Sir Francis: Friend or Foe?

When it comes to great explorers, it is arguably true that Christopher Columbus gets the prize.  When it comes to great men on the sea, one of the famous pirate captain’s will most likely claim the trophy there.  But when it comes to great explorers who are also great men of the sea, there is no one more renown than Sir Francis Drake.  Serving as an advocate against the Spanish, he is the most famous seaman of the Elizabethan era and his story is worth the telling.

As there is no birth record, it is assumed that Francis Drake was born between 1540 and 1544 in Devonshire, England, based on dates of later documented events.  He was born to parents, Edmund and Mary Drake, and was the eldest of twelve children.  It can be assumed that he had good practice taking charge of many people, as he looked after his younger siblings.  Edmund was a farmer on the estate of the second earl of Bedford, who was also Drake’s godfather.  As an apprentice to a merchant, Drake quickly learned navigation and the tricks of trading, sailing from England to France.  Soon, Drake was enlisted by his relatives, the Hawkins, who were privateers on the French coast and who seized merchant ships.

Francis Drake Pirate Shirt:

Francis Drake Pirate Shirt

By the 1560s, Drake had climbed the ladder to success and was in command of his own fleet on his own ship, the Judith.  He sailed with his cousin, John Hawkins, to Africa to engage in the slave trade.  Upon their return, they sold their captives to New Spain, which was illegal according to Spanish law.  In 1568, Drake and Hawkins found themselves in a bit of a predicament, as they were trapped in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua.  Somehow, the two men managed to escape, but not all of their men were as fortunate.  Many were killed and because of this, Drake began to develop a hatred of the Spanish crown.

In 1572, Drake was given a privateer commission from Queen Elizabeth.  This delighted him greatly, as it meant that he had permission to plunder the property of King Philip of Spain.  Thus, he sailed to Panama where he planned to attack the town of Nombre de Dios, where Spanish ships came in to drop off and exchange riches from Peru.  Prepared with two ships and 72 men, Drake took the town captive, but was wounded severely in the raid, forcing him and his men to withdraw without taking many of the riches.  After Drake’s wounds had healed, he led raids on Spanish settlements, taking gold and silver, before returning to Plymouth in 1573.

Due to Drake’s victory in Panama, Queen Elizabeth sent him to the coast of South America in 1577.  He was accompanied by two other men who were supposed to share command with him.  However, Drake was on a power trip and ensured that his crew only followed his command.  Though there were struggles, Drake made it from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, raiding Spanish settlements and seizing their wealth.  He returned to England in 1580 and became the first man to circumnavigate the world.  To honor him, Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake in 1581 and he was later was elected into the House of Commons.

Sailor Pants:

Sailor Pants

In the next years of the 1580s, relations between the English and Spanish worsened and became more heated.  Many battles were fought and it was during this time that the Spanish Armada came into play.  In 1589, Queen Elizabeth gave Drake orders to destroy all remaining ships of the Armada and to help Portuguese rebels in Lisbon fight Spanish occupiers.  As with many stories, all good things must come to an end at some point.  Needless to say, this expedition was unsuccessful, leaving Drake with a loss of 20 ships and over 12,000 men.  However, the queen still had high hopes for Drake and summoned him again in 1595 to wage war on Spain.  He was to go capture Spanish treasure in Panama, with optimistic view that this would end the war.  And it was during this expedition that Drake contracted dysentery and died on January 28, 1596.  He was buried in a lead coffin at sea and to this day, his coffin has not been found.

Francis Drake was a true explorer, a fierce warrior, and a great admiral.  He played a big part in Spanish-English relations and he continues to be a topic of research and human interest today.

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