The voyages of Francis Drake
Part of an ongoing series
From the deck of the Golden Hinde, Englishman Francis Drake stared out on the endless southern ocean, bone-weary after 19 days battling storms and near disaster while steering his three ships through the Strait of Magellan. The date was Sept. 16, 1578. Reaching the Pacific Ocean was the realization of a dream he had held in the six years since he had been the first Englishman to view the expanse of ocean from a hill on the Isthmus of Panama.
It had been a discouraging trip from the day Drake had weighed anchor and sailed from Britain the previous December. One of his five-ship flotilla had disappeared and another proved so unseaworthy the captain had it torn up for firewood. The week before entering the Strait, Drake had been forced to order the beheading of his second in command for urging mutiny.
The privateer system worked well for the British crown since it entailed no major expenses, wreaked havoc on the naval ships and merchantmen flying the flags of England’s enemies and competitors (especially Spain), and enriched the royal treasury. These authorized pirates were privately financed and the stolen booty was divided among the privateer’s owners, captains and crews of the Queen.
For Britain it was a “win-win” system. If a ship was lost, the sponsor and crew suffered, encouraging captains to be aggressive and warlike.
Drake had been commissioned a privateer by Queen Elizabeth I in 1570, when he was only 30 years old, but by then he was already an experienced ship captain. While still in his 20s, Drake had commanded a ship under famed captain/pirate Sir John Hawkins, who ravaged Spanish merchant ships and settlements throughout the Caribbean.
After receiving his commission, Drake returned each year to plunder Spanish colonies and shipping, beginning in 1570. Spanish ships were captured, settlements overwhelmed and both were stripped of valuables by Hawkins, Drake and their men.
Drake’s seamanship became legendary and he gained a reputation for gentlemanly and gracious conduct toward prisoners and civilians. But to Spaniards, he was the scourge of the Caribbean. In 1572, he marched across the Isthmus of Panama to become the first Englishman to view the Pacific Ocean.
In 1577, he got his big chance. Queen Elizabeth, previously wary of actions which would stir up war with Spain, authorized Drake to lead an expedition through the Strait of Magellan, attack Spanish outposts and shipping on the west coast of the new world, and search for the western outlet of the northwest passage – the Strait of Anian. British belief in the existence of such a passage across the upper latitudes of North America had been fueled by the 1576 explorations by Martin Frobisher, of inlets heading inland from Baffin Bay on the east coast of North America.
While his true mission was kept secret, Drake raised money through a company of investors (including the Queen and several of her councilors). Queen Elizabeth’s sudden enthusiasm for Drake’s enterprise was stimulated in part by the revelation of a Spanish scheme to invade Great Britain. He was to be provided with five ships, the largest of which was the Pelican, armed with seven cannons on each side and a substantial arsenal of weapons. A medium-sized bark, it was just over 100 feet long and 21 feet abeam, with a 90-foot mast. It could float in only 13 feet of water, which made it suitable for coastal exploration.
Four other ships were in support, including two smaller fighting ships called the Elizabeth and the Marigold, the Swan to carry provisions and the little Benedict.
Drake’s five ships set sail from Plymouth, England on Dec. 13, 1577, more than 50 years since the last successful trip though Magellan’s Strait. To mislead Spanish spies in London, the cover story was circulated that the Drake enterprise was to protect British interests in the Mediterranean Sea. The Queen’s agents also spread the fiction that he was on a mission to kidnap the prince next in line for the Scottish throne.
Potential mutiny was being fomented by Drake’s chief officer, Capt. John Doughty. When they reached land near the entrance to the southern Strait, Drake had Doughty tried, with the crews as a jury. Upon conviction, Doughty was given the death penalty and beheaded.
Drake’s smallest ship was so leaky, he dismantled it for firewood, and just before entering the Strait, he renamed the Pelican the Golden Hinde, the family symbol of his investor Sir Christopher Hatton, who had been Capt. Doughty’s friend and former employer.
On Aug. 22 (winter in the southern hemisphere), Drake’s three remaining ships entered the Strait, which was beset with forceful and erratic winds funneled through several treacherous narrows lined with rocky shores. Often the winds pushed them back and Drake had to repeat most of the prior day’s sailing. Nevertheless, eventually they sailed into the Pacific on Sept. 6, 1578, after 19 days in the Strait. A series of violent storms greeted the three-vessel fleet. During the night of Sept. 27, the Marigold sank with all hands.
One storm followed another, and in the midst of this turmoil, Drake was blown so far south that he could observe Cape Horn and open sea both to the south and east, revealing that this was the most southerly point on the continent and that in the future one could sail around it rather than through the perilous Strait. Francis Drake was rowed ashore to be able to boast he had stood on the most southerly land in the world.
Separated by the powerful winds, the captain of the Elizabeth lost his nerve and, despite a vote of his crew to continue its mission, returned to the Strait and headed for home on Nov. 1, coincidentally the same day Drake steered north toward the coast of Peru.
The impact of Drake’s arrival in the Pacific cannot be minimized.
To be continued.