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Sir Francis Drake

Updated on February 4, 2015

Drake - The Early Years

Francis Drake was a Devonshire man, born of a zealous Protestant father who was persecuted by Queen Mary. He was taken under the wing of his cousin Sir John Hawkins. He rose to become a knight of the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but started a career at sea as a lowly cabin boy.

He rose quickly from his trading days to Biscay and escapades in Guinea to become, at 22, the captain of the "Judith". In 1570 he took a Priavateering commission, piracy in the name of the Sovereign. This allowed him to plunder, at will, those Spanish, gold-bearing ships in the West Indies and the Spanish Main.

The Maroons

The maroons at this time were in fact known in Old English as the symaron. This is believed to be a corruption of the French (marron ) meaning = fugitive slave and / or the Spanish (cimarrón ) meaning = runaway. They were in fact just that: runaway fugitive slaves, fugitive from the Spanish who they were fighting in order to keep their freedom.

This name was later incorporated into 'maroon ' now defined as a descendent of runaway slaves that fled their oppressors when the English first colonised the West Indies in the 17th century, rather than the 16th century in which we are here interested.

Plundering the Main

With the "Pasha" and the "Swan", in 1572, Drake strove to recoup the losses he had made on previous 'successful' cruises to the Spanish Main. He plundered the Spanish Town of Nombre de Dios in the West Indies and via a trek across the Panamanian isthmus he occupied the Spanish along the Pacific coast of Central America. It was this enterprise that resolved him, in future years, to 'sail an English ship in these seas'.

His enterprises at this time were backed up by the Maroons who were warring against the Spaniards.

Drakes return to England by August 1573 with the plunder he had amassed (some 20k pounds in gold and silver) saw his reputation soar. He used both to fit out three frigates and, volunteering his services, he sailed to Ireland under Walter, the Earl of Essex.


It was on his return fom Ireland that he met with Elizabeth I, subsequently acquiring the means to embark on his circumnavigation, fulfilling his previous resolution. The route to take was the Straits of Magellan, at the base of South America, a treacherous journey in many ways. Five vessels with 166 men in total, set out. By the time the Pacific had been reached, one man had been executed, two ships had been set adrift and one ship had returned to England. The 'Golden Hind' was the only ship left on course.

Almost three years after setting out he arrived back in Plymouth.

The Main and Spain, Never on the Plain

In 1581 Drake became Mayor of Plymouth.

In 1583 a disastrous Spanish wheat crop caused Philip to ask London merchants to send relief supplies, only to confiscate every last English ship. This Spanish treachery was fortuitously, for the English, evidenced as at the behest of the King. When the organiser of the seizure, the Governor of Bilbao, was captured by the single vessel to escape, and returned to England, lo and behold, in his boot was Philip's personal order to confiscate the grain ships.

Retaliation was swift and deadly. In 1585 Drake sailed with 29 ships and crew numbering 2,300 to the West Indies, along the way taking the city of Santiago. Then on to the main objective San Domingo, which was taken in a brilliant amphibious assault resulting in £7,000 in ransom. Cartagena was next and a ransom of £25,000 paid. Finally St Augustin was taken.

But an economic success it was not - the investors that financed the raids received 15/- on the £1. But the International effect was worth it politically: the Bank of Seville went bankrupt and the Spanish troops in the Netherlands went unpaid..

And it did not end there. Drake's bravado knew no bounds as he 'singed the King of Spain's beard' by burning over 10k tons of shipping in the bay of Cadiz (a fleet earmarked to form part of the Armada). Even Pope Sixtus V commented on the old sea-dog's raid:

"Just look at Drake. Who is he? What forces has he?"

The Spanish themselves could have replied that El Draque "The Dragon" was a powerful devil who commanded the winds. A prophesy not too distant from a truth as evidenced by a later encounter.

This was 1587.

The Armada quod Dracus

By 1588 the Armada was on its way to England and Drake had been appointed vice-admiral.

A prize was gained of the galleon of one Don Pedro de Valdez who, on hearing who his adversary was, gave up the ghost and surrendered. Even before the Armada sailed Drakes name had been included in communications between monarchs. The King of Spain wrote to Elizabeth:

"The veto ne pergas bello defendere Belgas;

Quae Dracus eripuit nunc restituantur oportet;

Quas pater evertit jubeo condere cellas;

Religio Papae fac restituatur ad unguem."

which roughly translated meant:

"These are my commands:

Do not assist the Netherlands;

You must make restitution for the treasures that were taken by Drake;

To rebuild the Abbeys that your father (Henry VIII) overthrew;

Restore the Pope, if you have any hope of peace."

To which Elizabeth responded:

"Ad Graecas, bone rex, fiant mandata ad unguem."

Again roughly translated:

"Worthy King, know that your request will be fulfilled on the 1st of the month (Lammas)."

The Last Years

There were to be no further great adventures or victories after the Armada. In 1589 it was Drake who commanded the fleet to be sent to restore Dom Antonio to the throne of Portugal, but this adventure was aborted. Greater forces were amassed to plunder Spanish settlements in the West Indies but this too was curtailed, to the displeasure of the populace.

Drake was killed aboard his ship near the town of Nobre de Dios, the scene of a resounding victory in a previous life, on 28th January 1595.

--- Remarks, Observations and/or Criticisms are Welcomed ---

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    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      4 years ago

      Nice hub, very interesting, lots of great detail, Thanks!

    • jblais1122@aol profile image


      8 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri, USA

      Very nice piece. I enjoy history, it's mysteries, and it's variations.


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