December 13, 1577 - Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake, one of the most well-known mariners of the Elizabethan era, has a reputation for his piracy against Spanish ships and possessions. Serving under Queen Elizabeth I, he was sent to South America in 1577, and returned through the Pacific, becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe; Drake was rewarded with a knighthood. He later served as second-in-command during the English victory over the Spanish Armada, dying off the coast of Panama in 1596.

Drake was born sometimes between 1540 and 1544, in Devonshire, England. He was the son of a tenant farmer and was brought up in Plymouth by the Hawkins family, who were relatives that worked as merchants and pirates. Drake went to sea around the age of 18 for the first time, and by the 1560s, he has earned command of his own ship. In 1567, Drake and his cousin John Hawkins sailed to Africa in order to join the growing slave trade. While sailing to Spain to sell their captives, which was illegal, they were trapped by a Spanish attack in San Juan de Ulua. Many of their crewmates died in this incident, and although Drake and Hawkins survived, Drake returned to England with a lifelong hatred for Spain and its ruler, King Phillip II.

He then led two successful expeditions to the West Indies, causing Queen Elizabeth I to take notice of him, and grant him a privateer’s commission, allowing him to plunder Spanish ports in the Caribbean. He did just that in 1572, capturing the port of Nombre de Dios, and crossing the Isthmus of Panama, where he saw the Pacific Ocean. He ended up returning to England with lots of treasure, giving him a reputation as a leading privateer. In 1577, the Queen authorized Drake to lead an expedition around South America through the Straits of Magellan. However, the expedition wasn’t without conflict. Drake and the other two men in charge fought, and during the journey, he had Thomas Doughty, one of the men in charge, arrested and beheaded for allegedly plotting a mutiny. Also, the other commander, John Wynter, turned his ship back to England, and was never seen again. Only Drake’s 100-ton ship, the Pelican (later renamed the Golden Hind), was the only vessel to reach the Pacific in October 1578. After Drake plundered the Spanish ports along South America, he went north in search of a passage back to the Atlantic, and claimed to have traveled up to now Vancouver, Canada. He anchored near today’s San Francisco and claimed the land for the Queen. In July 1579, he went west across the Pacific and stopped in the Philippines, buying spices in the Molucca Islands.

He finally made it back to England’s Plymouth Harbor in September 1580. There were many complaints from the Spanish government about his piracy, but Drake was still honored as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and became a popular hero. A few months after his return, Queen Elizabeth personally knighted him aboard his boat, the Golden Hind. Later on, in 1585, when tensions were brewing between England and Spain again, the queen gave Drake command of a fleet of 25 ships. He sailed to the West Indies and the coast of Florida, and relentlessly raided Spanish ports, taking Santiago, Cartagena, San Domingo, etc. On the return voyage, he picked up a failed English military colony on Roanoke Island off the Carolinas and led an even bigger fleet of 30 ships into the Spanish port of Cádiz, destroying a large number of vessels being readied for the Spanish Armada. In 1588, he served as second-in-command to Admiral Charles Howard in the English victory over the supposedly “invincible” Spanish fleet.

Drake ended up failing his last few missions for the queen and came down with fevers and dysentery instead. He died in late January 1596 at the age of 55 off the coast of Puerto Bello (now Portobelo, Panama) due to dysentery. His accomplishments impacted world history due to his dominance at sea. Due to Drake’s continuous attacks on the Spanish Armada, they were never able to fully recover. This loss weakened Spain’s grip in the New World and allowed England to establish a great empire. In addition to his military achievements, he also was a famous explorer who claimed the northwestern part of America for England and carved the path for further exploration by English explorers. He rescued many settlers from the Roanoke settlement, and was known as “the master-thief of the unknown world.”


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By Rohan Lakhanpal