On April 4, 1581, a few months after he completed a daring circumnavigation of the globe, the British navigator Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I during a ceremony aboard his flagship Golden Hind. Drake’s round-the-world voyage was a high point in a career that saw him serve as everything from a naval commander and explorer to a statesman and civil engineer, but he was best known as Britain’s most feared “Sea Dog”—the nickname for the ruthless privateers who preyed on Spanish shipping in the New World. Explore ten fascinating facts about Queen Elizabeth’s favorite pirate.
1. Drake’s circumnavigation was also a pirate expedition.
Drake’s knighthood was a reward for completing history’s second circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580, but his expedition was no ordinary voyage of discovery. He also had a secret agreement with Queen Elizabeth that he would raid Spanish shipping, and upon entering the Pacific he spent several months plundering unsuspecting galleons and sacking ports along the coast of Chile and Peru. His biggest prize came in March 1579, when he seized the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción and liberated it of a dozen chests of coins, 80 pounds of gold and 26 tons of silver. Drake would eventually return home as the world’s richest pirate. According to one account, his financial backers received a return of 47 pounds sterling for each pound they had invested.
2. He began his career as a slave trader.
Drake went to sea as a young man, but his first major expeditions came in the 1560s, when he joined a cousin named John Hawkins on some of Britain’s earliest slave trading voyages to West Africa. The pair usually procured their human cargo by attacking native villages or attacking Portuguese slave ships. They would then transport the slaves to the Spanish Caribbean and sell them off to local plantations—an action that was illegal under Spanish law. During one of these slaving expeditions in 1568, a flotilla of Spanish ships ambushed Drake and Hawkins at the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulúa, destroying four of their vessels and killing or capturing many of their crew. Drake escaped unharmed, but the defeat left him with a seething hatred for Spain and its king, Philip II.
3. The Spanish king put a massive price on Drake’s head.
From 1570 until the end of his life, Drake made himself the scourge of the Spanish by leading repeated raids against their treasure ships and colonies in the New World. Many of the voyages were outright illegal—Drake often sailed without an official privateer’s commission—and the Spanish eventually branded him a pirate and nicknamed him “El Draque” (“the dragon”). King Philip II is even said to have offered a bounty of 20,000 ducats for Drake’s head—the equivalent of several million dollars today.
4. He teamed with a band of escaped slaves for one of his most profitable raids.
In 1573, Drake set his sights on pillaging a Spanish mule train as it carried gold and silver to a Caribbean port across the Isthmus of Panama. In preparation for the ambush, he sent emissaries into the jungle and enlisted the help of the Cimarrons, a group of escaped Spanish slaves who were eager to strike a blow against their former masters. By using the Cimarrons as scouts, Drake’s band and a group of French privateers easily got the drop on the mule train and overpowered its guards. The raid produced an enormous haul of treasure—so much, in fact, that the adventurers were forced to bury 15 tons of silver that they were unable to carry. Drake still managed to return home with at least 20,000 British pounds worth of loot. Before departing, the former slave trader presented one of the Cimarron leaders with a gold-encrusted scimitar as a reward for his help.
5. Only one of Drake’s ships survived his circumnavigation of the globe.
When Drake’s round-the-world voyage set sail from England in December 1577, nearly all of his crewmen believed they were going on a simple trading expedition to Egypt. It was only after they bypassed the Mediterranean that their commander announced his true intentions to round the southern tip of South America and enter the Pacific Ocean—a feat never before accomplished by an English vessel. The journey was not an easy one. Of the five vessels Drake led to the bottom of the world, two were intentionally scuttled, the third sunk in a storm after exiting the Strait of Magellan, and the fourth turned back after becoming separated from the fleet. By the time the expedition began its journey into the Pacific, only Drake’s flagship Golden Hind remained. The lone vessel would eventually sail some 36,000 miles before returning to England in September 1780.
6. He claimed California for England.
After packing his hold with Spanish treasure during early 1579, Drake steered Golden Hind north in an abortive attempt to find the Northwest Passage. He may have traveled as far as the Canadian border before turning back and dropping anchor in Northern California later that summer. Drake spent a month overhauling his ship in preparation for his circumnavigation, but he also took the time to fraternize with the local Indians and explore the surrounding region, which he named “Nova Albion” and claimed as England’s first overseas territory in North America. The location of Drake’s anchorage has since become a subject of considerable debate, but most scholars believe it was somewhere on Point Reyes near modern-day San Francisco.
7. Drake was a successful politician.
Upon returning from his circumnavigation in 1580, Drake brought a lavish estate called Buckland Abbey and settled into a second career as both a Member of Parliament and the mayor of the coastal town of Plymouth. As mayor, he helped build a canal that supplied Plymouth with fresh water for centuries, but he also took occasional breaks from his political duties to return to sea and conduct raids against the Spanish at Santa Domingo, Cartagena and St. Augustine, Florida.
8. He struck the first blow against the Spanish Armada.
In 1586, thanks in part to Drake’s relentless privateering, King Philip II began assembling the famed Spanish Armada for an invasion of England. Desperate to beat his old enemy to the punch, Drake set sail the following spring and launched a preemptive strike on the Spanish mainland at the port of Cadiz. After catching the town by surprise, he and a small fleet spent two days occupying its harbor and bombarding, burning or pillaging everything in sight. The Cadiz raid succeeded in destroying between 30 and 40 ships and several thousand tons of supplies, and Drake later continued his reign of terror by harassing the Portuguese coastline and capturing a treasure ship off the Azores. All told, his “singeing of the King of Spain’s beard,” as he jokingly called it, may have delayed the Armada’s launch by over a year. Drake would later serve as the vice admiral of the English fleet that helped scatter the Spanish invasion in the summer of 1588.
9. Drake was credited with having supernatural powers.
Drake’s skills as a naval commander were so feared that many of his enemies became convinced that he was a practitioner of witchcraft. Superstitious Spanish mariners whispered tales of how Drake possessed a magic mirror that allowed him to spy the location of all the ships on the sea, and there were rumors that he was in league with a demon or even Satan himself. After being defeated as part of the Spanish Armada, many sailors returned home claiming that Drake “was a devil, and no man!”
10. His watery grave has never been found.
In 1595, an aging Sir Francis Drake set off on a final voyage to prowl the West Indies. His fleet was gunning for Spanish treasure, but an early attack on San Juan, Puerto Rico was repulsed, as was a second raid on Panama. Drake contracted dysentery as the disappointing voyage wore on, and on January 28, 1596, he died at sea off Portobello. The navigator’s body was later placed in full-armor, sealed inside a lead coffin and consigned to the deep some a few miles off the coastline. Scores of divers and historians have searched his burial site in the years since, but while some claim to have discovered the wrecks of English ships scuttled nearby, Drake’s body has never been recovered.