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     death: 28 JAN 1596 
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click for full portrait^ Francis Drake.
Died on 28 January 1596.

He was an English pirate and admiral who circumnavigated the globe (1577–1580), played an important role in defeating the Spanish Armada (1588), and was the most renowned seaman of the Elizabethan Age in England.
     Born in 1540 (best guess) on the Crowndale estate of Lord Francis Russell, second earl of Bedford, Drake was the son of one of the latter's tenant farmers. His father was an ardent Protestant lay preacher, an influence that was to have an immense effect on Drake's character. His detestation of Catholicism had its origins not only in his father's teaching but in his own early experiences, when his family had to flee the West Country during the Catholic uprising of 1549. They made their way to Kent in southeastern England and, in exchange for their former country cottage home, found lodging in one of the old naval hulks that were moored near Chatham on the south bank of the Thames Estuary. Had he stayed in Devon he might have become a yeoman farmer, but his family's poverty drove him to sea while he was still a boy. When Drake was about 13 years old, he was apprenticed to a small coastal vessel plying between North Sea ports. Thus, sailing one of the harshest stretches of water in the world, he learned early how to handle small vessels under arduous conditions. The knowledge of pilotage he acquired during these years was to serve him in good stead throughout his life. The old sea captain left Drake his ship when he died, so that Drake, thereafter, became his own master.
      Drake might have spent all his life in the coastal trade but for the happy accident that he was related to the powerful Hawkins family of Plymouth, Devon, who were then embarking on trade with the New World, which, as Drake never forgot, had been given by Pope Alexander VI to the kingdom of Spain. When he was about 23, dissatisfied with the limited horizons of the North Sea, he sold his boat and enlisted in the fleet belonging to the Hawkins family. Now he first saw the ocean swell of the Atlantic and the lands where he was to make his fame and fortune.
     On a voyage to the West Indies, as second in command, Drake had his first experience of the Spaniards and of the way in which foreigners were treated in their realms; their cargoes, for example, were liable to be impounded. At a later date he referred to some “wrongs” that he and his companions had suffered, wrongs that he was determined to right in the years to come. His second voyage to the West Indies, this time in company with John Hawkins [1532 – 12 Nov 1595], ended disastrously at San Juan de Ulúa off the coast of Mexico, when the English seamen were treacherously attacked by the Spanish and many of them killed. Drake returned to England in command of a small vessel, the Judith, with an even greater determination to have his revenge upon Spain and the Spanish king Philip II [21 May 1527 – 13 Sep 1598]. Although the expedition was a financial failure, it served to make Drake's reputation, for he had proved himself an outstanding seaman. People of importance, including Queen Elizabeth I [07 Sep 1533 – 24 Mar 1603], who had herself invested in the venture, now heard his name. In the years that followed he made two expeditions in small boats to the West Indies, in order “to gain such intelligence as might further him to get some amend for his loss. . . .” In 1572, having obtained from the Queen a privateering commission, which amounted to a license to plunder in the King of Spain's lands, Drake set sail for America in command of two small ships, the Pasha, of 70 tons, and the Swan, of 25 tons. He was nothing if not ambitious, for his aim was to capture the important town of Nombre de Dios, Panama. Although himself wounded in the attack, he and his men managed to get away with a great deal of plunder—the foundation of his fortune. Not content with this, he went on to cross the Isthmus of Panama. Standing on a high ridge of land, he first saw the Pacific, that ocean hitherto barred to all but Spanish ships. It was then, as he put it, that he “besought Almighty God of His goodness to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea.” His name as well as fortune was established by this expedition, and he returned to England both rich and famous. Unfortunately,his return coincided with a moment when Queen Elizabeth and King Philip II of Spain had reached a temporary truce. Although delighted with Drake's success in the empire of her great enemy, Elizabeth could not officially acknowledge it. Drake, who was as politically discerning as he was navigationally brilliant, saw that the time was inauspicious and sailed with a small squadron to Ireland, where he served under the Earl of Essex, who was then engaged in suppressing a rebellion in that strife-torn land. This is an obscure period of Drake's life, and he does not emerge into the clear light of history until two years later.
Oops! ... wrong drake      In 1577 he was chosen as the leader of an expedition intended to pass around South America through the Strait of Magellan and to explore the coast that lay beyond. The object was to conclude trading treaties with the people who lived south of the Spanish sphere of influence and, if possible, to explore an unknown continent that was rumored to lie far in the South Pacific. The expedition was backed by the Queen herself. Nothing could have suited Drake better. He had official approval to benefit himself and the Queen, as well as to cause the maximum damage to the Spaniards. It was now that he met the Queen for the first time and heard from her own lips that she “would gladly be revenged on the King of Spain for divers injuries that I have received.” He set sail in December with five small ships, manned by fewer than 200 men, and reached the Brazilian coast in the spring of 1578. His flagship, the Pelican, which Drake later renamed The Golden Hind, was only about 100 tons. It seemed little enough with which to undertake a venture into the domain of the most powerful monarch and empire in the world.
      Upon arrival in South America, it was discovered that there was a plot against Drake, and its leader, Thomas Doughty, was tried and executed. Drake was always a stern disciplinarian, and he clearly did not intend to continue the venture without making sure that all his small company were loyal to him. Two of his smaller vessels, having served their purpose as store ships, were then abandoned, after their provisions had been taken aboard the others, and, on 21 August 1578, he entered the Strait. It took 16 days to sail through, after which Drake had his second view of the Pacific Ocean, this time from the deck of an English ship. Then, as he wrote, “God by a contrary wind and intolerable tempest seemed to set himself against us.” During the gale, Drake's vessel and that of his second in command had been separated; the latter, having missed a rendezvous with Drake, ultimately returned to England, presuming that the Hind had sunk. It was,therefore, only Drake's flagship that made its way into the Pacific and up the coast of South America. He passed along the coast like a whirlwind, for the Spaniards were quite unguarded, having never known a hostile ship in their waters. He seized provisions at Valparaíso, attacked passing Spanish merchantmen, and captured two very rich prizes. The Golden Hind was below its watermark, loaded with bars of gold and silver, minted Spanish coinage, precious stones, and pearls, when he left South American waters to continue his voyage around the world. Before sailing westward, however, he sailed to the north as far as 48° N, on a parallel with Vancouver, to seek the Northwest Passage back into the Atlantic. The bitterly cold weather defeated him, and he coasted southward to anchor just north of modern San Francisco. He named the surrounding country New Albion and took possession of it in the name of Queen Elizabeth. In his search for a passage around the north of America he was the first European to sight the west coast of what is now Canada.
      In July 1579 he sailed west across the Pacific and after 68 days sighted a line of islands (probably the remote Palau group). From there he went on to the Philippines, where he watered ship before sailing to the Moluccas. There he was well received by the local sultan and appears to have concluded a treaty with him giving the English the right to trade for spices. Drake's deep-sea navigation and pilotage were always excellent, but in those totally uncharted waters his ship struck a reef. He was able to get her off without any great damage and, after calling at Java, set his course across the Indian Ocean for the Cape of Good Hope. Two years after she had nosed her way into the Strait of Magellan, The Golden Hind came back into the Atlantic with only 56 of the original crew of 100 left aboard.
      On 26 September 1580, Francis Drake brought his ship into Plymouth Harbour. She was laden with treasure and spices, and Drake's fortune was permanently made. He thus became the first captain ever to sail his own ship around the world—the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan having been killed before completing his circumnavigation—and the first Englishman to sail the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South Atlantic. Despite Spanish protests about his piratical conduct while in their imperial waters, Queen Elizabeth herself came aboard “The Golden Hind,” which was lying at Deptford in the Thames Estuary, and personally bestowed knighthood on the farmer's son.
      In the same year, 1581, Drake was made mayor of Plymouth, an office he fulfilled with the same thoroughness that he had shown in all other matters. He organized a water supply for Plymouth that served the city for 300 years. In 1585 he married again, his first wife, a Cornish woman named Mary Newman, whom he had married in 1569, having died in 1583. His second wife, Elizabeth Sydenham, was an heiress and the daughter of a local Devonshire magnate, Sir George Sydenham. In keeping with his new station, Drake bought himself a fine country house—Buckland Abbey (now a national museum)—a few kilometers from Plymouth. Drake's only grief was that neither of his wives bore him any children.
click for full portrait      During these years of fame when Drake was a popular hero, he could always obtain volunteers for any of his expeditions. But he was very differently regarded by many of his great contemporaries. Such well-born men as the naval commander Sir Richard Grenville [15 Jun 1542 – Sep 1591] and the navigator and explorer Sir Martin Frobisher [1535 – 22 Nov 1594] hated him. He was the parvenu, the rich but common upstart, with West Country manners and accent and with none of the courtier's graces. Drake had even bought Buckland Abbey from the Grenvilles by a ruse, using an intermediary, for he knew that the Grenvilles would never have sold it to him directly. It is doubtful, in any case, whether he cared about their opinions, so long as he retained the goodwill of the Queen. This was soon enough demonstrated, for in 1585 Elizabeth placed him in command of a fleet of 25 ships. Hostilities with Spain had broken out once more, and he was ordered to cause as much damage as possible to the Spaniards' overseas empire. Drake fulfilled his commission, capturing Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands and taking and plundering the cities of Cartagena in Colombia, St. Augustine in Florida, and San Domingo (Santo Domingo, Hispaniola). The effect of his triumph in the West Indies was cataclysmic. Spanish credit, both moral and material, almost foundered under the losses. The Bank of Spain broke, the Bank of Venice (to which Philip II was principal debtor) nearly foundered, and the great German bank of Augsburg refused to extend the Spanish monarch any further credit. Even Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's principal minister, who had never approved of Drake or his methods, was forced to concede that “Sir Francis Drake is a fearful man to the King of Spain.”
     By 1586 it was known that Philip II was preparing a fleet for what was called “The Enterprise of England,” and that he had the blessing of Pope Sixtus V to conquer the heretic island and return it to the fold of Rome. Drake was given carte blanche by the Queen to “impeach the provisions of Spain.” In the following year, with a fleet of some 30 ships, he showed that her trust in him had not been misplaced. He stormed into the Spanish harbor of Cádiz and in 36 hours destroyed thousands of tons of shipping and supplies, all of which had been destined for the Armada. This action, which he laughingly referred to “as singeing the king of Spain's beard,” was sufficient to delay the invasion fleet for a further year. But the resources of Spain were such that by July 1588 the Armada was in the English Channel. Lord Howard had been chosen as English admiral to oppose, with Drake as his vice admiral. It was, however, the latter's dash and fire that largely turned the scales, Drake himself managing to capture a rich prize during the long sea fight in the Channel. It was also Drake who prompted the use of fire ships to drive the Armada out of Calais, where it had taken refuge. Then, to delight his Protestant heart, “The Winds of God blew,” so that the Spanish fleet was dispersed and largely wrecked. Drake was England's hero, achieving a popularity never to be equaled by any man until Horatio Nelson emerged more than 200 years later. Innumerable souvenirs were struck in his name, and he was immortalized in poems and broadsheets.
      Drake's later years were not happy, however. An expedition that he led to Portugal proved abortive, and his last voyage, in 1596, against the Spanish possessions in the West Indies was a failure, largely because the fleet was decimated by fever. Drake himself succumbed and was buried at sea off the town of Puerto Bello (modern Portobelo, Panama). Few men have been more famous in their lifetimes. He was more skilful in all points of navigation than any. He was also of perfect memory, great observation, eloquent by nature. In brief he was as famous in Europe and America, as Timur [1336 Feb 1405] in Asia and Africa.
      Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote eulogistically of his character and bravery. But to the Spaniards he was, as their ambassador to England remarked, “the master-thief of the unknown world.” He was “low of stature, of strong limb, round-headed, brown hair, full-bearded, his eyes round, large and clear, well-favored face and of a cheerful countenance.” A devout churchman and an able businessman, Sir Francis Drake was one of the world's greatest seamen. He embodied many of the virtues and vices of expansionist Elizabethan England.
— Portraits above are by by Marcus Gheeraerts II [1561 – 19 Jan 1635]
The Golden Hind in June 2002 (a full-size replica)
6 ZOOMable images of a scale model of The Golden Hind
updated Thursday 19-Jan-2006 3:26 UT
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