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Sir Francis Drake

Of Devon yeoman stock, Francis Drake was horn in 1542 or 1543 at Tavistock. However, his father, a staunch Protestant, was forced to leave Devon in 1549 owing to religious pressures and Francis spent his boyhood in Kent. Here he lived on an old naval hulk in the Medway and began his apprenticeship to the sea.

In his twenties he was bequeathed a ship by an old master and began trading in the North Sea ports, but in 1565 he sold his ship and went to Plymouth to join a cousin, one of the Hawkins family. In the next year he sailed as second-in-command to Captain Lovell, who was engaged in the slave trade which at that time enjoyed as much respectability as any other form of trade. Still as a trader, Drake sailed with John Hawkins in 1567 but they fell foul of the treachery of the Spanish Governor at San Juan de Ulloa. From that time on Drake, who was accused of deserting Hawkins, swore vengeance on all Spaniards.

In 1569 Drake married his first wife, but he was really married to the sea. In the next two years he was engaged in two expeditions to the Caribbean, in the second of which he commanded the Swan (25 tons). But it was the following years (1572-3) that he made a reputation for himself as the scourge of the Spaniards, for it was then that he made his celebrated raid on Nombre de Dios. Though foiled and wounded in the attack, he turned his attention from the treasure-house in the town itself to the mule trains bringing the treasure across the Panama isthmus from the Pacific side. At his second attempt on these trains he was successful and carried off 40,000 in gold and silver. This would be worth twenty times as much today. It was between these raids that Drake caught his first glimpse of the Pacific and prayed God `to give him life and leave to sail an English ship on those waters'.

This expedition made Drake rich and respected, but on his return to Plymouth the political climate was such that he was forced to lay low for a while and we find him next campaigning in Ireland (1575).

The years 1577-80 saw him engaged on his celebrated world voyage, which will be dealt with separately. For this venture he was knighted aboard the Golden Hind at Deptford in 1581 and in the same year he became Mayor of Plymouth, where he showed himself every bit as energetic in his civic duties as he had been at sea. He also turned to national interests, becoming a Member of Parliament in 1584 and devoting much of his time, along with others, to building up a navy.

It was not until the next year that Drake was openly given the Queen's commission. Previously she had turned a blind eye to his adventures, saying, `The gentleman careth not if I desavow him'. But in 1585 the Spaniards seized some English merchant ships and Drake was ordered by the Queen to take a fleet and 2,000 men to release them. On learning that the ships had been freed he plundered Vigo and proceeded to the West Indies. There followed the capture of San Domingo, jewel of Spain's western empire, and the capture of Cartagena. Drake also intended to attack Panama but his men fell sick of fever and he returned via Virginia, whence he took back home the first English Colonists to the New World.

The singeing of the King of Spain's beard by the attack on Cadiz and Drake's exploits in the defeat of the Armada led by the Duke of Medina Sidonia are too well known to repeat here. It suffices to say that the vengeance he had sworn just over twenty years before was wreaked in full as he harried the Spaniards up the Channel, and it seems appropriate that the ship in which he sailed was called Revenge. If 1588 saw Drake at the height of his fortunes, the following years saw their decline. As so often happens after a war the situation changed rapidly and Drake was unable to adapt himself to the new circumstances although he had previously shown himself so resourceful. An abortive attempt to capture Lisbon and restore the Pretender was followed by five years of retirement, it one can call it such. For Drake now turned to various commercial activities and the building of an aqueduct which was to supply Plymouth with water for three hundred years.

When Drake returned to the West Indies in 1595 he found the Spaniards waiting, for him. He failed in attacks on Porto Riao and Panama and in 1596 he died of fever and dysentery and was buried at sea off Porto Bello.

Drake's World Voyage : The Golden Hind

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