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Sir Francis Drake

pirate and commander of the first English voyage around the world

Sir Francis Drake

Early Life

Francis Drake was born around 1540, near Plymouth in Devonshire. In 1549, his family moved to Rochester, a busy seaport, and it was here that his passion for the sea was cultivated.

As a youth, Drake sailed on short commercial voyages along the English coast. From 1566 to 1569, he sailed on two slave-trading voyages organized by his cousin, Sir John Hawkins. These voyages gave Drake valuable sailing experience.

In 1567, Drake commanded the Judith on Hawkins' second expedition. On the return trip, the ships stopped at the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulúa, near Veracruz, where they were attacked by a fleet of Spanish ships. Only the Judith and Hawkins' ship, the Minion, escaped. Drake's passionate hate for the Spanish had been sparked.

From 1570 to 1572, Queen Elizabeth sent Drake on looting missions to the West Indies. In 1572, he seized several Spanish ships off the coast of Panama. He then captured the port of Nombre de Dios, near Colón, looted the town, and ambushed a mule train carrying Peruvian silver across the Isthmus of Panama. From then on, the Spaniards called him El Draque (The Dragon). And, by the time he returned to England in 1577 he was both rich and famous.

Voyage Around the World

On December 13, 1577, Drake and more than 160 men sailed from Plymouth aboard the Pelican, the Elizabeth, and the Marigold. Two smaller ships, the Swan and the Benedict, carried supplies. None of the crewmen knew the real destination or reasons for the voyage -- they were told that they were on a trading expedition to the Nile Delta. Drake planned to explore the possibilities of trade and colonial settlement in the Pacific Ocean. He also hoped to explore Australia, then known only as Terra Australis Incognita (the Unknown Land of Australia). In addition, Drake and the queen planned that he would loot Spanish ships and colonies along the Pacific coast of South America. A voyage around the world was not, however, part of the original plan.

From Plymouth, Drake's expedition sailed to São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands, where it took on supplies and prepared for the cross-Atlantic voyage. Soon after setting off again the expedition met two Portuguese ships. Drake captured one of the vessels and gave its command to Thomas Doughty. The ships sailed south along the Atlantic coast of South America, and stopped at San Julián for supplies. There, Drake had Doughty beheaded because he suspected him of planning a mutiny.

Before setting sail again, Drake destroyed the supply ships and the captured Portuguese ship because they were in poor condition and he did not think they could complete the voyage. Soon after the three remaining ships sailed through the Strait of Magellan violent storms wrecked the Marigold and blew the Elizabeth so far off course it was forced to return to England. Drake continued the expedition in the remaining ship, the Pelican, which he renamed the Golden Hind.

As the Golden Hind sailed north along the Pacific coast of South America Drake and his men raided Spanish settlements and captured a Spanish ship and stole its cargo of gold, silver, and jewels. Continuing north along the coast of North America, Drake stopped for supplies just north of what is now San Francisco and named the area New Albion. He found the people there so friendly that he erected post on which he nailed a brass plate claiming the land for England.

Drake had reached the end of his planned voyage and had originally intended to return to England through the Strait of Magellan. But his raiding expeditions had been so successful that he feared Spanish reprisals if he sailed south again, so he decided to sail home by way of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Drake stopped for water at the Philippine Islands and for spices at the Molucca Islands, and visited the Celebes Islands and Java. After crossing the Indian Ocean, he sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. He reached Plymouth on September 26, 1580, having been gone almost three years, with perhaps the richest cargo ever to reach an English port.

map of Drake's voyage around the world

Drake's voyage made him a national hero. He had increased British interest in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn led to many trading ventures in the Far East. It also broadened English knowledge about the world and paved the way for later exploration. But Drake's raids on Spanish possessions had also angered King Philip II of Spain, who demanded that Drake be punished. Queen Elizabeth responded by going aboard the Golden Hind in 1581 and making Drake a knight.

From 1580 to 1585, Drake lived at Buckland Abbey, his country home near Plymouth. He bought the home with his share of the wealth from the voyage. In 1581 and 1582 he served as Mayor of Plymouth, and in 1584 and 1585 he represented the town of Bossiney in the House of Commons.

Expeditions Against Spain

In May, 1585, King Philip ordered an embargo on English goods in Spain and on English ships in Spanish ports. In September, an angry Queen Elizabeth put Drake in command of a fleet of 25 ships and 2,000 men, and gave him orders to capture Spanish treasure ships in the West Indies.

On his way, Drake looted the Spanish port of Vigo and burned São Tiago. Upon landing on the island of Hispaniola, Drake's men burned the town of Santo Domingo. They subsequently occupied the town of Cartagena for six weeks, evacuating it only after a ransom had been paid. On the return voyage, Drake looted and burned St. Augustine. He then sailed north to the Virginia Colony and took some colonists back to England.

Queen Elizabeth next sent Drake to the Spanish port of Cádiz, where he sank about 30 ships and seized a large amount of supplies. In 1588, the queen appointed Drake Vice-Admiral of the English fleet.

In the summer of 1588, in the English Channel, the English and Spanish fleets fought one of the greatest naval battles in history, the Battle of Gravelines, during which Drake commanded a large group of warships from his ship, the Revenge. The English sank or captured many Spanish ships, all but ending the effectiveness of the Spanish Armada.

Later Life

In 1589, Drake led a fleet in a raid on Lisbon, which was then a Spanish port. He seized much treasure, but a storm destroyed many of his ships and Queen Elizabeth deemed the raid a failure. Having lost the queen's confidence, Drake received no commands for almost six years. He retired to Buckland Abbey and, in 1593, he represented Plymouth in the House of Commons.

Drake's last voyage took place in 1595, when he and Sir John Hawkins again sailed to the West Indies. Hawkins died as the fleet reached the islands, but Drake went on and destroyed many towns. He died of dysentery during the return voyage, and was buried at sea.


The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979

See Also

Explorations and Discoveries by Sea
Queen Elizabeth

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This page was last updated on September 28, 2018.