Two weeks ago, we got our first introduction to one of the most interesting men of the Elizabethan Era. Francis Drake’s expedition to the Caribbean, his failed raid on Nombre de Dios, and his return to England with ships laden with gold and silver made him the talk of England in spite of his relative youth. But the legend of Sir Francis Drake was still young; in point of fact, of course, he wasn’t even Sir Francis Drake yet at all. Today, thanks to a serendipitous alignment of the calendar, we can check back in on his career as it progresses. So without further ado, let’s turn back the clock.
August 21, 1578
Three ships under partial sail are making their way into the eastern inlet of the Straits of Magellan, at the far southern tip of South America. A little more than 5 years have passed since Drake stood on a high hill in Panama, flanked by a company of Maroon guides, and saw the Pacific Ocean gleaming in the distance for the first time. Now, he is mere days from finally realizing his ambition to, as he once prayed, sail in that ocean in an English vessel.
The flagship at the head of the column is a far cry from the tiny vessels Drake had commanded on his return from Nombre de Dios. It is a small galleon, a three masted vessel a little over a 100 feet long, with a distinctively high rear deck. There at the stern, painted in what a particularly perceptive observer might note to be extremely fresh paint, is the ship’s name: the Golden Hind. Some way back the Marigold and the Elizabeth, two smaller vessels, compose the remainder of the fleet.
The heavily wooded and mountainous shoreline on each side of the strait is barely visible due to gathering fog. Drake’s vessels crawl carefully into the narrow strait, the cries of topmen and lookouts echoing strangely over the water, calling out visible shoals and other dangers for the helmsmen to avoid. Away to the south, the sky is dark, and lightning crackles over the mountains.
The Straits of Magellan, named for Ferdinand Magellan, who discovered and crossed through them on his circumnavigation of the globe about fifty years ago, are not an easy passage at the best of times. They are preferable to the almost constant storms that rage at the south of Cape Horn, which would likely be the death of any captain and crew foolish enough to test them in a vessel of the 16th century. But even so, navigating the maze of shallows and reefs that make up the Straits of Magellan will take many days, during which Drake’s little fleet will be terribly vulnerable. Likely that knowledge is partly responsible for the air of tension which grips the whole fleet. But there is something else going on here, too… a bitterness of expression among some of the sailors, and a blanket of grim foreboding over the crew of all three ships. And I imagine that Drake himself, standing by the rail of the Golden Hind and looking out towards the Pacific, has a hardness in his eyes that we would not have seen during his triumphant return from the Caribbean five years ago. He looks somehow far older.
The past five years have been a whirlwind for Drake. So let’s take a step back, and pick up our story just after we left it last time… with two ships, laden with Spanish gold and silver, making their triumphant return to England.
When they landed at Plymouth, Drake must have expected official commendation from the Queen. As a privateer under her commission, he granted a significant portion of the spoils of the raids to Elizabeth and the government, and then split out the remainder among his men. But while presumably appreciative, Elizabeth was unable to officially recognize Drake’s deeds or honor him publicly. She had just signed a temporary truce agreement with Philip II, and officially, England and Spain were on friendly terms. Giving any form of recognition to Drake would have endangered that peace. So, while Drake was praised in the taverns of England as a hero, the government granted him no title, no land, and no recognition for his deeds. This must have stung Drake, but there was little he could do. He was, at least, a man of reasonable means now; enough to establish himself and outfit a small fleet of new ships.
In the next several years, Drake continued to try to make himself and his ships useful to the English crown. With an uneasy truce established between England and Spain, Elizabeth turned her attentions towards Ireland. And so Francis Drake was hired to assist in what was known as the Enterprise of Ulster.
The relationships between England and Ireland during the time of the Tudors were complex. Some parts of Ireland had been militarily subdued many years before, but large areas were still essentially independent. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had instituted a policy by which Irish chieftains could bend the knee to the English throne, and in return they would be granted English titles and be able to keep ruling their ancestral lands. Many had accepted this as a compromise to avoid war, and so more of Ireland was under some degree of English control by the days of Elizabeth than had been for generations. But the northern region of Ulster remained stubbornly independent and actively opposed to English influence in Ireland, particularly under the leadership of the Mac Domhnaill clan, led by their patriarch Somhairle Buidhe Mac Domhnaill.
Briefly, I should mention that the Mac Domhnaill clan are actually an Irish branch of the Scottish Clan Macdonald, sometimes referred to as the Lords of the Isles, and they are a clan with a proud history going back to a semi-legendary hero who successfully defended the Gaelic tribes of the region against the Norwegian and Danish raids of the Viking Age. That legendary hero, whose name is often anglicized as Somerled, is the namesake of Somhairle Buidhe Mac Domhnaill, and it’s helpful to remember that he would have seen his task as almost identical with that of his legendary ancestor. Ulster was by this point the only place in Ireland which still preserved an authentic Gaelic culture, and Somhairle was determined to keep that safe.
Elizabeth and her advisors, on the other hand, viewed the Irish as a barbaric and backwards culture whichwas wasting the economic potential of the land they possessed. And so in the 1570s, Elizabeth sponsored English settlement and plantation building in the region of Ulster, granting ownership of the land to various powerful English noblemen by royal decree. The locals, unsurprisingly, pushed back. And so the English sent an army.
Somhairle’s strategy was to harry the numerically superior English in the Irish countryside, using the terrain to their advantage. But while he and his young warriors fought this guerilla war, he knew that the elderly, the women and children, and the sick or wounded would be at terrible risk from English raids if they remained in the towns and villages. And so he sent them all to the most fortified place the Mac Dohmnaill clan possessed; the castle on Rathlin Island. It was well fortified, and behind the walls was the entrance to a complex system of caves. All those too old to fight, the women, the children, and the sick and wounded were quartered in the caves, and a garrison of 200 left to guard the castle against attack. Somhairle bid farewell to them all, including his own wife, children, and parents, and then returned to the mainland in order to fight for the freedom of Ulster.
Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was masterminding the military campaign against Ulster. He had excellent ground forces, but Somhairle’s harassment tactics were difficult to face with a traditional army. And so he came up with… an alternative solution. To manage it, he would need someone with experience in naval and amphibious operations, someone with a small fleet at his command already. Enter Francis Drake.
The Earl of Essex paid Drake handsomely to assist his ground forces in taking Rathlin castle. Drake’s vessels transported the English troops, and he used cannons to blast through the walls of the castle. Within minutes, and after only a few casualties, the overwhelmed defenders threw down their weapons and surrendered to the English forces.
Drake was not directly involved with the land forces, but he was likely present for at least some of what happened next. The Earl of Essex’s chief commander on the ground, Sir John Norreys, accepted the unconditional surrender of the garrison, and then immediately executed each and every one of them. Then he sent his men into the caves, where over the next several days they would systematically hunt down and slaughter every one of the elderly, the sick, the women and the children. The Earl of Essex would write a letter to Elizabeth which gloated that Somhairle had watched from the shore as his family were butchered, and had gone utterly mad with grief.
We cannot know with certainty what Drake thought of these proceedings. One clue is that he left immediately after the taking of the castle, and did not assist in any further stages of the Ulster campaign. He apparently informed the Earl that he had been hired for the taking of the castle, but had no interest in helping English forces even to hold it against counterattack. But one of the things that is consistent in almost every account about Drake, even those written by his enemies, is that Drake was famously chivalrous towards both surrendered foes and women. Just as one small example, an early record from his campaign around Nombre de Dios states that he insisted as a condition of alliance with the Maroons that “while they were in his companie they should never hurt any woman, nor man that had not a weapon in his hand to doe them hurt.” It is hard, therefore, to imagine Drake reacting to the slaughter at Rathlin Island with anything but horror. And yet he could not have avoided the fact that he had made it possible. I suspect that he must have lived with the weight of that as a constant burden for the remainder of his life.
It is not until two years later, in 1577, that Drake reappears in the historical record. By this point, the cold war between England and Spain is once again thawing into more overt conflict. And Elizabeth grants Drake a secret commission, once again making him a royal privateer. His mission? Make his way into the Pacific Ocean, harry Spanish shipping and settlements along the Pacific Coast of South and Central America, and then return by means of circumnavigating the globe.
It was necessary that Elizabeth be able to wash her hands of the whole affair publicly if it came to it, so Drake may not have received an official letter of marque. In addition, he was joined in the voyage by Sir Thomas Doughty, a friend of gentlemanly birth he had met while in Ireland. These two apparently unrelated facts will combine to cause Drake a world of trouble.
Drake fitted out five vessels for the voyage: the Pelican, which would serve as his flagship, the Marigold, the Elizabeth, and two much smaller supply ships capable of operating in shallow water, the Swan and the Benedict. The expedition, consisting of just under 200 men, set out from Plymouth in November of 1577.
And things went badly almost immediately. A terrible storm struck less than a day out, causing severe damage to the masts and rigging of several of the vessels, forcing them to limp back to Plymouth and undergo nearly a month of further repairs. Sailors have a well-earned reputation for being superstitious–an understandable trait if your life is spent at the mercy of natural forces you cannot hope to control–and this was considered by many to be a poor omen. In December they once again got back underway, and crossed the Atlantic before beginning to make their way south along the coast of Brazil.
Early in the voyage, tensions began to grow between Drake and Sir Thomas Doughty.
There is much in the relationship between these two men which is difficult to fully understand. There seems to have been some degree of real friendship between them. But as time went on and the voyage progressed, that friendship gave way to increasing rivalry. And one critical factor was, in the end, a simple one. Doughty was an English aristocrat of high breeding and exceptional education. Drake was a rough-and-ready son of a farmer. And in the 16th century, few gentlemen were willing to submit themselves to the authority of a person they would consider their social inferior. Moreover, Doughty was a close friend of William Cecil, the First Baron Burghley–chief advisor to Elizabeth I for more than 20 years, and currently serving as her Lord High Treasurer. Early in the voyage, it seems, Doughty began suggesting to anyone who would listen that he really ought to be the one in charge of the expedition.
Drake seems to have looked the other way and even sought to appease some of Doughty’s ambitions early on in the voyage, even granting him command of the flagship, the Pelican, for a brief period after Drake himself took command of a captured Spanish vessel, the Mary. But tensions continued to increase, and after the Mary was abandoned due to rotting timbers, Drake resumed command of the Pelican and put Doughty in charge of the Swan, the smallest vessel on the expedition. Doughty resented this in the extreme, and complained that relegating him to the supply ship was tantamount to imprisonment. And then he apparently began to speak to a variety of members of the crew, suggesting that he would be able to reward them grandly if they supported him as the leader of the expedition.
In the midst of all this, Drake made the decision that the two smaller vessels of the voyage were no longer needed, preferring to combine the crew on the three largest vessels. As a result, the Swan was deliberately sunk, depriving Doughty of his last minimal claim to a command role. When Doughty came on board Drake’s ship and began loudly and publicly expressing his anger at this decision, Drake had apparently had enough. He struck his former friend across the face and had him bound to the mainmast. Shortly afterwards he brought the ship to shore at Port San Julian, in Patagonia, to conduct a trial.
Doughty demanded to be tried back in England by a jury of his peers, but Drake refused, claiming that he had authority to try Doughty himself based on Elizabeth’s commission. Doughty demanded him to show that commission and prove his authority. Drake refused, claiming that it was back in his cabin on the ship; this aspect of the account, recorded by the ship’s chaplain Francis Fletcher, is viewed by most as likely proof that Drake had actually received no written commission, due to Elizabeth’s desire for plausible deniability should Drake have been captured by the Spanish. One of Doughty’s friends, who had himself been a lawyer back in England, quickly pointed out that without a written commission, any decision made by the jury of sailors that Drake had arranged would be legally suspect. Drake’s response has been recorded for posterity: “I have naught to do with you crafty lawyers, neither care I for the law, but I know what I will do.” He held the trial, and Doughty was found guilty. Deliberations over his sentencing were long; one option was to simply set him ashore to fend for himself, but Drake refused, worrying that he might alert the Spanish to their mission. A second option, Doughty’s imprisonment aboard one of the ships, was acceptable to Drake only if that ship returned immediately to England, thus losing out on any further prize money from the voyage–a condition the sailors refused to accept. In the end, the jury decided that the only possible sentence was death.
The aforementioned ship’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, was vehemently opposed to the trial and Doughty’s execution, and would later be openly critical of it, so we can assume that he has no reason to fabricate this final bizarre detail that he adds to his account of Doughty’s demise. The night before the execution, Drake and Doughty apparently first joined together in taking Holy Communion, and then shared a meal together in Drake’s personal cabin, talking long into the night, cheering one another up and drinking to each other’s health. The next day, Doughty’s head was struck off by an executioner chosen from among the sailors by lot.
That was just over a month ago. Just yesterday, as the remaining ships of the expedition approached the Straits of Magellan, Drake decided to rename his flagship the Golden Hind, a reference to the family crest of Sir Christopher Hatton, one of the primary financial patrons of the voyage. Perhaps he is inclined to try to make something of a fresh start, and try to forget the pains of the voyage so far, as they reach a new sea full of possibilities.
Unfortunately for Drake, things aren’t going to go so well. During the attempt to pass through straits of Magellan, one of his ships, the Marigold, will be lost with all hands during a terrible and sudden storm. Francis Fletcher will suggest that this is God’s punishment for the unjust death of Thomas Doughty. The third remaining vessel, the Elizabeth, will be separated from the Golden Hind during the storm, and eventually return to England, believing that Drake and his crew are likely lost.
Drake will eventually make it into the Pacific, though, and with his one remaining ship he will terrorize Spanish shipping along the Pacific coast of South America, capturing several vessels and filling the Golden Hind with enough treasure to make it truly worthy of its new name. Some of the best accounts of Drake’s personality will arise out of this time; particularly the account of Don Francisco de Zarate, whom Drake captured off the coast of Guatemala. De Zarate will record that Drake told him and his crew that he had no desire to take anything from them, but only to take from the cargo of the Spanish king that they carried; Drake in fact called all the Spanish sailors together and gave each one a handful of the coins from the stolen cargo, and then invited de Zarate and his officers to join him and his own officers for a meal on board the Golden Hind. That night, he insisted on giving up his personal cabin to de Zarate and bunked with the men. And this seems to be Drake’s common practice; when he captures the single grandest treasure ship of the whole voyage, the Cacafuego, he will embrace the captain after the surrender, insist that he is no pirate but simply wishes to redress wrongs committed by the Spanish crown, invite him to a splendid dinner, and then give him a gift of a finely crafted German pistol in parting. Truly, he will be such a thoroughly charming thief that most he encounters will be left somewhat flabbergasted.
Sadly, Diego, the freed slave who has been serving with Drake since Nombre de Dios, will not survive the circumnavigation. When Drake’s expedition encounters one of the native tribes on Mocha island off the coast of Chile, they will initially be very friendly. Drakes expedition will by by this point desperately low on supplies, and the Mocha islanders will freely offer food and water supplies. But one member of the expedition will apparently make the terrible mistake of asking for water using the spanish word “agua.” It may even be that this will be Diego, one of the few members of the voyage we know to be bilingual. This will convince the islanders that these newcomers are actually Spaniards in disguise, and their treatment at the hands of previous Spanish sailors has made them bitter enemies. When Drake, Diego, and others return the next day, they will be met with a hail of arrows and darts. Two sailors who had already stepped ashore will be captured and killed, and the rest will row back to the Golden Hind under the continual barrage. Drake will take a nasty slash across the face, which will leave a scar which appears in portraits later in life. But Diego will receive more than 20 arrow wounds. He will survive at the time, amazingly, but complications and infections, possibly made worse by a case of scurvy, will eventually cause his poorly healed wounds to reopen, leading to his death at sea nearly a year later.
Years from now, Drake will return to England with a hold filled with treasure in the form of both gold and spices. When the Queen takes her share, it will be enough to pay off the entire national debt of England with an additional 40,000 pounds for further infrastructure development. She will, in spite of the political situation, praise Drake for his successes, dry-dock the Golden Hind so that it can act as a museum in honor of his voyage, and confer upon him a knighthood, thus finally giving him the title by which we usually know him: Sir Francis Drake.
Many years after the circumnavigation, Sir Francis Drake’s last truly great moment will be his involvement in the defense of England against the Spanish Armada. In fact, when Philip II sends his list of demands to Elizabeth in advance of launching the great fleet with which he hoped to invade England, he will mention Drake by name, insisting that all the gold stolen by the famous privateer must be returned. Elizabeth will refuse, naturally enough, and the great attack of the Spanish Armada will begin. Drake will acquit himself well enough, but of course it will be the stormy weather of the North Sea that will truly defeat the Spanish Armada, more than any effort of the English fleet.
Drake will buy a lovely estate called Buckland Abbey, and pursue a brief career in politics. He never seems able to stay away from the sea, however, and will be involved in a variety of further expeditions against Spain in his later years. Most will be unsuccessful, however, and he never again achieves the great glories of his youth. In 1596, he will die of dysentery during a final expedition to Panama, and will be buried at sea in a lead-lined coffin, not too many miles from where his meteoric rise to fame and fortune had begun.
It is, perhaps, impossible to summarize a human life. Certainly, Drake is not an easy man to sum up. He was so many things to so many people.
Sir William Monson, who was a young lieutenant when Drake sailed against the armada and later became an admiral himself, would write of Drake long afterwards in the following way.
“He would speak much and arrogantly, but eloquently, which was a wonder to many that his education could yield him those helps of nature… And though vain-glory is a vice not to be excused, yet he obtained his fame by his actions, that facility in speaking and that wisdom by his experience, that I can say no more, but that we are all the children of Adam. … A general ought to be stern to his soldiers, courageous in his person, valiant in fight, generous in giving, patient in suffering, and merciful in pardoning: and if Sir Francis Drake was to be praised for most of these virtues, let him not be blamed for one vice only.”
This is, I think, the critical point. Drake was no paragon of virtue. But he was a man who did possess certain remarkable virtues, in spite of his vices. And that is perhaps the best any of us can hope for from ourselves or others. We are all flawed. Or, as Monson puts it, we are all the children of Adam.