Sir Francis Drake

Lord Donngal mac Ronain

Sir Francis Drake was a renowned privateer, Captain and politician in the Elizabethan era. Born in 1544 in Tavistock, Devon, England, he was the son of a Protestant farmer and minister.

Drake first got his start in the naval field when he was apprenticed to the neighbor, a shipmaster of a barque used for coasting trade transporting merchandise to France. The shipmaster was so satisfied with Drake's conduct that, being unmarried and childless, at his death he bequeathed the barque to Drake as his inheritor.

It was in 1572 that Drake embarked on his first major independent enterprise. He planned an attack on the Panama isthmus, known to the Spanish as Tierra Firme and the English as the Spanish Main. This was the point at which the silver and gold treasure of Peru had to be landed and sent overland to the Caribbean Sea, where galleons from Spain would pick it up at the town of Nombre de Dios. He left Plymouth on May 24, 1572, with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha (70 tons) and the Swan (25 tons), to capture Nombre de Dios.

His first raid there came late in July 1572. Drake and his men captured the town and its treasure. However his men noticed that Drake was bleeding profusely from a wound and they insisted on withdrawing to save his life, leaving the treasure. He remained in the vicinity of the isthmus for almost a year, raiding Spanish shipping and attempting to capture a treasure shipment.

In 1573, he joined up with a French buccaneer, Guillaume Le Testu, in an attack on a richly laden mule train. This raid succeeded beyond any of their wildest dreams and Drake and his companions found that they had captured around 20 tons of silver and gold. It was far too much for the few men to carry off and so much of the treasure was buried (which may have given rise to all subsequent stories of pirates and buried treasure). Le Testu was wounded, captured and later beheaded.

The small band of adventurers dragged as much gold and silver as they could carry back across some 18 miles of jungle-covered mountains to where they had left their small raiding boats. However, when they got there, their boats had vanished. Drake and his men, downhearted, exhausted and hungry, now had nowhere to go and the Spanish were not far behind.

At this point Drake showed exceptional leadership. He rallied his men, buried the treasure on the beach and built a raft to sail himself and two volunteers ten miles along the fearsome surf-lashed coast to where he had left Le Testu’s flagship. When Drake finally stood on her deck, his men were alarmed at his bedraggled appearance. Fearing the worst they asked him how the raid had gone. Drake, in spite of everything, could not resist a joke and teased them by looking downhearted. Then he laughed, pulled a necklace of Spanish gold from around his neck and said “Our voyage is made, lads!” By August 9, 1573, he was back in Plymouth.

With the success of the Panama isthmus raid, in 1577 Elizabeth I of England sent Drake to start an expedition against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of the Americas. He set out from Plymouth on 15 November 1577, but bad weather threatened him and his fleet, who were forced to take refuge in Falmouth, Cornwall, from where they returned to Plymouth for repair. After this major setback, he set sail once again on 13 December 1577, aboard the Pelican, with four other ships and 164 men. He soon added a sixth ship, Mary, a Portuguese merchant ship that had been captured off the coast of Africa near the Cape Verde Islands. More importantly, he added its captain, Nuno da Silva, a man with considerable experience navigating in South American waters.

Drake's fleet suffered great attrition; he scuttled two ships due to loss of men on the Atlantic crossing. He then made landfall at the gloomy bay of San Julian, in what is now Argentina. Here another ship was found to be rotten and was burned. Drake, following Ferdinand Magellan's example half a century earlier, tried and executed a mutineer, Thomas Doughty. Drake then decided to remain the winter in San Julian before attempting the Strait of Magellan.

The three remaining ships of his convoy departed for the Magellan Strait, at the southern tip of South America. In September 1578 Drake made it to the Pacific, but violent storms destroyed one of the three ships in the strait and caused another to return to England, leaving only the Golden Hind, Drake’s flagship.

After this passage the Golden Hind was pushed south and discovered an island which Drake called Elizabeth Island. Despite popular lore, it seems unlikely that he reached Cape Horn or the eponymous Drake Passage, because his descriptions do not fit the actual land mass and his shipmates denied having seen an open sea. The Golden Hind now sailed north along the Pacific coast of South America, attacking Spanish ports and rifling towns. Some Spanish ships were captured, and Drake used their more accurate charts. Before reaching the coast of Peru, Drake visited Mocha Island where he was seriously injured by hostile Mapuches. Later he sacked the port of Valparaíso further north in Chile.

One of the things Drake is most famous for was the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Drake was vice admiral in command of the English fleet (under Lord Howard of Effingham) when it overcame the Spanish Armada that was attempting to invade England in 1588. As the English fleet pursued the Armada up the English Channel in closing darkness, Drake broke off and captured the Spanish galleon Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdés and all his crew. The Spanish ship was known to be carrying substantial funds to pay the Spanish Army in the Low Countries. Drake's ship had been leading the English pursuit of the Armada by means of a lantern. By extinguishing this for the capture, Drake put the English fleet into disarray overnight.

Drake's seafaring career continued into his mid-fifties. In 1595 he failed to conquer the port of Las Palmas, and following a disastrous campaign against Spanish America, where he suffered a number of defeats, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish gunners from El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake's flagship, but he survived. In 1596, he died of dysentery when he was about 55, while anchored off the coast of Portobelo, Panama where some Spanish treasure ships had sought shelter. Before dying he asked to be dressed in his full armor. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin, near Portobelo. Divers continue to search for the coffin.

*For sources, contact the author.

 

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