SIR FRANCIS DRAKE
There was no greater thorn in the side of the Spanish than Francis Drake. They called him “El Drague” or “The Dragon” and considered him no better than a pirate and with good reason. As a talented sea captain and navigator, he attacked their fleets and took their ships and treasure. He raided their settlements in America and played a major role in the defeat of the greatest fleet ever assembled, the “Spanish Armada.” No other English seaman brought home more wealth or had a bigger impact on English history than Drake.
At the age of 28 he was trapped in a Mexican port by Spanish war ships. He had gone there for repairs after a hurricane. Drake escaped but some of the sailors left behind were so badly treated by the Spanish that he swore revenge.
He returned to the area in 1572 with two ships and 73 men. Over the next fifteen months he raided Spanish towns and their all-important Silver train across the isthmus from Panama. To give himself mobility, he brought in the hold of his ships, three pinnaces. These were small shallow-draft
sailing vessels that could be assembled on arrival and then rowed in and out of inlets and islands on the coast where the Spanish treasure fleet came periodically to collect silver. This silver, taken from the mines in Bolivia, was carried by llama to the Pacific coast, sailed up to Panama and then transported by mule across the relatively narrow but jungle covered isthmus called Darien.
Three weeks of hard marching brought Drakes’ men within sight of Panama and the Pacific ocean. Had it not been for a careless sailor who stood up to see the mule train they would have ambushed a very valuable Spanish cargo. Disappointed, they returned to their base on the east coast. There they regained their strength and waited patiently until they received information from their spies (escaped slaves who lived in the mountains) that the Spanish treasure fleet had arrived and was waiting for the Silver Train. Hiding their pinnaces they set off into the mountains and again waited near the mule trail. Sure enough they saw about 180 mules approaching. The 50 Spanish soldiers guarding the mule train retreated after exchanging a few volleys of musket fire and Drake’s party found themselves with more bars of silver than they could carry. What they could not take, they buried and were able to recover some of it later. They returned to England wealthy men.
Francis Drake, a hero at home, had seen the Pacific when he crossed the isthmus and wanted desperately to sail it. He was therefore excited when he received a secret commission from Elizabeth I to undertake an expedition against the Spanish on the Pacific side of South America. This coastline along Chile and Peru was the sole preserve of the Spanish and unknown to everyone else in Europe. It was like the dark side of the moon where the Spanish could sail up and down the coast in absolute security. Imagine their surprise when “The Dragon” suddenly appeared.
Drake had sailed with three ships in December 1577 but after 50 days of storms and navigating the treacherous “Strait of Magellan” he was left with only one ship, his flagship, “The Golden Hind.” But he had done it, he was in the Pacific and the Spanish had no idea he was there.
Drake started picking off his rich targets one by one. Sailing into the main Chilean town of Valparaiso he took all the wine and food he wanted plus piles of gold from a ship in the harbor. Making his way north at Tarapaca in Chile, Drake’s men found a Spaniard asleep beside 13 bars of silver, which were not there when he woke up!
Then Drake, who spoke fluent Spanish, heard some exciting news. A Spanish
treasure ship bound for Panama was only two weeks ahead of them. With the “Golden Hind” under full sail they chased the galleon, caught it and fired a chain shot (two cannon balls chained together) to bring down its main mast. Now Drake’s ship had added to its hold, 26 tons of silver, 80 pounds of gold and 13 chests of plate and jewels.
Sailing on, some say as far as Vancouver, he returned for repairs to a place most believe was just north of San Francisco.
He had been away for 19 months but another 14 months would go by before he returned to England. He sailed home via the Spice Islands and the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa which he called the “Fairest cape in the circumference of the world.” After he had circumnavigated the world he arrived with a third of his men still alive but with as much wealth in one ship as the entire annual revenue of England. For his achievement he was knighted “Sir Francis Drake” by Queen Elizabeth I on board the “Golden Hind.”
The furious king of Spain, Philip II ordered all English ships in Spanish ports to be seized and the two countries were officially at war.
In 1585 Elizabeth supported another voyage with Drake in charge. This time it was a small navy of 29 ships and 2,300 men sailing back to the Caribbean. There they captured the Spanish headquarters in Santo Domingo, now capital of the Dominican Republic as well as Cartagena in Columbia. After extracting a huge amount of ransom money, he sailed to Florida and set fire to the town of St. Augustine before relieving the Spanish of 14 canons. On the way home, he picked up 103 English colonists who were struggling to exist on the island of Roanoke off North Carolina.
Drake and the attack of the Spanish Armada
Drake was Queen Elizabeth’s favorite sailor and, when news spread of a massive shipbuilding program being carried out in all the Spanish ports, she commissioned Drake to pay a visit to the largest Spanish port of Cadiz. In a thrilling 36-hour commando raid he looted and burned 30 ships. This delayed the sailing of the Spanish Armada by a year but it could not be halted permanently.
In July 1588 Francis Drake was playing lawn bowls in the port of Plymouth when news arrived of the terrifying sight of 170 Spanish war ships. Cool as ever, Drake insisted on finishing the game before departing to the docks. The British did not know precisely where the Armada was heading but managed to get in behind the huge crescent shaped fleet and started picking off the outlying ships. As it happened the Armada was actually sailing for Flanders to pick up 17,000 Spanish soldiers (there to enforce Spanish rule in the Netherlands). With these soldiers on board, the Armada was then scheduled to attack England — but it was not to be. A series of disasters was about to strike the Spaniards.
Firstly, when the Spanish Armada anchored at Calais the English fleet waited until dark and then borne by the wind and tide, floated in eight “fire ships.” These were unmanned ships stuffed with inflammables and
gunpowder. As the fire ships approached the tightly packed enemy fleet, the Spanish panicked. Anchor cables were cut and heavy galleons, troop transports and store ships collided with each other. At dawn the great Armada was scattered along the coast and the British were on the attack. Then a gale came up and the battered Armada had to run for it. Abandoning any idea of picking up the waiting troops or even attacking the English mainland, the fleet flew northwards along the English coast around North Scotland and down past Ireland. In dreadful weather and without anchors, ship after lumbering ship crashed into the rocky coast, and desperate Spanish sailors and soldiers crawled ashore only to be cut down by British troops and others waiting for them.
Only about 40 of the once proud ships of the Armada got back to Spain and over 12,000 lives had been lost. Spanish domination of the Atlantic Ocean was over and the British could start claiming that “Britannia rules the waves.”
Drake, who had played a major role in the Armada victory, tried to retire to Buckland Abbey but the lure of the Caribbean was too strong. With his old partner, Hawkins, he found himself back in the Panama area when, in 1596 at age 56, he caught a fever and died — much to the relief of Spain. The Dragon, the devil with the red beard, was gone!
The Stuarts and Oliver Cromwell
With James I now king of Scotland and England, peace with Spain was declared and the king commissioned a new English translation of the bible. Beautifully written by 47 scholars it is still used today. James had his enemies and, on November 4, 1605, a Catholic plot to blow up the King, as he opened Parliament, was discovered. The conspirators, including an explosives expert, Guy Fawkes, were captured, tortured and put to death. The British celebrate this escape from disaster with a fireworks display every 5th of November on “Guy Fawkes Day.”
James was succeeded by his son Charles I whose arrogance would lead to his downfall and that of the monarchy as well. Believing he could act as he wished through some “divine right” that kings had, he plunged the country into civil war that led to his own execution. In 1653, Oliver Cromwell, a puritan soldier, took over as Lord Protector. Charles’ son, Charles II escaped to France on a coal barge and waded ashore, a tattered figure on the coast of Normandy. He would return as King in 1660 when, with Cromwell’s death, the British people would tire of strict rule and recall their king. But Londoners would soon question whether they were being punished for their sins as three calamities descended on them. First, thousands died in a plague, then the heart of London was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, only to be followed by the successful attack on the English fleet in the Thames/Medway River. (See “The Dutch”)
But as all this was all happening, a young Englishman was discovering things about our world that would change our perception of it forever. His name was Isaac Newton. He became the most influential scientist who ever lived.
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