Francis Drake was born around 1540 in Devonshire, England. From humble origins as the son of a tenant farmer, Edmund Drake, he rose to become the Rear Admiral. 

More fascinating is his life story. His seamanship skills are truly the stuff of legends. Sir Francis Drake will remain rooted in remembrance as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Read on and decide for yourself- Was he a brigand or a benefactor?

Sir Francis Drake wax figure at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, London.

The Formative Years Of Francis Drake

His father, Edmund, had to flee England in 1548 after being arraigned for robbery and assault. In reality, it was religious persecution as he was Protestant.

Even before this event, Francis was raised by the Hawkins family, relatives who were from Plymouth. The Hawkins doubled as merchants and pirates who concentrated their efforts on trading vessels of the French coast. By age 18 Francis had enlisted in the Hawkins fleet. The Hawkins family had homed in on the African trade since 1560 and Francis became a ship captain by 1568 on a vessel that was a slave trader from Africa to the Caribbean Spanish colonies.

This illicit activity was sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth I.

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Exploits in The West Indies

The new countries were deeply invested in colonization. Read as loot. The East India Company was busy plundering on the other end of the world. Francis Pizzaro discovered another lucrative one- The South Americas. Spain was in the game. Never mind that they erased an entire culture for bullion.

Queen Elizabeth, I now had her scopes on claiming the Atlantic too, an ocean dominated by Spain.

Bad move. His second voyage to the West Indies accompanied by John Hawkins ended disastrously. They were intercepted by the Spanish and his crew was decimated. Drake escaped and returned to England on the Judith, a small vessel under his command. Financially, the venture was a write-off.

Drake was determined to set right the wrongs swore revenge on Sain and King Phillip II.

He got the attention of Queen Elizabeth I.

He then spent the next couple of years making expeditions to the West Indies gathering intel avowing to make up for his losses.

In 1552 he was awarded a privateering commission by the Queen- the right to loot and plunder Spain’s lands.

The First Successful Plunder

In command of two small ships, The Pasha and The Swan, Drake sailed out with a somewhat grandiose plan of capturing Nombre De Dios, a strategic and important town in Panama. The attack was a failure and Drake himself was wounded. But he managed to get away with a great deal of plunder from a silver-laden mule train.

This was the beginning of his fortune.

It was at this time that he had a look at the Pacific Ocean where, save for the Spanish ships, it was barred.

It was then that he beseeched the Lord that he would grant him the liberty to sail in those waters in command of an English ship.

He sailed back to England, both famous and rich.

The Truce Between England And Spain 

On his return to England, the political winds had changed. King Phillip and Queen Elizabeth had reached a temporary truce. The Queen, though delighted with Drake’s success, could not acknowledge his acts of piracy.

For the next few years, Drake kept low except for his involvement in a bloody massacre in 1575 under the Earl of Essex.

The Circumnavigation

Brigand or benefactor.
The Circumnavigation Route

In 1577 the Queen decreed an expedition. Its aim- to go around America and explore what lies beyond. Francis Drake was the chosen leader of this ambitious expedition, and he grabbed it with both arms. When he met the Queen face-to-face she declared, “I would with gladness be revenged on the King of Spain for the diverse injuries I have received.”

Drake was overjoyed. More than a mere exploratory mission, the voyage would be more piratical and insulated by any reproof from England.

He set sail with 5 small ships and less than 200 men in December of the same year. 

His flagship was the Golden Hind.

The Golden Hind

Picture credits:

On reaching America, Drake was confronted with the prospects of a possible mutiny. A rigid disciplinarian, the fomenter Thomas Doughty was tried, found guilty, and executed.

Two of the smaller vessels carrying the provisions were also ordered to return to England after transferring their cargo to the other three vessels.

He entered the Straits of Magellan and after 16 days entered the Pacific.

Making Up For Lost Time

He sailed up the Pacific coast of South America plundering and looting at will. The Spaniards were caught off-guard, and Drake milked the situation. Laden with bars of silver and gold, precious stones, Spanish coinage, pearls, and so on. He sailed up to Vancouver intending to take the Northwest Passage back to the Atlantic. The bitter cold put paid to his plans and he sailed back south to a location that is now San Francisco.

He named the territory New Albion and claimed it in the name of Queen Elizabeth.

The Passage Home

He put out to sea this time southwards, and after sighting the Philippines, watered his ships there. Sailing onwards to the Moluccas where he was welcome, he picked up a load of spices. Setting course for the Cape of Good Hope.

Two years after entering the Magellan Straits the Golden Hind was now in the Atlantic with only 56 of the 100 men he had set out with.

On September 26th, 1580, Drake entered the harbor of Plymouth, the Golden Hind laden with a handsome cargo.

The Queen herself came onboard to bestow a knighthood on Francis Drake.

The Final Years

After his incredulous achievement, Sir Francis Drake became the Mayor of Plymouth. He served this position with total thoroughness, which was his hallmark.

Many among high society who considered him a rich upstart without courtly bearing. His popularity never waned as also the favor of the Queen.

Hostilities with Spain had once again taken center stage. She once again thrust on him to teach the Spaniards a lesson by inflicting as much damage as possible. Under his command was a fleet of 25 ships.

He captured many key towns and struck down many others in the West Indies.

The Singeing Of The King Of Spain’s Beard

King Phillip II with the blessing of Pope Sixtus V was building a Spanish Armada in what was called “The enterprise of England.” Again, with a fleet of 30 ships, Drake stormed into Cadiz demolishing ships and supplies for the Armada.

Spain never recovered.

The end was not a happy one.

His last voyage to the West Indies was an utter failure. His fleet was decimated by fever, and he succumbed to it at sea off Portobelo, Panama.


An Obit To The Great Man

It is said of him that he possessed diabolical skills as a navigator.

Best put by Elizabethan historian John Stowe:

He was more skillful in all points of navigation than any.… He was also of perfect memory, great observation, eloquent by nature.… In brief, he was as famous in Europe and America, as Timur Lenk [Tamerlane] in Asia and Africa.

The Spaniards called him, “The master-thief of the unknown world.”

The English are credit in his favor sangfroid, fair play, unflappability, tenacity, and improvisation. 

But nothing can ever take away the sheer genius and guts of Sir Francis Drake, seafarer unparalleled.

Author’s note: Name your son Francis and surely he will circumnavigate the globe too. Read my post-Sailing The Globe solo- Sir Francis Chichester

Citation: Bradford, E. and Fernández-Armesto, . Felipe (2021, January 24). Sir Francis Drake. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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