Sir Francis Drake: Knight and Explorer, Slave Trader and Pirate

Queen Elizabeth I knights Francis Drake | Courtesy of Baldwin H. Ward and Kathryn C. Ward/Corbis

Although the 1519 voyage of Ferdinand Magellan is openly acknowledged to be the first successful expedition to circumnavigate the globe, it is also commonly known that Magellan did not survive the undertaking, having been killed in the Philippines during a local political dispute in 1521.1 In that respect, the first man to lead an expedition that successfully circumnavigated the globe–and survive the undertaking–was Sir Francis Drake, the sixteenth-century English explorer who is frequently cited as the most famous (and notorious) explorer of the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603).2 From a more modern perspective, Drake appears as quite a controversial figure in history. To the British, he was a living folk hero, equatable to Robin Hood or King Arthur, a romantic figure who rose from humble origins and ascended to knighthood, the man who circumnavigated the globe, and a hero who helped repel the Spanish Armada. On the other hand, to the Spanish, Drake was a notorious pirate who raided peaceful merchant vessels and sacked Spanish settlements. Drake’s reputation has been stained by many other disreputable acts, including multiple accusations of desertion and his participation in the slave trade. What no one can doubt, however, is the undeniable impact that Drake has had on the world’s history.

Sir Francis Drake in Buckland Abbey, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger | Courtesy of Buckland Abbey (Public Domain)

Francis Drake was born to Edmund Drake circa 1540, in the town of Tavistock in the county of Devon, England. He was apprenticed at an early age to his relative, William Hawkins, with whom Drake learned the fundamentals of sailing, trade, exploration, and piracy. While he was still a young man, Drake accompanied his cousin John Hawkins on two successful slave trading expeditions from Africa to the Caribbean. These expeditions earned Drake and his cousin the enmity of the Spanish, who alongside Portugal claimed exclusive rights to trade with the Americas under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. And so, during Hawkins and Drake’s third slave trading expedition in 1567, their convoy was set upon by Spanish warships at San Juan de Ulúa, Mexico. The Spanish’s raid was largely successful, and Hawkins and Drake barely escaped with their lives aboard separate vessels. Separated from his cousin, Drake’s vessel returned to England empty-handed. To add insult to injury, when Hawkins finally managed to return to England, he accused Drake of cowardice and of abandoning him in the Caribbean. Drake protested that he had been following Hawkins’ orders by returning to England, but Hawkins’ accusation would taint Drake’s reputation for years to come.3

These events embittered Drake towards Spain, and he would spend the rest of his life taking vengeance against the Spanish for the theft of what he believed had been his rightful property. In 1571 Drake secured a privateer’s license from Queen Elizabeth I, which he used to conduct a successful raid against a Spanish silver shipment in Panama. After returning to England, Drake spent the next few years assisting the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, to quell an Irish rebellion, during which Drake forged many important political friendships that would serve him well over the course of his life.4 It was after this service to the crown that Drake would embark on his most famous venture, one that would result in his circumnavigation of the globe.

In 1577, Queen Elizabeth dispatched Drake on an expedition to cross through the Strait of Magellan–a passage located at the southern tip of South America that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans–ostensibly with the purpose of seeking trade opportunities along South America’s eastern coast. However, Drake’s mission also had a second, secret objective: to raid as many Spanish outposts and merchant vessels as possible, with the goal of reducing the vast revenue that Spain was receiving from trade with the Americas and thus indirectly decrease Spain’s ability to fund an invasion of England. And so, Drake departed from England in December of 1577, with a fleet of five ships and less than two hundred men.5

Sir Francis Drakes West Indian Voyage, engraving by Baptista Boazio | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

From the beginning, the journey was fraught with complications. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Drake ordered two of his ships, the Christopher and the Swan, stripped of supplies and burned due to the loss of too many personnel.6 Additionally, while moored at Port St. Julian–in what is now Argentina–Drake tried and convicted Thomas Doughty, his friend and captain of the Swan, for the crimes of treachery and incitement to mutiny. Doughty was executed there in Port St. Julian, the same spot where Magellan ironically had tried and convicted several mutineers of his own exactly 58 years earlier during his own circumnavigation expedition.7 However, Drake’s troubles did not end there. After reaching and traversing the Strait of Magellan and entering the Pacific Ocean, Drake’s remaining ships encountered powerful storms. The storms separated him from the Elizabeth and sank the Marigold, with the crew of the Elizabeth returning to England under the assumption that Drake’s sole remaining ship, the Golden Hind, had sunk beneath the waves.8

With only eighty crewmen and the Golden Hind, Drake nevertheless pressed onward. The Golden Hind had been pushed southward away from Cape Horn to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at the southernmost tip of South America. Exploring the waters south of South America, Drake was able to debunk the belief that a hypothetical continent, referred to as Terra Australis, was located just south of Chile. Returning northward, Drake began raiding the relatively unguarded Spanish ports along Chile’s coast, the Spanish firm in the belief that they were safe so far away from Europe. Drake reportedly traveled up the coast as far as California, although some believe he may have reached as far as Canada or Alaska. His hold full of Spanish treasure, Drake feared the possibility of a Spanish trap waiting for him in the Strait of Magellan, and decided to return to England by way of the Pacific instead.9

Unlike his journey thus far, the remainder of Drake’s expedition was comparatively uneventful. The Golden Hind crossed the Pacific, making stops in the Palau Islands, the Philippines, and Indonesia. He then crossed the Indian Ocean and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, traveling up the coast towards Europe. On September 26, 1580, almost three years after his departure, Drake sailed into Plymouth Harbor with just fifty-six of his original crew. He returned to a hero’s welcome, his expedition an unquestionable success in the eyes of England. The venture made both he and his investors incredibly wealthy, and in April of the following year Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his service to the crown. That same year, Drake was elected to Parliament and became the mayor of Plymouth. He purchased a large estate known as Buckland Abbey where he settled down to enjoy the riches and acclaim he had earned.10

Spanish Armada, by Philip James de Loutherbourg | Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich Hospital Collection

Fate would see Drake return to the sea sooner than expected, however. In 1585, tensions between England and Spain had escalated to the point that war had become inevitable. In response, Queen Elizabeth placed Drake in charge of a fleet of 25 warships, and ordered him to attack Spanish-held territories across the world. With his fleet Drake attacked multiple settlements, capturing Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, Cartagena in Colombia, St. Augustine in Florida, and San Domingo in Hispanola. Returning to Europe, Drake scored further victories against Spain and Portugal by capturing or destroying 37 merchant vessels at Cadiz, Spain and by occupying the city of Sagres, Portugal.11 Despite these victories, the English were unable to stop the Spanish Armada from attacking England, which at the time was considered to be the largest and most powerful naval force in the world. Queen Elizabeth made Drake the vice admiral in charge of leading the defense against the Armada, making him second-in-command of the British Navy.

Ultimately, however, Drake did not play a significant role in protecting England from the Spanish Armada, despite exaggerations on his part emphasizing his role in the defense. It is believed that, against orders, Drake captured a Spanish pay ship carrying a significant shipment of gold coins in the early stages of the defense, then quarreled with another English officer, Sir Martin Frobisher, about how to split the money. Frobisher later went on to accuse Drake of withdrawing in the middle of the attack, labeling him a coward and a traitor.12

It would soon become clear that Drake’s naval career was on the decline. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth sent Drake on a counteroffensive against Spain with a fleet of 180 ships.  This offensive resulted in a catastrophic attempt to capture the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, leading to the death of thousands of English sailors. Six years later, in 1595, Drake set off on what would be his final voyage. Drake led an expedition to attack Spanish settlement at San Juan, Puerto Rico; however, like his raid against Lisbon, this assault ultimately resulted in failure, one that Drake would not survive. In 1596, still out at sea, Drake became ill and passed away from dysentery. His body, dressed in full armor, was placed in a lead coffin and lowered into the sea, to the accompaniment of trumpets and cannon fire.13

Relief Depicting the Burial of Drake on the Tavistock Monument | Courtesy of the town of Tavistock (Public Domain)

Mixed reputation or no, Drake unquestionably was and is one of the most famous figures in English history. In many ways, he transcended history and became a legend in his own time, being featured heavily in the works of Richard Hakylut and Samuel Purchas, two prominent writers who also lived during Drake’s lifetime.14 Nevertheless, there are just as many who would argue that Drake was no paragon, who would contend that his cowardice, indecision, greed, and avarice, made him more villain than hero. Whatever the case may be, there’s no denying that Drake indisputably had a major impact on world history, making him quite arguably the most significant mariner of his time.

  1. “Drake, Francis,” in Elizabethan World Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, Vol. 2, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 67.
  2. “Drake, Francis,” in Elizabethan World Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, Vol. 2, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 63.
  3. “Drake, Francis,” in Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, edited by Jennifer Stock, Vol. 3, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2011. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 79-81.
  4. “Drake, Francis,” in Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, edited by Jennifer Stock, Vol. 3, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2011. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 81-83.
  5. “Drake, Francis,” in Elizabethan World Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, Vol. 2, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 65-66.
  6. “Drake, Francis,” in Elizabethan World Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, Vol. 2, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 66-67.
  7. Hans Kraus, “The Famous Voyage: The Circumnavigation of the World, 1577-1580” in Sir Francis Drake: a Pictorial Biography (Amstredam, N. Israel, 1970), Library of Congress, Accessed January 25, 2017, https://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/catalog/drake/drake-4-famousvoy.html.
  8. “Drake, Francis,” in Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, edited by Jennifer Stock, Vol. 3, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2011. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 84.
  9. “Drake, Francis,” in Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, edited by Jennifer Stock, Vol. 3, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2011. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 84.
  10. “Drake, Francis,” in Elizabethan World Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, Vol. 2, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 66-67.
  11. “Drake, Francis,” in Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, edited by Jennifer Stock,  Vol. 3, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2011. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 86.
  12. “Drake, Francis,” In Elizabethan World Reference Library, edited by Sonia G. Benson and Jennifer York Stock, Vol. 2, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 71-72.
  13. “Drake, Francis,” in Pirates Through the Ages Reference Library, edited by Jennifer Stock, Vol. 3, Biographies. Detroit: UXL, 2011. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed January 24, 2017), 86-88.
  14. “Drake, Sir Francis,” in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Birch, Dinah. Oxford University Press, 2009.

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This Post Has 35 Comments

  1. This article was very helpful with the history of Sir Francis Drake. I will say I have herd of his name once or twice but I never knew how popular he was in English history. It does seem that there are two sides to his story, a hero to the English but a merciful pirate to the Spanish. Though I will say he did sound like a selfish greedy individual but it happened so long ago that know one can really say what actually happened that day. When looking at the story as a whole it is very interesting reading about history that took place hundreds of years ago personally I love anything history related so this article was a great read.

  2. Reading this article seems that Sir Francis Drake was indeed a selfish and greedy man. The author did a good job on giving the reader a good sense of who he was and what he did, all the pros and cons that come with his persona. With that job well done, it gives the reader a chance to use all the information to create a reasonable opinion of Drake whether it’s good or bad.

  3. Great job! This article is very informative and well written. I can see why he would be viewed as a vengeful and cowardly person. I can state that he was a coward because of how he was accused of deserting not once but twice. I can also see why he did not like the Spanish because of how his reputation was ruined by them.

  4. Matthew Swaykus

    I truly liked this article. The author did a good job telling the story of this noteworthy character while giving the reader enough information to question the content of his character. While I must complain that the audience did not see all of the man’s character — especially considering evidence from the article’s title that he was said to be a slave trader in the title — the question of Sir Drake’s true motivations was just translucent enough for the readers to speculate and infer.

  5. Danielle Slaughter

    Wow. I’ve always known of Sir Francis Drake, but I never realized how turbulent his life was. Funnily enough, I just commented on another article about James Cook, who was equally as controversial. Nevertheless, in my eyes, Drake was a cowardly and greedy figure, especially after abandoning Hawkins and capturing the Spanish ship against orders. However, just as you said, it doesn’t disregard his contributions to the field of navigation. Also, could Antarctica technically be considered the factual Terra Australis?

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