Spanish officialdom and bolstered his Protestant convictions.
In 1570, 1571, and 1572, Drake himself commanded small private raiding expeditions to the West Indies to recoup his fortunes. All three expeditions had the Isthmus of Panama as their principal goal, but the first two achieved little. On the third voyage, early in 1573, Drake’s party, reinforced by French Huguenot pirates and guided by cimarrones (runaway Negro slaves), successfully ambushed a mule train carrying Peruvian silver to Nombre de Dios, Panama, for shipment to Spain. Enough bullion was captured and taken back to England to “make” the voyage and Drake’s reputation. His return, however, coincided with an attempt by England’s Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain to compose their differences. Though no action was taken against Drake, he was probably warned to lie low.
Circumnavigation of the World:
The objects of Drake’s circumnavigation voyage of 1577-1580 included exploration and trade in the Pacific and possibly a search for Ptolemy’s Terra Australis (Southern Land) or for the “Strait of Anian,” believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific north of America. With Drake in command, plunder must also have been expected. The Queen gave verbal consent and probably invested in the venture, though secretly—the voyage was almost wholly one of private enterprise.
Five ships left Plymouth carrying about 160 men. Only one ship completed the voyage—the flagship, Pelican, which Drake in the course of the voyage renamed Golden Hind in compliment to his patron Sir Christopher Hatton, whose crest was a golden deer. She was not a big ship by contemporary standards but was very strongly built and exceptionally well armed. Drake’s fleet cruised down the African coast, taking several ships as prizes; crossed to Brazil; and refitted in Port St. Julian (Puerto San Julián) on the Pat-agonian coast, where two ships were abandoned. Here occurred the trial and execution, or “judicial murder,” of Thomas Doughty, a gentleman volunteer whom Drake suspected of treachery.
The three remaining ships made a rapid passage—16 days—through the Strait of Magellan, but .in the Pacific they were separated by storms. One ship disappeared; another put back into the strait and then returned to England. Drake himself was driven to the south of Tierra del Fuego and found there nothing but open sea—an important discovery about the Antarctic region that received little attention at the time.
When the weather abated, Drake embarked on a piratical cruise up the Pacific coast of South America, raiding both harbors and shipping and collecting a large quantity of silver and other booty. This was the first English incursion into the Pacific, and it caused great indignation and alarm in Spain. Drake refitted his ship in a bay on the coast of California. A brass plate purporting to record his stay there was found north of San Francisco in 1936. (Historians are divided about its authenticity.) From California, Drake set off across the Pacific, guided by captured Spanish pilots. He visited the Moluccas—the first English captain to do so—and loaded several tons of cloves. He returned to England by way of the Cape of Good Hope.
Drake was the first English captain to sail around the world. The Queen, in answer to Spanish protests, ordered a token portion of his loot to be restored to the Spaniards. But in 1581, Elizabeth condoned Drake’s piracies by knighting him on board the Golden Hind. The ship itself was preserved for many years as a monument.
War with Spain:
Drake was now both a popular hero and a man of means. In 1584 he was elected a member of Parliament. His maritime depredations and those of many imitators, however, had contributed to a steady deterioration of Anglo-Spanish relations. In 1585 the Spanish government seized English ships in Iberian harbors. Queen Elizabeth replied by letters of reprisal, and Drake was sent off to the West Indies on an authorized cruise, with a fleet of more than 20 sail, including two of the Queen’s ships. The expedition captured and sacked Santo Domingo and Cartagena, took a number of small prizes, but missed the homeward-bound Spanish treasure fleet. On the way home Drake destroyed the Spanish fort at St. Augustine, Florida, and stopped at Roanoke Colony, in Virginia, where he picked up Ralph Lane’s discouraged settlers.
The physical damage caused by Drake’s operations in the West Indies was not crucial, but the effect on English and (conversely) Spanish morale was very great. The cruise off the Spanish coast that Drake next commanded, in 1587, was more important from a strategic point of view. His fleet destroyed more than 20 ships in Cádiz harbor and disrupted, for several months, supplies converging on Lisbon to outfit the Armada, with which Spain planned to sail against England. Drake caused the Spanish naval offensive to be postponed until the following year. When in 1588 the Armada finally sailed, Drake served dutifully and ably as vice admiral under Lord Howard of Effingham in the fleet that defeated the Armada in the English Channel.
The rest of Drake’s career was anticlimactic. The expedition against Lisbon in 1589—150 ships, the biggest fleet Drake ever commanded— was a failure, and Drake was blamed for it. He was not again employed until 1595, in joint command with John Hawkins in another large-scale raid on the Spanish West Indies. It was a disaster. The Spanish defenses had been greatly strengthened since 1585. The English suffered from hesitation and divided counsels. The commanders were aging and past their best. Both Drake and Hawkins died in the course of the voyage—Drake on Jan. 28, 1596—and were buried at sea.
Drake was admired in his own day as a great corsair rather than as a great admiral. He never thought of himself as a pirate, though toward Spaniards he often behaved like one. But even toward Spaniards he could be magnanimous. He was significant, not as the founder of a naval tradition, but as a focus of admiration and envy. He stimulated the predatory instincts of the aristocracy and gentry, the financial and commercial ambitions of businessmen, and the adventurousness and professional competence of seamen. More than any other, he “inflamed the whole country with a desire to adventure into the seas.”