Age of Discovery
He effectively ended Spanish dominance over the seas and the New World, allowing England to become a global empire.
Sir Francis Drake was born in 1540 in southern England. His father was a naval skipper and the family moved from port to port during Drake’s years as a child. Subsequently, Drake developed a huge love of the ocean. When he reached his teenage years he joined the navy, serving as an apprentice during the rule of Queen Mary. Drake was a stellar sailor, quickly moving up through the ranks. By the age of twenty-two, Drake was ready for command.
In 1561, Drake was given command of the ship Judith and was sent on a routine slaving mission to Africa. Along the way, Judith was attacked by Spanish ships. Drake survived the attack and reported back to Queen Elizabeth I, who had recently replaced her sister Queen Mary on the throne. The Queen was thoroughly impressed with Drake and promoted him to the rank of lieutenant, propelling him into the fledgling world of English maritime exploration. Not only did the incident launch Drake’s career, but it also instilled in him a lifelong hatred of the Spanish.
In 1570, Drake was given command of two ships, the Dragon and the Swan. His mission was sail into the Caribbean and capture Spanish merchant ships. The English had arrived relatively late to the New World, and Spain was already dominant in the gold and silver trade. Since the Spanish had established many colonies in the New World, the English were not able to build their own colonies safely. Therefore Drake and his men were tasked with stealing Spanish treasures on their way back to Europe. The practice of attacking another nation’s ships was known as “privateering.” It was different from pure piracy in that Francis Drake, and other privateers like him, were protected by their own government.
Drake and his ships found their way to Panama, attacking the Spanish trade cities along the coast. Their initial attacks were quickly countered, however, and the English were forced to retreat.
Drake waited until 1573 to return, but on his second trip he attacked the main Spanish trading route through the jungles of Panama. Drake seized more gold than he could count and went back to England. Upon his return, however, Drake found that the English and the Spanish were no longer fighting. They had made peace, and Francis Drake no longer had the right to act as a privateer. Drake’s gold could have been considered the result of piracy, but the English Crown accepted it quietly. Drake went into hiding for the next few years.
Peace with the Spanish did not last long. In 1577 war broke out again and Queen Elizabeth I called on Drake. He was recommissioned and given command of five ships: the Pelican (later renamed the Golden Hind), the Marigold, the Elizabeth, the Swan, and the Christopher. The fleet set out with the mission to attack Spanish treasure ships and disrupt Spanish trade. Instead of heading for the Caribbean, however, Drake went south towards Chile, landing near the Chilean Islands in 1578. Drake and his men made their way around the southern tip of South America. During the journey Drake and his men lost two ships, leaving only three to continue the journey. Drake then sailed north along the Pacific Coast of South America, harassing Spanish settlements and trade along the way. Drake captured several Spanish treasure ships near Panama and began preparing his return to England.
Drake sailed North in an attempt to find a reverse Northwest Passage but was unsuccessful. He landed in what is modern day San Francisco along the way. After finding no passage, Drake turned back south and cut across the Pacific, exploring islands not yet seen by Europeans. He returned to England in 1580 having completed his circumnavigation of the globe and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I aboard his flagship, the Golden Hind. He was also made a Vice Admiral in the English Navy.
The Spanish Armada
The newly-invested Sir Francis Drake sailed once again in 1585 with a new fleet of twenty ships, attacking and harassing Spanish ships in the Caribbean. On their way back to England, they stopped to resupply the struggling colony at Roanoke Island (present-day North Carolina), founded by Sir Walter Raleigh. The colonists there were so miserable – a product of conflict with natives, poor leadership, and a lack of supplies – that they decided to abandon the colony and return to England
Drake came back to England in 1586 to find that his hated enemy, the Spanish, once again threatened his homeland. The Spanish were furious with the English and were planning a massive invasion of the island. Queen Elizabeth ordered Drake to take several ships and attack the fleet before it could get underway. Drake sailed south to Spain, attacking the Spanish port city of Cadiz where a significant portion of the Spanish Armada was being constructed. Drake’s effort proved not to be enough, however, and the English Admiral returned to England in 1588.
Queen Elizabeth desperately scrambled to mount a defense of the country and put Drake in charge of portions of the defending English fleet. The Spanish Armada arrived in 1588 with an overwhelming force of 128 ships. The English fleet, by comparison, had only 54 ships. The Spanish ships were large and bulky, however, and the English ships were much easier to maneuver. Drake and his fellow commanders out-sailed the Spanish and managed to defeat the Spanish fleet, forcing it to return to Spain. It was Drake’s biggest victory for England, coming over the hated foes he had first fought many years before.
Drake returned to the Caribbean in 1595. A year later he got sick and ultimately died of dysentery near Puerto Rico.
- Pelican (later renamed the Golden Hind)
Sir Francis Drake accomplished far more than any of his English counterparts to that date, effectively cementing English dominance at sea. The Spanish never fully recovered from Drake’s victories, especially the defeat of the Armada. The loss weakened their grip on the New World and ultimately opened the door for the English to establish themselves as the largest empire the world had ever seen.
In addition to his military achievements, he was a famed explorer who claimed part of the west coast of North America for England, and determined that the Tierra del Fuego was an archipelago. He rescued many of the settlers from the doomed Roanoke settlement, saving their lives and helping the English better to understand what life was like in the Americas.
- Barrow, John The Life, Voyages, and Exploits of Admiral Sir Francis Drake, Knt , (RARE DA86.22.D7 B2)
- Bradford, Ernle Dusgate Selby Drake London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965 (DA86.22.D7 B66)
- Campbell, John The life of the celebrated Sir Francis Drake: the first English circumnavigator London: Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, 1828 (RARE DA86.22.D7 B6)
- Drake, Francis, Sir, edited by Mary Frear Keeler Sir Francis Drake’s West Indian VoyageLondon: Hakluyt Society, 1585 (E129.D7 D73 1981)
- Drake, Francis, Sir, edited by W.S.W. Vaux The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake: Being His Next Voyage to that to Nombre de Dios London: Hakluyt Society, 1854 (G420.D7 D73 1854)
- Kelsey, Harry Sir Francis Drake: The Queen’s Pirate New Haven , CT: Yale University Press, 1998 (DA86.22.D7 K45 1998)
- Nichols, Philip Sir Francis Drake Reviued London: Printed for Nicholas Bourne, 1628 (RARE E129.D7)
- Williamson, James Alexander The Age of Drake London: A. & C. Black, 1965 (DA355.W48 1965)
- Wright, Irene A., editor English Privateering Voyages to the West Indies, 1588-1595Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1959 (F1621.E54 1959)
1. What was the occupation of Sir Francis Drake’s father?
a.) a farmer
b.) assistant to Queen Mary
c.) a shipbuilder
d.) a naval skipper
2. TRUE or FALSE: Sir Francis Drake’s hatred of the Spanish began when they attacked his ship, the Judith, and killed his father off the coast of Africa.
3. What happened when Drake returned from his attack on Panama with Spanish gold?
a.) England and Spain were at peace
b.) the ship with the gold sunk
c.) the Queen knighted him
d.) he was attacked by the French
4. TRUE or FALSE: Drake’s orders in 1577 were to take five (5) ships and circumnavigate the globe.
5. TRUE or FALSE: Queen Mary knighted Francis Drake upon his return in 1580 aboard his flagship, the Golden Hind.
6. How did Drake and the English ultimately defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588?
a.) the Spanish forgot heavier cannons
b.) the English were assisted by the French
c.) the English ships were more maneuverable
d.) Drake sacrificed his ship to win the battle
7. How did Sir Francis Drake ultimately die?
a.) he was killed by Spanish assassins
b.) he slipped while climbing the mast
c.) he fought and lost a battle with Blackbeard
d.) he became ill with dysentery