Sir Francis Drake
English Explorer

~1543 - 1596

Sir Francis Drake an explorer and military commander, was the first Englishman to sail around the world. His naval warfare against the Spaniards, the chief rivals of the English, helped England become a major sea power.

Drake was the most famous of the sea captains who roved the oceans during the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. The queen encouraged the "sea dogs," as the captains were called, to raid Spanish shipping. She gave them money and ships for such voyages, and she shared in the treasure they brought back. Drake lived in the great age of piracy and became one of the most feared pirates of his time.

Drake had no formal education. However, he had great self-confidence and ambition. In battle, Drake was courageous, quick, and sometimes merciless. He treated his crew with kindness but demanded loyalty and respect from them.

Drake was born near Plymouth in Devonshire. In 1549, he moved with his family to the county of Kent, where his father became a chaplain in naval shipyards on the coast. Francis was apprenticed to the master of a ship that sailed to ports on the English Channel and in the mouth of the River Thames.

From 1566 to 1569, Drake sailed on two slave-trading voyages organized by his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, a famous sea dog. Hawkins obtained slaves in Africa and sold them to West Indian plantation owners. These voyages brought protests from both Portugal and Spain. Portugal did not want English competition in the slave trade, and Spain objected to English ships sailing in Caribbean waters. The slave-trading voyages gave Drake valuable sailing experience.

In 1567, Drake commanded the Judith on the second of the expeditions organized by Hawkins. On the return trip, the ships stopped at the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua, near Veracruz. A fleet of Spanish ships approached the harbor, pretending to be friendly. But the Spaniards attacked the English, killing many sailors and sinking several vessels. Only the Judith and Hawkins' ship, the Minion, escaped. Drake returned to England hating the Spaniards and vowing revenge.

From 1570 to 1572, Drake took part in looting missions to the West Indies. In 1572, he seized several Spanish ships off the coast of Panama. He landed on the coast and captured the port of Nombre de Dios, near Colon. Drake then looted the town and ambushed a mule train carrying Peruvian silver across the Isthmus of Panama.

Drake's most famous voyage began on Dec. 13, 1577. He and more than 160 men sailed from Plymouth in the Pelican, the Elizabeth, and the Marigold. Two other ships, the Swan and the Benedict (also known as the Christopher), carried supplies. The original goals of the voyage are not clear, nor is Queen Elizabeth's role in planning the voyage. But Drake hoped to explore the possibilities of trade and colonial settlement in the Pacific Ocean and to find the western outlet of the Northwest Passage. Drake also may have intended to search for an undiscovered continent that was believed to lie in the South Pacific. He probably planned to loot Spanish ships and colonies along the Pacific coast of South America.

After leaving Sao Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands, Drake's expedition met two Portuguese ships. Drake captured one of the vessels and gave its command to a friend, Thomas Doughty. The ships sailed south along the Atlantic coast of South America and ran into violent storms. The expedition then stopped at San Julian for supplies. There, Drake had Doughty beheaded because he suspected him of planning a mutiny.

Before leaving San Julian, Drake destroyed the supply ships and the captured Portuguese ship because they were in poor condition and he did not think they could complete the voyage. The three remaining ships sailed through the Strait of Magellan. Shortly afterward, violent storms wrecked the Marigold and blew the Elizabeth off course, forcing it to return to England. The storms also blew the Pelican, which Drake renamed the Golden Hind, far to the south. Drake then headed north along the Pacific coast of South America. The Spaniards had left their coastal ports unguarded because until then, only Spanish ships had sailed the Pacific. After raiding several Spanish settlements, Drake captured a Spanish ship, the Cacafuego, and stole its cargo of gold, silver, and jewels.

Loaded with treasure, the Golden Hind sailed north along the Pacific coast of North America, perhaps as far as 48° north latitude. Drake then turned south. He repaired his ship near what is now San Francisco and named the area New Albion. He claimed the land for England. Drake had planned to return to England through the Strait of Magellan, not to sail around the world. But he feared an attack by the Spaniards if he sailed south again. So he decided to sail home by way of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Drake stopped for water at the Philippine Islands and for spices at the Molucca Islands. He also visited Sulawesi (Celebes) and Java. After crossing the Indian Ocean, Drake sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. Drake reached Plymouth on Sept. 26, 1580. He had been gone almost three years, and the voyage made him a national hero. Drake's voyage was the second voyage around the world. The first had been made from 1519 to 1522 by an expedition under the command of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

Drake's voyage increased British interest in the Pacific Ocean and led to many trading ventures in eastern Asia. It broadened English knowledge about the world and paved the way for later exploration. Drake's raids on Spanish possessions angered King Philip II of Spain, and he demanded that Drake be punished. Elizabeth responded in 1581 by making Drake a knight.

From 1580 to 1585, Drake lived at Buckland Abbey, his country home near Plymouth. He bought the home with his share of the wealth from the voyage. In 1581 and 1582, Drake served as mayor of Plymouth. In 1584 and 1585, he represented the town of Bossiney in the House of Commons.

In May 1585, King Philip ordered an embargo on English goods in Spain and on English ships in Spanish ports. His action angered Elizabeth. In September, she put Drake in command of a fleet of 25 ships and 2,000 men. He left that fall with orders to capture Spanish treasure ships in the West Indies.

On his way, Drake looted the Spanish port of Vigo and burned Sao Tiago. After landing on the island of Hispaniola, Drake's men burned Santo Domingo. They later occupied the town of Cartagena for six weeks and held it for ransom. On the return voyage, Drake looted and burned St. Augustine. He then sailed north to an English colony on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina, and took some colonists back to England.

Meanwhile, Philip had begun to gather Spain's warships into a fleet called the Invincible Armada. The Spaniards gave their fleet this name because they thought it could not be defeated. Philip planned a great attack on England, but Elizabeth learned of his intention. The queen sent Drake to the Spanish port of Cadiz, where his force sank about 30 ships and seized a great amount of supplies.

Yet, Drake could not prevent the Armada from sailing in May 1588. He proposed a plan to attack the Armada along the coast of Portugal, but the plan was not approved in time. The queen appointed Drake vice admiral of the English fleet.

In the summer of 1588, in the English Channel, the English and Spanish fleets fought one of history's greatest naval battles. Drake commanded a large group of warships from his ship, the Revenge. He played an important part in the Battle of Gravelines, in which the English sank or captured many Spanish ships. The surviving ships of the Armada fled into the North Sea, hoping to find a friendly port in Ireland. But storms wrecked many of the ships and the Irish killed several Spaniards who landed.

In 1589, Drake led a fleet in a raid on Lisbon, which was then a Spanish port. He seized many merchant vessels at Lisbon but failed to capture the city or carry out other parts of Elizabeth's instructions. Thousands of English sailors died on the voyage, and Elizabeth called it a failure.

Drake fell out of the queen's favor and received no commands for almost six years. Drake retired to Buckland Abbey and, in 1593, he represented Plymouth in the House of Commons.

Drake's last voyage took place in 1595, when he and Sir John Hawkins again sailed to the West Indies. Hawkins died as the fleet reached the islands. Drake went on and destroyed several towns. He captured Nombre de Dios but could not seize Panama City. While still off the coast of Panama, he died of dysentery. His crew buried him at sea.

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