Drake's Voyage Round the World

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By C. E. Hamshere | Published in History Today Volume: 17 Issue: 9 1967

At Deptford, on April 4th, 1581, Francis Drake, who, during the previous autumn, had returned from his triumphant circumnavigation of the globe, knelt before Queen Elizabeth and received a knighthood

A 16th century oil on canvas portrait of Sir Francis Drake in Buckland Abbey, painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

A 16th century oil on canvas portrait of Sir Francis Drake in Buckland Abbey, painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

There are few stories in fact or fiction that can rival the extraordinary adventures of Francis Drake on his voyage round the world between 1577 and 1580. Suspicion and suspense, high ambition and dogged resolution were crowned by success beyond the wildest of dreams.

In 1577 Francis Drake was aged between thirty-two and thirty-six, young by the standards of his day to have won command of an expedition of five ships and 164 men, backed by some of the most influential figures of the time; and he was lucky because he was a self-made man whose name, though well known in the West Country, meant nothing at Court. Yet by 1577 Drake had been seafaring for twenty years. He had made five voyages to the West Indies, from the last of which he had returned in 1573 so successful that he had deemed it prudent to disappear for a time until the hue and cry raised by Spain for his punishment as a pirate had died down. When he reappeared in Ireland, Drake had been befriended by Thomas Doughty whose influence helped to put Drake in touch with the right people. His backers included the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, John Hawkins, Treasurer of the Navy, to whom he was related, and Sir Christopher Hatton, Queen Elizabeth's current favourite. Before sailing, Drake was granted an audience with the Queen, in which Elizabeth said, 'I would gladly be avenged on the King of Spain for diverse injuries that I have received.' In this aim Drake saw eye to eye with his Queen, for both had been heavy losers from the Spanish treachery at San Juan d'Ulloa in 1568.

In a world of intrigue, still revelling in the early days of Machiavellian double-dealing, Elizabeth could make such statements in a private audience and have instructions issued that belied them. Officially Drake was to pass through the Straits of Magellan and explore the coast that lay beyond in territory 'not under the obedience of any Christian King', to make friends with the rulers, arrange for the sale of English goods and to conclude trading treaties. It is thought that this was a brief to search for Terra Australis Incognita that was supposed to exist south of Magellan's Straits. Even these instructions remained secret and it was announced that the destination of the voyage was Alexandria in Egypt. Drake, however, had his own ideas. He had not finished taking his revenge for San Juan, but there was an ambition he was determined to realize. On his last expedition to Darien, and seeing the Pacific, Drake had fallen on his knees and 'implored Divine assistance that he might, at some time or other, sail thither and make a perfect discovery of the same'.

What is fairly evident is that Drake did not set out to perform the feat of circumnavigation. He probably carried the possibility in the back of his mind, but his prime object was to plunder the Spaniards, not t· make a voyage of exploration. The discoveries he did make were incidental.

Of the five ships of the expedition the Admiral, as the leading ship was called by the custom of the time, was the Pelican of 120 tons and 18 guns. Although no details of this remarkable vessel have come down to us, it can be inferred from indirect evidence that she was approximately 90 feet long and 19 wide, a size that would fit into a small back garden today. Her lines were slim and graceful - she was no tubby merchantman. Across the Pacific, driven nearly all the way by the steady Trade Winds, she averaged 88 miles a day. On the last long leg of 10,000 miles from Java to Plymouth, which she covered in exactly six months, sailing across the wind and pressure belts of the Atlantic, her mean speed fell to between 50 and 60 miles a day. East Indiamen later were to average 10 months for the shorter voyage to India.

The other ships were smaller: the Elizabeth, 80 tons, Marigold, 30 tons, the Swan, a storeship of 50 tons, and the Benedict of 15 tons. The log and chief incidents of the voyage have been incorporated on the accompanying map.

Of the 164 men and boys who sailed in these five small ships, some were old West Indian comrades, like Thomas Moone, master of the little Benedict. John Winter, captain of the Elizabeth, was the nephew of Sir William Winter, Surveyor of the Navy, who had shares in the enterprise, and John Hawkins' nephew, William, also sailed. There was a hard-worked chaplain, Francis Fletcher, who took two services a day; Drake's brother, Thomas, and John Drake, his fourteen-year-old nephew, were there. In fact, it was a large family party; but, unlike his previous expeditions, this contained a number of gentlemen-adventurers, of whom the chief were Thomas Doughty and his brother, John.

It must have become obvious to all that Alexandria was not the destination when on Christmas Day 1577 the coast of Morocco appeared to port. Drake kept quiet as long as there was any risk of meeting ships that could bear news of his whereabouts and true destination to Spain. It was probably not until he reached Port St. Julian that the men were told of their true destination. The uncertainty under which they sailed for so long nurtured the seeds of mutiny that Doughty began to plant among them.

Captain Thomas Doughty was a typical gentleman-adventurer of the Elizabethan era. Well educated, with a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, he had impressed the simple and straightforward Drake. Doughty had won the confidence of no less a man than the first Earl of Essex and had been responsible for a serious quarrel between him and the Earl of Leicester. Now he was to betray Drake in the same way. When the first signs of trouble were brought to Drake's notice at the Cape Verde Islands, he refused to mistrust his friend and magnanimously changed ships with him; but Doughty continued his whispering campaign so that in mid-ocean Drake had him arrested and confined a prisoner in the Swan. Even after this measure Doughty continued his intrigues. When, after a trying two months' passage from the River Plate, the ships at last collected at Port St. Julian, Drake brought Thomas Doughty and his brother to trial for mutiny.

This trial constituted the first crisis of the voyage. Like Magellan before him, who had also to quell a mutiny in the same place fifty-eight years earlier, Drake saw that unless he asserted his authority disaster would occur on the unknown waters of the Pacific. Knowing little of the law, Drake empanelled a jury of forty men and acted himself as both judge and prosecutor. Doughty questioned Drake's commission and showed no concern for his life until, during the testimony of Ned Bright, Doughty stated that Lord Burghley had a plan of the voyage. When Drake denied this and asked how Burghley had come by the plan, Doughty said, 'He had it from me.'

At this Drake exploded, 'Lo, my masters, what this fellow hath done! God will have his treacheries all known, for Her Majesty gave me special commandment that of all men my Lord Treasurer should not know it. His own mouth hath betrayed him.' Doughty had snared himself with his own treacherous tongue. He stood a self-confessed traitor to the Queen's command. The jury found him guilty: Drake then gave Doughty the choice of three sentences: execution, to be turned loose upon the coast, or to be left to make his own way home, and strangely to our way of thinking he chose execution. There followed the most dramatic incident of the voyage. Drake and Doughty took Communion, ate a hearty breakfast together, drank each other's health, and then Doughty went bravely to the block.

Contrary to his hopes, Drake had not seen the last of the discontent and quarrelling. He had to act again. Every man was commanded to make his confession to the Chaplain and receive the Sacrament. Then Drake took over from Fletcher and addressed the assembled company. The mutinies must stop, he told them:

For by the life of God it doth even take my wits from me to think on it. Here is such controversy between the sailors and the gentlemen, and such stomaching between the gentlemen and the sailors that it doth even make me mad to hear it. But, my masters, I must have it left. I must have the gentlemen to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentleman.

This was Drake's great contribution to the development of the happy camaraderie that so distinguished English ships from the haughty social division found on the ships of Spain, and it was worked out here in the desolation of the bottom of the then known world. Great leader that he had now become, Drake raised his men's spirits with a challenge. 'We have now set by the ears three mighty princes, as first Her Majesty and then the Kings of Spain and Portugal, and if this voyage should not have good success, we should not only be a scorning or a reproachful scoffing-stock unto our enemies, but also a great blot to our whole country for ever.' He offered a ship to take any waverers home, but there were no takers. Two hundred and twenty-seven years later Nelson had only to say 'England expects every man to do his duty', and the tradition started by Drake rolled on.

There is no explicable reason why Drake renamed his ship the Golden Hind before sailing into the Straits. It has been suggested that it was in honour of Sir Christopher Hatton, whose coat-of-arms bore a hind, but why should Hatton be honoured before any of the other backers? With his fleet reduced to three ships, Drake enjoyed the quickest passage of the century through the Straits of Magellan, but once in the Pacific his luck changed. The Marigold was lost in a storm with 28 men under the mastership of poor Ned Bright, the chief witness at Doughty's trial, a fate that earned the harsh comment in Chaplain Fletcher's journal, 'a marked judgement against a false Witness'.

In all, the Golden Hind stood up to fifty-two days of storm in the roughest seas of the world. During this ordeal Drake sailed to Latitude 57 degrees South, where there was nothing but the open ocean and no Terra Australis Incognita. He landed on an island which was probably Cape Horn. By that time he had lost touch with the Elizabeth, and so when a favourable wind allowed him to turn north, Drake and the Golden Hind sailed towards the Spanish colonies alone. Winter gave in to his crew and sailed back to England, where they arrived in the summer of 1579. Later, when Drake reached England safely with his enormous treasure, how John Winter and his shipmates must have cursed themselves! Small wonder that jealousy prompted some to slander Drake and revive criticisms of the Doughty trial.

That Drake felt keenly the absence of the Elizabeth and her crew is shown by the constant watch he kept for her, even past the Equator, but this loss in no way deterred him from his design upon the Spanish colonies. So in his 120-ton vessel with less than 100 men he launched his attack on the vast area of Spain's South American Empire. In numbers, however, the Spaniards were scarce upon the ground. Most of the scattered settlements that Drake attacked, many of which today are the sites of large towns, in 1579 could only muster a handful of inhabitants. Situated along the shores of the Peaceful Ocean, nearly all were undefended. And Drake achieved complete surprise. The mixed expression of surprise and horror on the faces of the first Spanish sailors to be attacked in Valparaiso harbour, by men from what they had assumed was another Spanish vessel, must have caused reminiscent laughter among Drake's men for months afterwards.

Drake had reached Valparaiso nearly a year after leaving Plymouth. Before any more raids were made it was necessary to careen and overhaul the Golden Hind; while this was done at Salada Bay, Drake used his pinnaces to keep watch for the Elizabeth. After a month's refit they were ready to move on up the desert coast of Chile. The colonists at Valparaiso had been unable to send warning to the settlements north of them, so surprise continued. There occurred the near fairy story of the sleeping Spaniard having his thirteen bars of silver removed from his side during his siesta, and the entertaining account of Parson Fletcher:

Not far from thence we met a Spaniard with an Indian boy, driving 8 Peruvian sheep or llamas with 800 pounds weight of refined silver. We could not endure to see a gentleman Spaniard turned carrier so, and therefore, without entreaty we offered our services and became drovers: only his directions were not so perfect that we could keep the way which he intended, for almost as soon as he was parted from us, we were come to our boats.

At Callao, the port of Lima, capital of Peru, there were twelve ships in the harbour. Entering at night, Drake's arrival went unnoticed until a ship from Panama, arriving shortly afterwards, gave the alarm when the Hind's guns were spotted, for on the Pacific ships carried no guns. Drake took immediate action. A boat was sent round the harbour cutting all the ships' cables, to hinder pursuit, then with the greatest of ease the Panama ship was captured to yield something far more valuable than the small treasures acquired from other Spanish vessels, for the English learnt that a fortnight before there had sailed from Callao an immensely rich treasure ship, with the resounding name of Nuestra Senora De La Concepcion, but known to the vulgar sailors as the Cacafuego (shit-fire).

The news must have been a wonderful surprise to Drake. From his operations round Nombre de Dios six years before, he knew that the annual treasure shipment from Peru passed across the Isthmus of Panama in time to catch the Galleons that called at Nombre de Dios in January. As it was mid-February when he reached Callao he could not have been expecting such a haul. Crowding on every stitch of sail, Drake hurried off in pursuit. Just across the Equator off Cape San Francisco he caught up with her and she instantly fell into his hands.

Drake, the yeoman's son, behaved like a perfect gentleman during the five days the two ships lay together while the treasure - gold, silver and precious stones  -was transferred to the hold and even the bilge of the Hind. He entertained the owner-captain, Don San Juan de Anton, in his cabin and when they parted he gave him a handsome present. In addition each member of the Cacafuego's crew was presented with between 30 and 40 pesos (about £15). Joking, one of them told the English sailors that the Hind was now the Cacafuego and they must call their ship the Cacaplata.

Drake could afford to be graceful because the voyage was made and it did not hurt him to be generous. In all the 3,000 miles from Valparaiso to Guatulco not a Spaniard was killed, despite the fact that he was exacting retribution for the Spanish attack at San Juan d'Ulloa, as a result of which three hundred English lives had been lost. He was humane in an age when few men practised humanity. Drake was a deeply religious man. We may think it strange that as such he could indulge in highway robbery, but he did so as an ardent English Protestant, helping himself to what he considered the Spanish Catholic monopolists had no better right than his own. Those who call him a pirate forget his scrupulous treatment of prisoners.

There is no reliable method of assessing the value of the treasure taken. The Spaniards claimed that it was worth 800,000 pesos, which at 9s. to the peso would have been equivalent to £360,000in 1580. If it is assumed that the Spaniards were grossly exaggerating, at half their figure £80,000 would be worth over £2,500,000 today, taking the value of our £ as 1/15th of the Elizabethan. Drake had made a fabulous haul but he was 5,000 miles from home and on the wrong side of Central America. How was he to get his precious cargo to England?

In conversation with Juan de Anton, Drake asked if he had heard any news of John Oxenham, a comrade of Drake's on the Isthmus of Darien, who had shared the first Englishman's view of the Pacific. It is possible that had Drake and Oxenham met they might have attempted to seize Panama, march across the. isthmus with their treasure, and return to England in a captured Spanish ship as they had done in I573. But Anton had bad news for Drake: Oxenham was held prisoner in Lima. Without him and without the Elizabeth's men there could be no question of a return via Panama.

The Spaniards, thinking that Drake must return via the Straits of Magellan, sent a squadron there to intercept him, but Drake turned north. He sailed close to the latitude of Vancouver and when the weather turned cold and the coast bent to the north-westward he turned back to what is now California. In a bay just north of the future San Francisco he spent a month careening his ship.

He called the country New Albion and claimed it for Queen Elizabeth. Here he established friendly relations with the Indians, for this was another of Drake's characteristics: he always respected the native people of a country. Even on the Island of Mocha, south of Valparaiso, when the local Indians had attacked his men and killed one of their number, no doubt mistaking them for Spaniards, Drake restrained his angry followers from punishing their aggressors. It had been the same in Darien where he had befriended the Cimaroons; it was to happen again in the Moluccas and Java. It is a great gift to be able to make friends with strange people without knowing a word of their language. Cook and Livingstone also possessed it.

Probably before reaching New Albion Drake had decided that there was no alternative to returning home round the world via the East Indies. In the last Spanish ship captured before Guatulco he had found two pilots experienced on the Pacific. These he pumped of all useful information, took their charts and let them go. On July 23rd, 1579, the Golden Hind sailed out on to the Pacific, crossing the great ocean in an uneventful voyage of sixty-eight days. After brief calls at the Palau Islands and Mindanao, at the beginning of November the Englishmen reached the real goal of Columbus, da Gama and Magellan at Ternate in the Spice Islands. Here they received a cordial welcome and a promise of trade from the Sultan, but Drake would stop no longer than courtesy and the loading of six tons of cloves demanded. His main object was to get home.

Once again, four weeks were spent in a final refit on an uninhabited island. On January 9th, 1580, the Golden Hind was making her way westwards across the Flores Sea when at eight o'clock at night - quite dark at that latitude - she ran aground on a reef. What a frightful ordeal must have ensued, so barely described in Hakluyt! It seemed to every man that his last moment had come and an hopes of comfortable retirement in England fled away. Yet in this, the greatest peril of the voyage, Francis Drake saved his men from panic. They prayed. They confessed their sins, but Drake believed in works as well as faith. He had soundings taken. The carpenter was sent to inspect the hold and reported no damage. They tried to haul the ship off the rock with a kedge anchor, but the water to starboard was too deep. They jettisoned eight cannon, three tons of the recently acquired cloves and various stores, all to no avail. Then at four o'clock next afternoon the miracle happened: the wind changed and the Hind floated free, undamaged. Has there ever been such suspense and such a crisis ? Yet the history textbooks hardly mention it. It was lucky for Drake and lucky for England that the Golden Hind survived.

After a friendly visit to the five Rajahs of Java, on March 26th Drake set out on the long sail home. It was an extraordinary feat to sail for six months with only one visit ashore. On June 18th they passed the Cape of Good Hope in fine weather, 'the fairest Cape in all the circumference of the earth,' but they did not stop. We have few details of these last few months, but they were proof of fantastic powers of endurance. They had probably taken on rice and sago in Java; for all the regular sailors' rations - biscuit, salt meat, salt fish, bread, cheese and butter - had finished long ago. The gallon of beer a day, issued to sailors nearer home, had become a hazy memory. Fresh food must have finished within weeks of leaving Java, yet we hear no mention of scurvy and few men died. It is likely that Drake encouraged his men to fish, because around the Straits of Magellan they had lived on pelicans and seals - he believed in living on local resources. On such a protracted cruise there was no alternative. In their two-day stop at Sierra Leone they took on as much fresh fruit and food as possible and much appreciated the local tree-oysters.

The first question that Drake asked at Plymouth on September 26th was for news of the Queen. A sigh of relief might well have escaped his lips when he heard she was alive and well; for, had anything happened to Elizabeth, Drake's future would have been in jeopardy. As it was, his welcome was a cool one. The voyage had ended, but not Drake's problems.

In three years the political stage in Europe had been reset. Philip II was about to succeed to the throne of Portugal and so become the most powerful ruler in the history of the world. This mighty Prince had been affronted by the insolence of the English pirate, who had upset the tranquil and very profitable business of his mining empire in South America - never had one small ship caused such a commotion over so vast an area. Spanish merchants were howling for Drake's blood, while those English merchants with interests in the Spanish trade viewed Drake askance, expecting to have their assets seized in retribution by the Spanish authorities. Burghley advised the return of the treasure to Spain, but Elizabeth needed her share, so she prevaricated. She assured Mendoza that Drake's enterprise was entirely unofficial. The treasure was ordered to be brought to London for safe storage in the Tower, prior to its return to its rightful owners.

It never reached them. The Queen finally received Drake and accorded him a six hours' audience. He presented the Queen with his log of the voyage, illustrated with sketches of the principal geographical features, drawn by his own hand and that of young John. And the great tragedy is that this vital document has been lost to us without a trace.

As time went by the Queen considered it safe to move. Drake was ordered to bring his famous ship round to Deptford, and there on April 4th, 1581, the Queen came in person to see it for herself; accompanied by Monsieur de Marchaumont, the French Ambassador. As she stepped on board there occurred a precious incident: Her Majesty dropped a garter. The gallant Frenchman retrieved it, but she took it from him and in full view of the assembled company restored it to her leg. On the quarter deck she had Drake kneel before her. The King of Spain had demanded his head, she said, and she had a gilded sword with which to strike it off. Then she turned to de Marchaumont and asked him to bestow the accolade. Thus it was that the official representative of France became involved in Drake's knighthood. As a reward, Elizabeth gave him the garter he had earlier retrieved.

Drake's triumph then rose to its peak. Cheered by the London crowds wherever he went, he became the hero of the hour. His backers had made a stupendous profit and Drake himself became one of the richest men in England. Yet there were undercurrents. For two years after the execution of Thomas Doughty, his brother John, who had been acquitted, was cooped up on the Hind with the man he regarded as his brother's murderer. On reaching England, John Doughty stole away and brought a case against Drake which was never proceeded with. Chaplain Fletcher also had his doubts about the trial, as witness his remark about Ned Bright when the Marigold foundered. In the panic on the Flores reef, Fletcher must have voiced his doubts and said something either in sermon or prayer to the effect that they were being punished for the murder of the innocent. After the crisis was over, Drake lost his temper with Fletcher and uttered these extraordinary words, 'Francis Fletcher, I do here excommunicate thee out of the Church of God and from all the benefits and graces thereof and I denounce thee to the Devil and all his angels.' He had a label tied to Fletcher's arm that read, 'Francis Fletcher, the falsest knave that liveth.' What was it all about? This is one of the unanswerable questions.

Great men seldom escape detraction by the jealous. Francis Drake was no exception, but above the pinpricks he rose supreme, the greatest sailor of his time, the first captain to take a ship all round the world, the terror of the Spaniards who called him El Draque (The Dragon), the possessor of a magic mirror in which all their secret plans were revealed. Where he conjured fear among England's enemies, he inspired the courage among his fellow countrymen that sent them out across the seven seas in imitation of his great exploit in the Golden Hind.

Drake's Voyage Round the World | History Today

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