John Cummins has written a nuanced and sophisticated account of Sir Francis Drake's life that tries to pry fact from fiction but still examines the importance and endurance of the legends surrounding the man. The book is presented in a highly approachable narrative account that tracks Francis Drake's exploits from his youth to his death in Central America in 1596. What comes across is that Francis Drake was an engaging, contradictory figure who is far more complex than most accounts and legends (on English and Spanish sides) are willing to acknowledge. One advantage John Cummins has in examining Drake's life is that he was a University lecturer in Spanish and so had the ability to examine sources in the two main languages that account for Drake's life and movements. In fact, Cummins provides a very interesting chapter towards the end of the book that examines Drake through the two lenses of Spain and of England. What is perhaps surprising is how much they agree with one another. Although there was demonisation of Drake by Spanish authors and poets, there was also widespread admiration for his panache, ambition and most importantly of all his chivalry. Prisoners were treated very well by Drake and were often compensated for their inconvenience.
Further complexity of character is provided by his treatment of natives and Cimarrons (escaped slaves). He had started his career on slave trading missions with his cousin John Hawkins. According to Cummins, he did find this distasteful and much of the rest of his life he showed a remarkable tolerance for non-Europeans as he showed in the treatment of his devoted black servant, Diego, the way he interacted with the escaped Cimarrons in their combined fight against the Spanish and the way he forgave native Indians in South America in killing some of his crew by assuming that they had been mistaken for Spanish who he knew to be brutal towards the local inhabitants.
Part of Drake's character is explained by his rise from humble beginnings. He represented a beginning of the break of aristocratic privilege as a more meritocratic Elizabeth was willing to reward success rather than mere birthright. This could and did mean that Drake was not universally appreciated in England. Many resented the upstart from lowly birth and on one occasion, described in detail by Cummins, led to Drake executing a nobleman who he believed was causing division of control on his 1877 voyage to the Pacific. This was perhaps an extreme example, but time and again Drake seemed to run well-connected rivals up the wrong way. He seemed to do much better at inspiring the common man and the lower decks who frequently went well beyond the bounds that most captains could expect from their men. He seems to have been an instinctive commander who genuinely cared for the well being of his men and was able to achieve great things thanks to their fore-bearance and support.
In summary, this book nicely captures the contradictory nature of a man who does deserve to be remembered and commemorated. He is a surprisingly modern man and one that is recognisable to us in the 21st Century, but he still had his failings and shortcomings and could be all too human. Cummins has gone a long way to describe the intricacies to generate a fair and balanced view of a remarkable life.
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