Sir Francis Drake participated in some of the earliest English slaving voyages to Africa and earned a reputation for his privateering, or piracy, against Spanish ships and possessions. Sent by Queen Elizabeth to South America in 1577, he returned home via the Pacific and became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe; the queen rewarded him with a knighthood. In 1588, Drake served as second-in-command during the English victory over the Spanish Armada. The most famous mariner of the Elizabethan Age, he died off the coast of Panama in 1596 and was buried at sea.
Born sometime between 1540 and 1544 in Devonshire, England, Francis Drake was the son of a tenant farmer on the estate of Lord Francis Russell, earl of Bedford. He was brought up in Plymouth by the Hawkins family, relatives who worked as merchants and privateers (often referred to as pirates).
Drake went to sea for the first time around the age of 18 with the Hawkins family fleet, and by the 1560s had earned command of his own ship.
In 1567, Drake and his cousin John Hawkins sailed to Africa in order to join the fledgling slave trade. When they sailed to New Spain to sell their captives to settlers there (which was against Spanish law), they were trapped by a Spanish attack in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua.
Many of their crewmates were killed in the incident, though Drake and Hawkins escaped, and Drake returned to England with what would be a lifelong hatred for Spain and its ruler, King Philip II.
Privateer for the British Crown
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 1572, 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 first caught sight of the immense 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 notoriously stormy 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 Golden Hind), was the only vessel to reach the Pacific, in October 1578.
Drake Circumnavigates the Globe
After plundering Spanish ports along the west coast of South America, Drake headed north in search of a passage back to the Atlantic. He claimed to have traveled as far north as 48 degrees North (on parallel with Vancouver, Canada) before extreme cold conditions turned him back. Drake anchored near today’s San Francisco and claimed the surrounding land, which he called New Albion, for Queen Elizabeth.
Heading back west across the Pacific in July 1579, he stopped in the Philippines and bought spices in the Molucca Islands. He then sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and arrived back in England’s Plymouth Harbor in September 1580.
Despite complaints from the Spanish government about his piracy, Drake was honored as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and became a popular hero. Several months after his return, Queen Elizabeth personally knighted him aboard the Golden Hind.
The Spanish Armada
In 1585, with hostilities heating up again between England and Spain, the queen gave Drake command of a fleet of 25 ships. He sailed to the West Indies and the coast of Florida and mercilessly plundered Spanish ports there, taking Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, Cartagena in Colombia, St. Augustine in Florida and San Domingo (now Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic).
On the return voyage, he rescued a failed English military colony on Roanoke Island off the Carolinas in 1586. (The unlucky island was later the scene of a mysterious disappearance of about 100 English settlers, none of whom were ever found.)
Drake then led an even bigger fleet (30 ships) into the Spanish port of Cádiz and destroyed a large number of vessels being readied for the Spanish Armada. In 1588, Drake served as second-in-command to Admiral Charles Howard in the English victory over the supposedly invincible Spanish fleet.
After a failed 1589 expedition to Portugal, Drake returned home to England for several years, until Queen Elizabeth enlisted him for one more voyage, against Spanish possessions in the West Indies in early 1596.
The expedition proved to be a dismal failure: Spain fended off the English attacks, and Drake came down with fever and dysentery. He died in late January 1596 at age 55 off the coast of Puerto Bello (now Portobelo, Panama).
Sir Francis Drake. National Park Service.
Sir Francis Drake (c.1540 - c.1596). BBC.
Sir Francis Drake Facts. Royal Museums Greenwich.
Roanoke Voyages. The Lost Colony.