The year was 1573. An obscure and unknown captain marched through the jungles of Panama with a pitifully small force of 18 English seamen and 30 Cimarrons (escaped slaves). No one yet knew the name 'Drake' nor its Spanish translation of 'El Draco' ('The Dragon'), but that would soon all change. The leader of the Cimarrons motioned for Drake to climb a particular tree. The curious Drake did as he was told, and what he saw from that vantage point would transform his life.
Drake could clearly see the familiar Caribbean Sea which he had already come to know. But in the opposite direction he saw a second magnificent panorama that no English person had ever seen before: the Pacific Ocean. His mind must have whirled into operation as his understanding of the world suddenly shifted. He was gazing simultaneously at two vast oceans that were so tantalisingly close. Surely, there must be some passage linking the two? Almost in disbelief, Drake asked God to 'give him leave and life to sayle once in an English Ship in that sea.' He would one day fulfil that goal, but first he had the mission at hand to complete.
There was no mystery as to why Drake and his men were located in Panama in 1573. He had deliberately chosen this place as he knew that it was the trans-shipment location for the famed treasure ships of the Spanish American Empire. This Empire was divided into two vast colonies: the first was Mexico and the Caribbean and the second was known as Peru (but was in actual fact the entire continent of South America). The Peruvian colony was administered from Lima with its port on the Pacific coast, and Drake knew that all the gold and silver from that colony was transported by ship to Panama. It would then be transported overland by mule train to the port of Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean side of the isthmus. Here it was picked up by the famous treasure fleets known simply as the flota. Drake's plan was to ambush these mule trains with the aid of the Cimarrons. As escaped slaves of the Spanish, the Cimarrons were more than happy to guide Drake's men through the jungles and undergrowth to lie in wait for the mule trains.
Throughout his life, Drake was thought to be an unusually 'lucky' man with events often falling to his advantage. This was not to be the case on this occasion as he lay in wait for the ambush. One of his crew members, who had wanted the honour of taking the first mule, leapt out too early. A startled mule driver ran back towards the other mule trains to warn them of the danger ahead and the silver and gold went back the way it came. Drake led his men back to his ship deeply disappointed.
Upon his departure for England, Drake ran into a French Huguenot ship under the command of Captain Le Tetu. The Protestant Huguenots hated the Catholic Spanish Empire and Le Tetu had hoped to find Drake in order that they would join forces to attack the Spanish. Le Tetu told Drake of the massacre of Huguenots by Catholics in France (St Bartholomew's Day Massacre), and this inspired Drake to return to fight against the Catholic Spanish.
Religion was an important motivator for Drake. He was the son of a Protestant lay preacher who was forced to flee his home when in 1549 a Catholic rebellion against the rule of Protestant Edward VI in Cornwall spilled into his native Devon. Drake's family took refuge in Kent and lived on a hulk on the Medway where Drake began his apprenticeship to a life on the water as his father preached to the crews of the ships. Throughout his own nautical career, Drake would lead his crew in prayers twice a day, and the words from the sermons of his father and from the Bible came easily and frequently to him. It was clear that his own endeavours against the Spanish were part of a wider religious crusade and this was one of the reasons that Le Tetu had come searching for him.
The strange alliance of French Huguenots, Cimarrons and English sailors returned to Nombre de Dios to wait for the mule trains who retraced their footsteps, assuming that the trail was now clear. This time the ambush was more successful, although Le Tetu was shot during the ambush. He would later die of his wounds. The treasure was rounded up and escorted back to where the ships were supposed to be waiting, but instead of seeing the French and English ships lying in wait, they saw seven Spanish ships searching the coastline. Drake now showed that luck had to be earned and immediately ordered his men to build a boat, using any of the materials to hand. They started hacking down trees, using the cases that carried the treasure as a 'boat' and a biscuit sack as a sail.
He set off on the makeshift craft with two of his men to search for his ships. The craft could barely stay afloat and they spent the next six hours with the water at their waists until they finally saw their ships. Disaster had been averted and they went to pick up their crew and the all-important treasure. The legend of Drake had begun.
The voyage that would make Drake famous was his circumnavigation of the world from 1577 to 1580. The reason he undertook this voyage was a complex mixture of motives spurred on by his sighting of the Pacific Ocean. Mariners like Martin Frobisher had been searching for the North-West Passage, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific through the icy waters of the Arctic, to little avail. Perhaps it would be easier to find the passage from the Pacific side? Drake was the logical person to send on such a journey given that he had seen how tantalizingly close the Pacific Ocean was from the Caribbean Sea.
At the same time, it was felt that England needed to find its own route to the spices, silks and riches of Asia that avoided the Spanish and Portuguese routes. Ever since 1494 and the Treaty of Torsedillas, the Spanish had been given an effective monopoly of trading and colonisation in the New World, whilst Portugal had been given the monopoly of trading rights around Africa and through the Indian Ocean. This division had been agreed by the Pope and the Catholic Church, which did not wish to see two of its most stalwart allies bickering between themselves. But Drake had experienced for himself the effect of this blockade whilst a young mariner. Barely twenty years of age, Drake had accompanied his cousin, John Hawkins, on inter-continental voyages designed to muscle in on the lucrative trade from West Africa to the Caribbean. These aggressive West-Country mariners did not really care what products they traded in as long as they could make a profit. The cargo of choice was slaves from the Portuguese possessions in Africa across the Atlantic to the Spanish colonies which craved labour in their mines and plantations. Hawkins' fleet sent men ashore to try and gather slaves, but when they found this to be too arduous, they hit on the simpler idea of raiding ships which already had a cargo of slaves and were en route to the Americas. Effectively stealing the slaves from Portuguese and Spanish ships, they crossed the Atlantic and sold the slaves at a discount, as they had no intention of paying Spanish customs or duties. The ships, loaded up with sugar and hides, headed back to England and made a considerable profit at least on the first voyage. There were to be diminishing returns on the next two voyages as the Spanish authorities made it clear to local governors and officials that they did not appreciate the English attempts at breaking the trading monopoly that existed.
It was the fourth and final slaving voyage that brought matters to a head.
All appeared to be going well until a storm ravaged Hawkins' fleet just as it had started heading back to England. The ships were so battered that they had to pull into a port for emergency repairs. The closest port was San Juan de Ulua on the coast of Mexico, which at that very moment in time was expecting the arrival of the flota from Spain. Mistaking the crippled English fleet for the flota's advance guard, entry was gained, but their timing could not have been worse. Not only did the flota arrive the very next morning, but it also brought the newly appointed Viceroy for the colony, Don Martin Enriquez . Enriquez himself had been given strict instructions by King Philip of Spain to stamp out all illegal trading activities with the English. It was a very tense situation as the flota slowly came to dock in the port. The unfolding events would colour Drake's perception of the Spanish for the rest of his life and turn Don Martin Enriquez into a personal target of vengeance.
At first appearance, negotiations seemed to be cordial enough, but the Spanish had no intention of fulfilling any of their promises. In the first instance, they agreed to exchange a dozen hostages of standing to ensure good faith by both sides. Unbeknownst to Hawkins, the Spanish chose a dozen of the cleaner looking deckhands and dressed them up in fine clothes to appear to be nobles. The Spanish then feigned agreement to allow the English to leave as soon as they were in a fit state, but the following day the Spanish Viceroy ordered an attack on the ships. A vicious and desperate fight broke out. Spanish soldiers spilled onto one of Hawkins' ships from surrounding merchant ships. Hawkins launched a rescue attempt and managed to regain control of the ship, as well as blow up a Spanish warship with a lucky shot to its magazine. Yet the Spanish boat parties continued to appear from all over, and the English desperately tried to cut their moorings to escape from the port. Hawkins and Drake managed to stagger out of port with just two ships. The young Drake did not hang around but set sail straight for England. Hawkins, however, had a much bigger problem as his ship was painfully overloaded with 200 crew. He had no choice but to ask for volunteers to go ashore.
100 crew volunteered to leave themselves to the tender mercies of the Spanish Inquisition, which tortured and killed most of them. By the time he returned, Hawkins' crew numbered just 15. Both Hawkins and Drake felt bitterly betrayed by the Spanish. They would have their revenge one way or another, but they would have to tread carefully in light of England's precarious political position.
Queen Elizabeth had a delicate balancing act to consider. England was a tiny, exposed Protestant kingdom in an overwhelmingly Catholic Europe. Spain was the pre-eminent power in the world with its wealth being continually boosted by the silver and gold from the Americas. Elizabeth did not dare to start a war with Spain especially as Spain held land and territories in the Low Countries, on England's doorstep. Hawkins demanded revenge, but cooler heads recommended to the Queen that she quietly drop the attempts at forced trade with the Spanish Empire and that she try to keep England out of trouble.
Drake would spend much of his seafaring career with the 'understanding' of the Queen but not her direct permission. His actions could be disowned by her if necessary. So when he planned a journey to the Pacific Ocean, a story was put about that he and three ships were heading towards Alexandria to conduct trade with the Turks. This cover story hid his true intentions for what was his most remarkable journey.
Drake's achievement would show just how far English navigational skills and ship technology had improved during the reign of Elizabeth. Magellan had been the only captain to pass through Tierra Del Fuego to the Pacific Ocean. His account of the weather and difficulties had put off anyone else from attempting the journey. But fortune smiled on Drake when he captured a ship piloted by Nuna de Silva, an expert in sailing the South Seas and key to Drake's reaching the southern tip of South America. From there, Drake made it through the straits of Tierra Del Fuego in remarkable time, but when storms pushed him back south, he became the first navigator to discover that there was open ocean below South America. It was during these storms that one of his three ships sank and another returned to England. Drake alone persevered and sailed into the Pacific Ocean, and was delighted to find that the Spanish on this coast were complacent. Ports had no defences and ships did not bother with the weight of carrying cannons. For decades the Spanish had been unchallenged along the Pacific Coast and it showed. As Drake worked his way up the coast, he entered ports at will and captured any ships that took his fancy. He secured pilots that suited his needs and killed nobody - the threat of force was enough. His captives were effusive in admiration for the way he treated them and for the way his crew respected him.
His greatest financial success came when he took the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion nicknamed the Cacafuego. He delighted in telling his captives about his accomplishments to date and that it was all being done in compensation for what had happened to him and Hawkins at San Juan de Ulua. He gave personal tours of his ship and demonstrated its capabilities. He hinted at possible new targets and what routes he might take home and gave his captives presents in the hope that it would all get back to Don Martin Enriquez to confuse and enrage him.
In fact, Drake actually headed north in search of the elusive North-West Passage and even claimed a new colony called 'Nova Albion' on the West Coast of America. Unlike Magellan, Drake anticipated that the Pacific was a vast ocean and took appropriate stores to ensure he got his crew across safely. On crossing the Pacific, he entered into the area of Portuguese control and the fabled Spice Islands. Using some of his stolen treasure, he purchased a huge cargo of cloves from a Sultan who was keen to sell to a non-Portuguese customer and thereby thwart the Portuguese trade monopoly.
Loaded with treasure and spices, the journey nearly came to an end when the ship ran aground on a coral shoal off the Celebes. Only after dumping half their precious cargo of cloves and some cannons did they break free and continue their journey. They returned to England in 1580 having crossed the Indian Ocean and sailed up the Atlantic. It was a remarkable feat and one that would earn Drake his Knighthood from the Queen. Thanks to the quantity of treasure and spices brought back, it was said that the investors of the voyage earned returns of 47 pounds for every 1 pound that they had invested at the outset. He showed that being patriotic could also be profitable.
Drake's service to his country had not yet been completed. Relations with Spain deteriorated yet further. In 1585 Philip ordered that all English ships in Spanish ports be seized. One English merchant ship, the Primrose, valiantly fought its way out of Bilbao and captured an official with Philip's written orders on his person. He took the proof to Elizabeth. The gloves were now off. Drake and other captains were given 'Letters of Marque' as an undeclared war broke out between England and Spain. These allowed a captain to gain 'compensation' by seizing the assets of another nation. Elizabeth was clear that her ships had been seized and so gave permission for her ships to seek compensation by attacking Spanish shipping and possessions. Drake sailed to the Caribbean with a huge fleet of ships and ransomed the mighty ports of Cartagena and Santa Domingo whilst disrupting Spanish shipping and the flota once more.
This raid escalated tensions yet further and Philip embarked on a massive ship-building project with a view to invading England and ridding himself of the heretic Queen who was disrupting him so effectively. Elizabeth's rival claimant for the throne, Mary Queen of Scots, was executed in 1587 after it was found that she was involved in communicating with the Spanish and was willing to help them with their plans to overthrow Elizabeth. This only aggravated Philip yet further and the ships continued to be built.
Drake was sent on a mission to try and disrupt any invasion fleet and sailed audaciously straight into the harbour at Cadiz and destroyed the shipping and harbour facilities there. He famously claimed that he had 'synged the beard of the King of Spain', but he had only delayed the attack. The following year, the Armada was despatched with the view of joining up with the Spanish army in the Low Countries and then landing them in England. Drake was second in command to Lord Howard. They set sail from Plymouth when the massive fleet of 130 Spanish ships approached. John Hawkins would gain his revenge on the Spanish in this action, as it was thanks to him that the English Navy had been modernised and fitted out with ships that were fast, manoeuvrable and had incredible firepower. This was the first time that they were to be put into operation and they proved their worth as the English fleet harassed and harried the Spanish all the way up the Channel. The Armada kept its cohesion and formation but disaster occurred when they anchored off Calais to find that their army was not yet ready to board. This gave the English the opportunity to attack the stationery fleet. That very night, the English set fire to eight of their own ships, guiding them towards the anchored Spanish fleet. With great confusion, the Spanish ships tried to escape the fireships and scattered themselves as they did so. The English harried them further north and left the elements of the North Sea and North Atlantic to finish their job for them. The English had shown that a small, nimble, well-trained navy could be a match for the mightiest empire on the planet.
Drake's career would never again reach the heights of success that it had so far attained. In 1589 he led an attempt to strip away the throne of Portugal from Spain, but the mission was plagued by sickness and a lack of direction. The Queen was very disappointed and kept Drake ashore for the next five years. He and his cousin, John Hawkins, were finally granted another go at finding their magic in the Caribbean with an ambitious plan to return to Panama and cut off the flow of gold and silver to Spain once and for all. Alas, sickness and division again ravaged the expedition. At the same time, the Spanish had learnt from their mistakes. Their towns were now fortified and they had more ships and cannons to hand. John Hawkins died at San Juan from disease, and the assault there failed in the teeth of determined defence. Drake continued on to Nombre De Dios, but the Spanish were ready and waiting, rendering his assault on the mule trail routes too costly to persevere with. A reluctant, dis-spirited and sick Drake returned to his ship for the last time. Having contracted dysentery, he joined the fate of so many of his shipmates. Knowing that the end was near, he dressed in his armour so that he might 'die like a soldier' and passed away. He was laid in a lead coffin and dropped in the ocean at Porto Bello, not far from the happy hunting grounds of his youth.
Drake regarded himself as a gentleman adventurer and always showed chivalry to his opponents and humility to his god. To the Spanish, he was nothing short of a pirate and a corsair, although those who he came directly into contact with admired his flair and sense of honour. He represents an essential period in the growth and development of what would become the British Empire. He helped turn England from a provincial backwater kingdom into one with global ambitions. He helped give England the skill-set and the confidence to undertake the voyages necessary to explore and expand their horizons. But the period of the gentlemen adventurers was a necessarily short period. Wealth could not be created in a constant state of antagonism and war.
Peace broke out between England and Spain following the death of Elizabeth. This allowed the merchant adventurers to return to the fore following the very routes trail-blazed by Drake. Trade with Asia was now not only possible, but could be done in security with their heavily armed ships, another lesson learned from Drake. On the last day of the 16th century, the East India Company was established, creating the blue-print for the next phase of Empire.