British Empire Books

Pirate Queen:
Queen Elizabeth I, her Pirate Adventurers
and the Dawn of Empire

AuthorSusan Ronald
PublisherHarper Perennial

Susan Ronald has identified and developed a theme for a fascinating period of early imperial history. She has marshalled together an impressive body of facts and data about the role and impact of the maritime adventurers of her reign. She tracks the wider political events on the continent and of course identifies the crucial role of Spain and her putative half-ex-brother-in-law and rival King Philip II.

Susan Ronald identifies three main themes to the rule of Elizabeth - trading, raiding and planting of colonies. There was to be considerable overlap in these three enterprises as her subjects often had many fingers in many different pies. She rightly points out that the exclusive nature of the Spanish Empire and its prohibition of trading as it sought to maintain a powerful monopoly over the trade from the Spanish Main inspired the English to challenge Spanish hegemony. This was first attempted by John Hawkins who tried to muscle in on the slave monopoly from West Africa to the New World. After having some initial success, the Spanish finally managed to catch him unprepared and he and his cousin, a young Francis Drake, barely got away with their lives. Sailors like these would seek revenge by regarding any Spanish ships or ports as fair game as they sought restitution from their Catholic rivals. Susan Ronald nicely recounts how Drake inspired a generation of gentlemen adventurers to piracy as he ransacked ships, ports and the all important 'flota' or 'treasure fleets'. She regards this raiding as being the dominating factor during the long reign of Elizabeth. She also points out how it suited Elizabeth to be able to benefit from the successes of her gentlemen adventurers whilst being able to deny that they were working on her behalf. This privatised piracy suited the state and suited her gentlemen adventurers - hence the title of the book as the Pirate Queen.

1585 is the decisive year for escalation into a more formalised pattern of hostility between England and Spain when Philip's attempt at luring English ships to Spain before seizing them, largely in response to the frustration of English attacks on his ships, ultimately failed when the Primrose escaped with written proof of Philip's duplicity. This event, combined with Spain's seizure of Portugal in 1580 and ongoing war in the Spanish Netherlands put England and Spain on a collision course that would lead not to just one Armada - but three Armadas in the following decade and a half. Susan Ronald explains how the English were able to survive these attempted invasions through a combination of pre-emptive strikes, ongoing assaults on Spanish treasure ships, superior English ships and tactics and possibly most importantly of all, the weather.

The colonisation attempts of Grenville, Raleigh and Frobisher are also explained but put into the context of searching for that all important trade route to the Orient that would allow England to bypass the monopolies of Spain and Portugal. Hence the foundation of the Muscovy Company to look for the North-East Passage are detailed as are Frobisher's attempts at finding the North-West Passage. The news that Drake had seen the Pacific Ocean from a vantage point in the Pacific had excited explorers into thinking that an alternative route to the Pacific might well be in reach - if only the English could dedicate the resources and manpower to explore the lakes, seas and rivers and find a route to the fabled Orient. Nearly all the colonisation attempts were as a way of emulating the success of the Spanish model, but also an attempt at establishing new trade routes that would allow England to benefit from the trade in exotic goods from the East or novel goods from the New World. Susan Ronald explains though that the threat of invasion from Spain and the ongoing quagmire of dealing with insurrections in Ireland severely deflected the English from these dreams - at least until towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, when the Levant Company and the nascent East India Company started to have success by combining the firepower of naval ships with holds that could carry great quantities of goods in armed merchantmen that would begin to challenge the Portuguese and Spanish monopoly and ultimately destroy it. But this would be long after the reign of Elizabeth - but as Susan Ronald explains, the groundwork and legwork to Empire was all done, even if accidentally, during the reign of Elizabeth. The brief flourishing of the gentlemen adventurer suited Queen, nation and individual alike as the country discovered a maritime expertise and an ambition that would engender the creation of a flourishing trading nation who had the effrontery to challenge the most powerful nation on earth and ultimately displace it as the pre-eminent power.

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by Stephen Luscombe