Learn about Sir Francis Drake

Born at Crowndale Farm, west of Tavistock, circa 1540, Sir Francis Drake was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver and politician of the Elizabethan era.

Often described as “more pirate than patriot”, he raided Spanish possessions during England’s war with Spain.

The hero of many battles and hailed as the savior of England from the Spanish Armada, Drake died an inglorious death, having contracted dysentery, in Portobello, Panama on the 27th of January 1596.

The early years of Sir Francis Drake

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 Hawkins family. They were privateers who prowled the shipping lanes off the French coast, seizing merchant ships.

In 1567, Drake made one of the first English slaving voyages as part of a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins, bringing African slaves to work in the ‘New World’. All but two ships of the expedition were lost when attacked by a Spanish squadron.

The Spanish became a lifelong enemy for the young Drake and they in turn considered him a pirate.​​

The West Indies, Caribbean and Americas

In 1570 and 1571, Drake made two profitable trading voyages to the West Indies.

In 1572, he commanded two vessels in a marauding expedition against Spanish ports in the Caribbean. He saw the Pacific Ocean and captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. He returned to England with a cargo of Spanish treasure and an enhanced reputation as a brilliant privateer.

In 1577, Drake was secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I to set off on an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the American Pacific coast. He sailed with five ships, but by the time he reached the Pacific Ocean in October 1578 only one was left, Drake’s flagship the Pelican, renamed the Golden Hind.

Drake remained in his flagship 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.​​

Sir Francis Drake

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.

In 1585, Drake sailed to the West Indies and the coast of Florida where he sacked and plundered Spanish cities. On his return voyage, he picked up the unsuccessful colonists of Roanoke Island off the coast of the Carolinas, which was the first English colony in the New World.

In 1587, war with Spain was imminent and Drake entered the port of Cadiz and destroyed 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling against the British. In 1588, he was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada.

Drake’s last expedition, with John Hawkins, was to the West Indies. The Spanish were prepared for him this time, and the venture was a disaster. Drake is famous for his quote when playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe and the Spanish Armada came in sight.

There is plenty of time to win this game and to thrash the Spaniards too. In addition to being a Member of Parliament, Drake was also Mayor of Plymouth for a number of years.​​​

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