Francis Drake biography
Francis Drake, born around 1540-1544 in Devonshire, England, was involved in piracy and illicit slave trading before being chosen in 1577 as the leader of an expedition intended to pass around South America, through the Strait of Magellan, and explore the coast that lay beyond. Drake successfully completed the journey and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I upon his triumphant return. He later saw action in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Like many of his contemporaries, no birth records exist for Sir Francis Drake. It is believed he was born between 1540 and 1544, based on dates of later events. Records show he was 22 when he obtained his first command in 1566. Two portraits help further narrow the date: one painted in 1581, when he was 42, and another painted in 1594, when he was 53.
Francis Drake was the eldest of 12 sons born to Edmund Drake and Mary Mylwaye Drake. Edmund was a farmer on the estate of Lord Francis Russell, the second earl of Bedford, who was also Francis' godfather. Francis was apprenticed to a merchant who sailed coastal waters trading goods between England and France. He took to navigation well and was soon enlisted by his relatives, the Hawkinses. They were privateers who prowled the shipping lanes off the French coast, seizing merchant ships.
Life as a Privateer
By the 1560s, Francis Drake was given command of his own ship, the Judith. With a small fleet, Drake and his cousin, John Hawkins, sailed to Africa to engage in the slave trade. They then sailed to New Spain to sell their captives to settlers, an action that was against Spanish law. In 1568, Drake and Hawkins were trapped in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua. The two escaped, but many of their men were killed. The incident instilled in Drake a deep hatred of the Spanish crown.
In 1572, Francis Drake obtained a privateer's commission from Queen Elizabeth I (essentially a license to plunder any of King Philip of Spain's property.) In that year, he embarked on his first independent voyage to Panama. He planned to attack the town of Nombre de Dios, a drop-off point for Spanish ships bringing silver and gold from Peru. With two ships and a crew of 73 men, Drake captured the town. However, he was seriously wounded during the raid, so he and his men withdrew without much loot. They stayed in the area for a time, and after Drake’s wounds healed, they raided several Spanish settlements, picking up much gold and silver along the way. They returned to Plymouth in 1573.
With the success of the Panama expedition, Queen Elizabeth sent Francis Drake out against the Spanish along the Pacific coast of South America in November 1577. He was accompanied by two other men, John Wynter and Thomas Doughty. The agreement was that the three men would share command responsibilities on the expedition. Soon after raiding several Spanish settlements near the Azores, Drake assumed command, a declaration that didn't set well with Doughty. Tensions flared between the two all the way across the Atlantic.
Upon arriving off the coast of Argentina, Drake sensed that Doughty was plotting a mutiny and had him arrested. After a brief and possibly illegal trial, Doughty was convicted and beheaded. Drake took full command of the expedition by making all officers responsible only to him.
Francis Drake then led the fleet into the Strait of Magellan to reach the Pacific Ocean. They were soon caught in a storm, and two ships lagged behind. One ship, commanded by John Wynter, reversed course and returned to England. The other disappeared and was never seen again. Drake remained in his flagship, The Golden Hind, and sailed up the coasts of Chile and Peru, plundering unprotected Spanish merchant ships full of gold and silver. Drake landed off the coast of California, claiming it for Queen Elizabeth. After repairing the ship and replenishing food supplies, he set sail across the Pacific, through the Indian Ocean and around Cape of Good Hope back to England, landing at Plymouth in 1580. Drake had become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. The treasure he captured made him a wealthy man, and the Queen knighted him in 1581. Later that year, he was elected to the House of Commons.
Between 1585 and 1586, relations between England and Spain grew worse. Elizabeth unleashed Sir Francis Drake on the Spanish in a series of raids that captured several cities in North and South America, taking treasure and inflicting damage on Spanish morale. These acts prompted Spain’s King Philip II to invade England. He ordered the construction of a vast armada of warships, fully equipped and manned for the task. In a preemptive strike, Drake conducted a raid on the Spanish city of Cadiz, destroying more than 30 ships and thousands of tons of supplies. He laughingly referred to this act as "singeing the king of Spain’s beard."
In 1588, Sir Francis Drake was appointed vice admiral of the English Navy, under Lord Charles Howard. On July 21, 130 ships of the Spanish Armada entered the English Channel in a crescent formation. The English fleet sailed out to meet them. For several days, the English fleet used its superior speed and maneuverability to harass the Armada with long-range cannon fire. Two Spanish ships were damaged and had to be rescued. Drake was able to capture one of the Spanish ships carrying the payroll for the Spanish Army.
On July 27, Spanish commander Medina Sidonia anchored the Armada off the coast of Calais, France, in hopes of meeting up with Spanish soldiers who would join in the invasion. The next evening, Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake organized fireships to sail right into the Spanish fleet. They did little damage, but the ensuing panic caused some of the Spanish captains to cut anchor and scatter. The southwesterly wind carried many of the ships into the English Channel, and the English followed in pursuit.
At the Battle of Gravelines, the English began getting the better of the Spaniards. With the Armada formation broken, the lumbering Spanish galleons were easy targets for the English ships, which could quickly move in to fire one or two well-aimed broadsides before scurrying off to safety.
By late afternoon, most English ships were out of gunpowder and pulled back. Medina Sidonia was forced to take the Armada north around Scotland and back to Spain. As the Armada sailed away from the Scottish coast, a strong gale drove may ships onto the Irish rocks. Thousands of Spaniards drowned, and those who reached land were killed by English soldiers and locals. Of the 25,000 men that set out in the Armada, fewer than 10,000 arrived in Spain safely.
Final Expeditions and Death
In 1589, Queen Elizabeth ordered Sir Francis Drake to seek out and destroy any remaining ships of the Armada, and help Portuguese rebels in Lisbon fighting against the Spanish occupiers. The expedition was a disaster. Drake lost 20 ships and more than 12,000 men. Drake returned home and for the next several years, busied himself with duties as mayor of Plymouth.
In 1595, the queen once again called on Sir Francis Drake to wage war on Spain. Traveling with Drake was his cousin, John Hawkins. They were to capture Spain's treasure supply in Panama, in hopes of cutting off revenue and ending the war. After a few skirmishes in the Caribbean, Drake's fleet moved farther west and anchored off the coast of Portobello, Panama. There, Drake contracted dysentery and on January 28, 1596, died of a fever. He was buried in a lead coffin at sea near Portobello, Panama. Divers continue to search for the coffin.