The Story Of Sir Francis Drake


Francis Drake is said to have been born at Crowndale, near Tavistock,

about the year 1540. Both his birth and his parentage are involved in

obscurity; but it is probable that he was born of good family in reduced

circumstances, for he was declared by the King of Arms in 1551 to have

the right "by just descent and progeniture of birth" to bear the arms of

the Drakes of Ash;
hile it is clear that he began life in a humble

capacity. According to Camden, he was apprenticed at an early age to the

master of a small coasting vessel, who, dying without issue, left the

barque to him. We find also that at the age of eighteen he was purser on

board a ship trading to Biscay, and at twenty he made a voyage to

Guinea. At twenty-two he had the honour to be appointed captain of the

Judith, in the harbour of St. John de Ullua, in the Gulf of Mexico,

where he behaved most gallantly in the glorious action, fought there

under his kinsman, Sir John Hawkins, described in the story of Sir John

Hawkins, and afterwards returned with him into England with a great

reputation, but not worth a single groat.

Upon this he conceived a design of making reprisals on the King of

Spain, which, some say, was put into his head by the minister of his

ship; and, to be sure, in sea-divinity, the case was clear; the King of

Spain's subjects had undone Mr. Drake, and therefore Mr. Drake was at

liberty to take the best satisfaction he could on the subjects of the

King of Spain. This doctrine, how rudely soever preached, was very

taking in England; and therefore he no sooner published his design than

he had numbers of volunteers ready to accompany him, though they had no

such pretence even as he had to colour their proceedings. In 1570 he

made his first expedition with two ships, the Dragon and the Swan,

and the next year in the Swan alone, wherein he returned safe, with

competent advantages, if not rich; and, having now means sufficient to

perform greater matters, as well as skill to conduct them, he laid the

plan of a more important design with respect to himself and to his


This he put in execution on May 24th, 1572, on which day he sailed from

Plymouth, himself in a ship called the Pascha, of the burden of

seventy tons, and his brother, John Drake, in the Swan, of twenty-five

tons burden, their whole strength consisting of no more than

twenty-three men and boys; and, with this inconsiderable force, on July

22nd he attacked the town of Nombre de Dios, which he took in a few

hours by storm, notwithstanding a dangerous wound he received early in

the action; yet upon the whole he was no great gainer, for after a very

brisk action he was obliged to betake himself to his ships with very

little booty. His next attempt was to plunder the mules laden with

silver which passed from Vera Cruz to Nombre de Dios; but in this scheme

too he was disappointed. However, he attacked the town of Vera Cruz,

carried it, and got some little booty. In returning, he met unexpectedly

with a string of fifty mules laden with plate, of which he carried off

as much as he could, and buried the rest. In these expeditions he was

greatly assisted by the Simerons, a nation of Indians who were engaged

in a perpetual war with the Spaniards. The prince, or captain of these

people, whose name was Pedro, was presented by Captain Drake with a fine

cutlass, which he at that time wore, and to which he saw the Indian had

a mind. Pedro, in return, gave him four large wedges of gold, which

Drake threw into the common stock, saying, that "he thought it but just

that such as bore the charge of so uncertain a voyage on his credit

should share the utmost advantages that voyage produced." Then

embarking his men with all the wealth he had obtained, which was very

considerable, he bore away for England, and was so fortunate as to sail

in twenty-three days from Cape Florida to the isles of Scilly, and

thence without any accident to Plymouth, where he arrived August 9th,


His success in this expedition, joined to his honourable behaviour

towards his owners, gained him a high reputation, and the use he made of

his riches still a greater; for, fitting out three stout frigates at his

own expense, he sailed with them to Ireland, where, under Walter, Earl

of Essex (the father of the unfortunate earl who was beheaded), he

served as a volunteer, and did many glorious actions. After the death of

his noble patron he returned to England, where Sir Christopher Hatton,

who was then vice-chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth, and a great favourite,

took him under his protection, introduced him to Her Majesty, and

procured him her countenance. By this means he acquired facilities for

undertaking that glorious expedition which will render his name

immortal. His first proposal was to voyage into the South Seas through

the Straits of Magellan, an enterprise which hitherto no Englishman had

ever attempted. This project was well received at court, and in a short

time Captain Drake saw himself at the height of his wishes; for in his

former voyage, having had a distant prospect of the South Seas from the

top of a tree which he ascended for the purpose, he framed an ardent

prayer to God that he might sail an English ship in them, which he found

now an opportunity of attempting; the queen's permission furnishing him

with the means, and his own fame quickly drawing to him a force


The squadron with which he sailed on this extraordinary undertaking

consisted of the following ships: the Pelican, commanded by himself,

of the burden of one hundred tons; the Elizabeth, vice-admiral, eighty

tons, under Captain John Winter; the Marygold, a barque of thirty

tons, commanded by Captain John Thomas; the Swan, a fly-boat of fifty

tons, under Captain John Chester; and the Christopher, a pinnace of

fifteen tons, under Captain Thomas Moon. In this fleet were embarked no

more than one hundred and sixty-four able men, and all the necessary

provisions for so long and dangerous a voyage; the intent of which,

however, was not openly declared. Thus equipped, on November 15th, 1577,

about three in the afternoon, he sailed from Plymouth; but a heavy storm

taking him as soon as he was out of port, forced him, in a very bad

condition, into Falmouth, to refit; which, being expeditiously

performed, he again put to sea on the 13th of December following. On the

25th of the same month he fell in with the coast of Barbary; and on the

29th with Cape Verd; the 13th of March he passed the equinoctial; the

5th of April he made the coast of Brazil in 30 deg. N. Lat. and entered the

river De la Plata, where he lost the company of two of his ships; but

meeting them again, and having taken out of them all the provisions they

had on board, he turned them adrift.

On August 20th, with his squadron reduced to three ships, he entered the

Straits of Magellan; on September 25th he passed them; having then only

his own ship, which, in the South Seas, he re-named the Golden Hind.

It may not be amiss to take notice here of a fact very little known, as

appearing in no relation of this famous voyage. Sir Francis Drake

himself reported to Sir Richard, son to Sir John Hawkins, that meeting

with a violent tempest, in which his ship could bear no sail, he found,

when the storm sank, he was driven through or round the Straits into the

latitude of fifty degrees. Here, lying close under an island, he went on

shore, and, leaning his body over a promontory as far as he could

safely, told his people, when he came on board, he had been farther

south than any man living. This we find confirmed by one of our old

chronicle writers, who farther informs us that he bestowed on this

island the name of Elizabetha, in honour of his royal mistress. On

November 25th he came to Machao, in the latitude of thirty degrees,

where he had appointed a rendezvous in case his ships separated; but the

Marygold had gone down with all hands, and Captain Winter, having

repassed the Straits, had returned to England. Thence he continued his

voyage along the coasts of Chili and Peru, taking all opportunities of

seizing Spanish ships, or of landing and attacking them on shore, till

his crew were sated with plunder. While off the island of Mocha Drake

landed with some of his men to seek water; but the inhabitants,

mistaking them for Spaniards, attacked them, killed two of their number

and wounded several others, including Drake himself, who was shot in the

face with an arrow. As the surgeon of the Golden Hind was dead, Drake

had to be his own doctor as well as surgeon to his crew. Realising that

the attack had been made in mistake, and not wishing to risk more

casualties, Drake did not attempt to punish the natives, but put to sea

and made his way to Valparaiso, where he made free with the stores and

valuables he found, and then proceeded further in search of his missing

vessels, and finding others which added to his booty; from one of which

he took a number of charts of seas then utterly unknown to the English

mariners. While pursuing this course he gained intelligence of a rich

ship laden with gold and silver for Panama, which he fell in with off

Cape Francisco on March 1st, 1579, and captured. The booty in this case

amounted to twenty-six tons of silver, eighty pounds of gold, thirteen

chests of money and a quantity of jewels and precious stones; valued in

all at nearly L200,000. Coasting North America to the height of

forty-eight degrees, he endeavoured to find a passage back into our seas

on that side, but being disappointed of what he sought, he landed, and

called the country New Albion, taking possession of it in the name, and

for the use of Queen Elizabeth; and, having trimmed his ship, set sail

thence, on September 29th, 1579, for the Moluccas; choosing this passage

round, rather than returning by the Straits of Magellan, owing to the

danger of being attacked at a great disadvantage by the Spaniards, and

the lateness of the season, whence dangerous storms and hurricanes were

to be apprehended.

On November 4th he sighted the Moluccas, and on December 10th made

Celebes, where his ship unfortunately ran on a rock on the 9th of

January; whence, beyond all expectation, and in a manner miraculously,

they got off, and continued their course. On March 16th he arrived at

Java, where he determined on returning directly home. On March 25th,

1580, he put this design in execution, and on June 15th doubled the Cape

of Good Hope, having then on board his ship fifty-seven men and but

three casks of water. On July 12th he passed the line, reached the coast

of Guinea on the 16th, and there watered. On September 11th he made the

island of Terceira, and on the 26th of the same month entered the

harbour of Plymouth.

In this voyage he completely circumnavigated the globe, which no

commander-in-chief had ever done before. His success in this enterprise,

and the immense mass of wealth he brought home, naturally raised much

comment throughout the kingdom; some highly commending, and some as

loudly decrying him. The former alleged that his exploit was not only

honourable to himself, but to his country; that it would establish our

reputation for maritime skill amongst foreign nations, and raise a

useful spirit of emulation at home; and that as to the money, our

merchants having suffered deeply from the faithless practices of the

Spaniards, there was nothing more just than that the nation should

receive the benefit of Drake's reprisals. The other party alleged that,

in fact, he was no better than a pirate; that, of all others, it least

became a trading nation to encourage such practices; that it was not

only a direct breach of all our late treaties with Spain, but likewise

of our old leagues with the house of Burgundy; and that the consequences

of owning his proceeding would be much more fatal than the benefits

reaped from it could be advantageous. Things continued in this

uncertainty during the remainder of that, and the spring of the

succeeding year.

At length they took a better turn; for on April 4th, 1581, Her Majesty,

dining at Deptford in Kent, went on board Captain Drake's ship, where

she conferred on him the honour of knighthood, and declared her absolute

approbation of all that he had done, to the confusion of his enemies and

to the great joy of his friends. She likewise gave directions for the

preservation of his ship, that it might remain a monument of his own and

his country's glory. In process of time, the vessel decaying, it was

broken up; but a chair made of the planks was presented to the

University of Oxford, and is still preserved.

In the year 1582 he was Mayor of Plymouth, and in 1584-5 a member of the

House of Commons.

In 1585 he concerted a scheme of a West-Indian expedition with the

celebrated Sir Philip Sidney. It was to be partly maritime and partly an

invasion. The sea force was to be commanded absolutely by Sir Francis,

the land troops by Sir Philip Sidney. The queen having required Sir

Philip to desist from his scheme, Drake sailed, notwithstanding, to the

West Indies, having under his command Captain Christopher Carlisle,

Captain Martin Frobisher, Captain Francis Knollys, and many other

officers of great reputation. In this expedition he took the cities of

St. Iago, St. Domingo, Carthagena, and St. Augustine, exceeding even the

expectation of his friends and the hopes of the common people, though

both were sanguine to the last degree. Yet the profits of this

expedition were but moderate; the design of Sir Francis being rather to

weaken the enemy than to enrich himself. It was, to do him justice, a

maxim from which he never varied, to regard the service of his country

first, next the profit of his proprietors, and last, his own interest.

Hence, though rich in wealth, he was richer still in reputation.

In 1587 he proceeded to Lisbon with a fleet of thirty sail, and having

intelligence of a numerous fleet assembled in the Bay of Cadiz, which

was to have made part of the Armada, he, with great courage, entered the

port, and burnt upwards of ten thousand tons of shipping. Drake's policy

was to attack the enemy in his own harbours and so prevent the

possibility of his invading our coasts; and this policy he was

continually pressing upon the home Government, but without success.

There can be little doubt that if he had been allowed to follow up his

success in the Bay of Cadiz by carrying out this policy the Spanish

Armada might have never set sail. Not obtaining the support and

authority he wanted, he now resolved to do his utmost to content the

merchants of London, who had contributed, by a voluntary subscription,

to the fitting out of his fleet. With this view, having intelligence of

a large carack expected at Terceira from the East Indies, thither he

sailed; and though his men were severely pinched through want of

victuals, yet by fair words and large promises he prevailed upon them to

endure these hardships for a few days. Within this time the East India

ship arrived, and was found to contain wealth to the value of L100,000,

which he took and carried home in triumph.

It was in consequence of the journals, charts, and papers, taken on

board his East India prize, that it was judged practicable for us to

enter into the Indian trade: for promoting which, the queen, by letters

patent, in the forty-third year of her reign, founded our first India

company. To this, we may also add that it was Drake who first brought in

tobacco, the use of which was much promoted by the practice of Sir

Walter Raleigh. How much this nation has gained by these branches of

commerce, of which he was properly the author, I leave to the

intelligent reader's consideration.

In 1588 Sir Francis Drake was appointed vice-admiral, under Charles Lord

Howard of Effingham, High-admiral of England; here his fortune favoured

him as remarkably as ever, for he made prize of a large galleon,

commanded by Don Pedro de Valdez, who yielded on the bare mention of his

name. In this vessel fifty thousand ducats were distributed among the

seamen and soldiers. It must not, however, be dissembled that, through

an oversight of his, the admiral ran the utmost hazard of being taken by

the enemy; for Drake being appointed, the first night of the engagement,

to carry lights for the direction of the English fleet, he being in full

pursuit of some hulks belonging to the Hanse Towns, neglected it; which

occasioned the admiral's following the Spanish lights, and remaining

almost in the centre of their fleet till morning. However, his

succeeding services sufficiently effaced the memory of this mistake; the

greatest execution done on the flying Spaniards being performed by the

squadron under his command.

The next year he was employed as admiral at sea over the fleet sent to

restore Don Antonio, King of Portugal; the command of the land forces

being given to Sir John Norris. They were hardly at sea, however, before

these commanders differed; though it is on all hands agreed that there

never was an admiral better disposed, with respect to soldiers, than Sir

Francis Drake. The ground of their difference was this: the general was

bent on landing at the Groyne, whereas Sir Francis and the sea-officers

were for sailing to Lisbon directly; in which, if their advice had been

taken, without question their enterprise would have succeeded, and Don

Antonio would have been restored. For it appeared, on their invading

Portugal, that the enemy had made use of the time they gave them to such

good purpose that it was not possible to make any impression. Sir John

Norris, indeed, marched by land to Lisbon, and Sir Francis Drake, very

imprudently, promised to sail up the river with his whole fleet; but

when he saw the consequences which would have attended the keeping of

his word, he chose rather to break his promise than to hazard the

queen's navy; for which he was grievously reproached by Norris, and the

miscarriage of the whole affair was imputed to his failure in performing

what he had undertaken. Yet Sir Francis fully justified himself on his

return; for he made it manifest to the queen and council that all the

service that was done was performed by him, and that his sailing up the

river of Lisbon would have signified nothing to the taking the castle,

which was two miles off; and without reducing that there was no taking

the town.

In 1590 he seems to have devoted himself to civil engineering, for we

find him contracting with the town of Plymouth to effect a water supply

from the River Meavy, which he did by conducting a stream a distance of

nearly twenty-five miles; after which he erected six mills for grinding

corn in 1591. In 1593 he represented Plymouth in parliament.

His next service was the fatal undertaking in conjunction with Sir John

Hawkins, in 1594, for the destroying of Nombre de Dios, referred to in

the story of Sir John Hawkins, who died the day before Sir Francis made

his desperate attack on the shipping in the harbour of Porto Rico. This

was performed, with all the courage imaginable, on November 13th, 1595,

and attended with great loss to the Spaniards, yet with very little

advantage to the English, who, meeting with a more resolute resistance

and much better fortifications than they expected, were obliged to sheer

off. The admiral then steered for the main, where he took the town of

Rio de la Hacha, which he burnt to the ground; a church and a single

house belonging to a lady only excepted. After this, he destroyed some

other villages, and then proceeded to Santa Marta, which he likewise

burnt. The like fate had the famous town of Nombre de Dios, the

Spaniards refusing to ransom any of these places, and the booty taken in

them being very inconsiderable. On December 29th Sir Thomas Baskerville

marched with seven hundred and fifty men towards Panama, but returned on

January 2nd, finding the design of reducing that place to be wholly

impracticable. This disappointment made such an impression on the

admiral's mind that it threw him into a lingering fever, of which he

died on the 28th of January, 1596, just two months after his

distinguished kinsman, Sir John Hawkins, with whom he had been so often

associated, and with so much glory.