After leading two successful expeditions to the West Indies, Drake came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I, who granted him a privateer’s commission, effectively giving him the right to plunder Spanish ports in the Caribbean. Drake did just that in 1592, capturing the port of Nombre de Dios (a drop-off point for silver and gold brought from Peru) and crossing the Isthmus of Panama, where he caught sight of the great Pacific Ocean. He returned to England with a large amount of Spanish treasure, an accomplishment that earned him a reputation as a leading privateer.
In 1577, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Drake to lead an expedition around South America through the Straits of Magellan. The voyage was plagued by conflict between Drake and the two other men tasked with sharing command. When they arrived off the coast of Argentina, Drake had one of the men–Thomas Doughty–arrested, tried and beheaded for allegedly plotting a mutiny. Of the five-ship fleet, two ships were lost in a storm; the other commander, John Wynter, turned one back to England; and another disappeared. Drake’s 100-ton flagship, the Pelican (which he later renamed the Golden Hind), was the only vessel to reach the Pacific, in October 1578.