By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
Sir Francis Drake, together with Sea Dog Sir John Hawkins, set out to attack Panama. However, both men died in the course of their mission. The great Spanish playwright, Lope de Vega, celebrated Drake’s passing two years later with a 10-canto epic poem, La Dragontea, The Fiery Dragon.
Drake: A National Hero
Sir Francis Drake was a national hero, not only as the first Englishman to circle the Earth, but as one as the saviors of Britain when it was faced with the Spanish invincible Armada of 1588.
He was a privateer, and at times a proper pirate. He also took great pains to expand his own reputation and murdered people in the service of the transatlantic trade and enslaved people.
Drake’s Revenge against the Spanish
Drake became radicalized against the Spanish in 1568 when he and Hawkins faced consequences for their extra-legal attempts to sell goods and captives in the Caribbean.
Hawkins and his ships had captured the Spanish fort at San Juan de Ulua near Florida. A Spanish fleet came into port, and while the Spanish initially agreed to allow the English to complete their repairs, they later launched a surprise attack.
The English sank three Spanish ships but they lost four of their own. Only two of the English float managed to escape, with Hawkins in the Minion and Drake in the Judith. Drake inexplicably disappeared in the night and left Hawkins to make his way home alone. No one knows why or just what happened. Drake complained bitterly of “the loss of his goods and some value, but also of his kinsmen and friends”. Although another theory is that he had much of the purloin treasure concealed on the Judith and was trying to make off with it.
Whatever the case, Drake made good on his vows to seek revenge against the Spanish and spent the early 1570s raiding the Spanish main, losing two of his brothers, but gaining a good sum of silver.
Raids by Drake
Spain was famously supported by the gold and silver stolen from South America, particularly the silver mines of Potosi, which were practically a byword for unimaginable wealth.
To transport that wealth though, the precious metals had to be marched across the isthmus of Panama through territory controlled by understandably hostile maroon groups—cimarrones in Spanish—on the guard for English or French pirates. Their worst case scenario was for these different hostile forces to combine against them, which Drake realized in 1572 when he led the combined forces of all three groups against the mule trains at Nombre de Dios. And that wasn’t all.
In 1577, Drake set out to raid the Spanish main again, but this time on the Pacific side. Drake did not get along with his co-commanders, eventually executing one of them. Ultimately, he ended up with only a single ship, the Golden Hinde, formerly the Pelican.
Aboard the Golden Hinde, Drake had a string of highly successful piracies and began bragging to his captives that Elizabeth I had authorized him to rob the Spanish in vengeance for San Juan de Ulua.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Piracy: Opportunity or Identity?
While the queen was delighted with Drake, many noblemen turned away from him, dismissing his gold as pirated and him as a social climber. Though Drake became furious when he was called a pirate, at times he certainly was one.
Still, the argument can be made that piracy was so widespread during this period that it was better understood as an act of opportunity rather than an outright identity in most cases.
The sea dogs differed from the golden agers in this respect; they by no means sought to present themselves as living in a world upon the high seas. They were above all Englishmen. In one famous case, Thomas Fleming, a very active piratical type, spotted the Spanish Armada in 1588 and immediately sailed to the Lord High Admiral of the Navy, turning himself in so that he could convey his intelligence.
Drake: A Great Protestant Warrior
Attacking the Spanish and Portuguese from this point of view was a means of affirming one’s identity and one’s Protestant faith. This would become a particular part of Drake’s legend that he was a great Protestant warrior, mostly motivated by veneration for God and Elizabeth, and just every now and then rewarded by some lovely treasure.
Another part of the justification for preying upon Spanish trade in particular was the atrocious way Spanish conquistadors treated indigenous peoples of the Americas in their pursuit of that same treasure that rewarded Drake. These abuses were becoming better known to English readers of the 16th century, thanks to popular works like Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation of 1589, which legitimized English expansionist policies by playing up stories of Spanish depravity.
The Black Legend
Such writing in England and elsewhere gave rise to a broad cultural phenomenon, sometimes called the ‘Black Legend’, which posited that the real Spanish atrocities and the so called ‘New World’ were somehow unique to Spain. The English who bought into the black legend often managed an oblique logic in which they saw themselves as entitled to profit off the trade and African bonds people because Spaniards murdered Indians.
Pointing to Spanish abuses as a means of justifying English imperialism would become a longstanding English tradition.
There is evidence that Sir Francis Drake knew the English could not maintain power through piracy alone, and he helped support the gradual transformation of Plymouth’s economy into one supported by fishing more than raiding. James I, who disliked piracy, continued this encouragement and had far more success in redeploying pirates as fishermen than his cousin Elizabeth had in eradicating pirates by hanging a few of them.
Common Questions about Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake was a national hero, not only because he was the first Englishman to circle the Earth, but also because he was one of the saviors of Britain when it was faced with the Spanish invincible Armada of 1588.
Many noblemen turned away from Drake, dismissing his gold as pirated and him as a social climber.
Sir Francis Drake knew that the English could not maintain power through piracy alone, and he helped support the gradual transformation of Plymouth’s economy into one supported by fishing more than raiding.