Story of Sir Francis Drake - Mrs. O. Elton

The Last Voyage

Drake had settled in Buckland Abbey, which he had bought from Sir Richard Grenville. He helped to prepare and furnish ships for some of the different excursions against Spain, and he spent much time on schemes to improve Plymouth. He paid to have pure water brought to the town from many miles away; he had flour-mills built, that the sailors might have good biscuits provided for them, and he overlooked the work of fortifying Plymouth, and making it in all ways a strong naval Station.

As the danger of a fresh invasion by Philip grew more threatening, Drake was called to Court again, and it was about this time that he gave to the Queen his written story of the voyage to Nombre de Dios.

In 1595 a fresh expedition was arranged for the Indies, and after the usual bewildering indecision at Court, and difference of views and plans (delays that proved fatal to an excursion whose proper nature was to be swift and secret, and above all things powerful), on August 28, 1598, Sir Francis Drake started on his last voyage.

The story of the expedition begins by saying that "the Spaniard leaves no means untried to turn the peace of England into a cursed thraldom, and this is shown by his attempts, and also by his greedy desires to be our neighbour in Brittany, to gain so near us a quiet and safe road for his fleet. So the forces were sent to invade him in that kingdom from whence he has feathers to fly to the top of his high desires.

"The invasion was glorious spoken of long before it was sent, and Sir Francis Drake was named General. For his very name was a great terror to all in those parts, and he had done many things in those countries to his honourable fame and Profit. But entering into them as the Child of Fortune, it may be that his self-willed and peremptory (despotic) command was doubted, and that caused her Majesty, as it should seem, to join Sir John Hawkins as second in command. He was an old, wary man, and so leaden-footed" (or slow in action) "that Drake's meat would be eaten before his was cooked. They were men of such different natures that what one desired the other commonly opposed. The journey had so glorious a name that crowds of volunteers came to them, and they had to discharge such few as they had pressed. Yet many times it was very doubtful if the voyage would be made, till at last the news came of a ship of the King of Spain, which was driven into Puerto Rico with two millions and a half of treasure. So her Majesty commanded them to haste their departure, which they did with twenty-seven ships."

The generals began to disagree soon after. Drake wanted to begin with an attack upon the Canaries, and Hawkins thought it unnecessary and unwise; and, as the story says, "the fire which lay hidden in their stomachs began to break forth."

It was five years since Drake had fought with his old enemies. He did not know how much stronger the Spanish defence at sea had become, owing to the lessons he had given them, nor how complete Philip had made the protection of the traffic and the treasure-ships. He was to see this first at the Canary Islands, where he tried, and failed, to make one of his old surprise visits.

The fleet sailed on, and anchored on the 29th of October, for water, at Guadeloupe. The Delight  was the last of the ships to arrive the next day, and she brought news that the Francis, a small ship of the company, was taken by five Spanish ships, which had been sent out by Philip to bring home the wrecked ship at Puerto Rico. This was a great misfortune, because Sir John Hawkins had made known to all the company, "even to the basest mariners" the places whither they were bound, naming Puerto Rico, Nombre de Dios, and Panama. Now the Spaniards would learn this from their prisoners, and at once send warning to the coasts.

Drake wanted to give chase at once, but Hawkins was old and cautious, and desired to stay and mount his guns, take in water, set up his pinnaces, and make all things ready to meet the Spaniards.

And Sir John prevailed, "for that he was sickly, Sir Francis being loath to breed his further disquiet." It took four days to make those preparations, and always the sickness of Sir John increased. On the 12th of October Drake brought the fleet up by a secret way to Puerto Rico, and about three o'clock that afternoon Sir John Hawkins died.

In the evening, as Drake sat at supper, his chair was shot from under him, and two of his officers received their death wounds from the Spanish guns. The ships had to move away. The next night the English made a desperate effort to fire the five ships that had come for the treasure. Four of them were set alight, but only one was burnt, and by the great light she gave the Spaniards "played upon the English with their ordnance and small shot as if it had been fair day," and sunk some of the boats.

Next day Drake, undaunted by failure, determined to try and take his whole fleet boldly into the harbour and storm the place. But the Spaniards, guessing his desperate intention, and fearing his great courage, sunk four ships laden with merchandise and armed, as they were, and so, at a great sacrifice, blocked the way for the English.

Drake took counsel with the soldiers as to the strength of the place, but most of them thought it too great a risk, though one or two were for trying it. "the General presently said: 'I will bring you to twenty places far more wealthy and easier to be gotten;' and hence we went on the 15th. And here," says the teller of the story, "I left all hope of good success."

On the way to Nombre de Dios they stopped at Rio de la Hacha, where Drake had first been wronged by the Spaniards. This town they took with little difficulty and some treasure was won.

On December 27th they were at Nombre de Dios, which they took with small resistance. But the people had been warned, and had fled and hidden their treasure, and the town was left very bare. So they resolved to "hasten with speed to Panama." The soldiers were under the command of Sir Thomas Baskerville, who had been a brave fighter against the Spaniards before now in Holland and France. They started to go to Panama by the old road well known to Drake. He, meanwhile, stayed with the ships and burned the town. He was about to sail nearer the river when news came that the soldiers were returning. The road was only too strongly defended now, and Baskerville's men were driven back with severe loss. They were a small force, and weak with the long march through heavy rains; their powder was wet and their food scarce and sodden, and Baskerville decided upon a retreat. "This march," says the story, "had made many swear that they would never buy gold at such a price again."

Drake, being disappointed of his highest hopes, now called a council to decide what was to be done. All the towns had been forewarned, and told "to be careful and look well to themselves, for that Drake and Hawkins were making ready in England to come upon them." And now the company seem to have regarded their leader with some bitterness, as his brave promises failed, and the places that he used to know were found to be changed and formidable. Now they had to rely "upon cards and maps, he being at these parts at the farthest limit of his knowledge." But still he proposed fresh places that had the golden sound of riches in their names, and gallant Baskerville said he would attempt both, one after another.

But the winds drove them instead to a "waste island, which is counted the sickliest place in the Indies, and there died many of the men, and victuals began to grow scarce. Here," says Maynarde, who writes the story, "I was often private with our General, and I demanded of him why he so often begged me, being in England, to stay with him in these parts as long as himself . . . He answered me with grief, protesting that he was as ignorant of the Indies as myself; and that he never thought any place could be so changed, as it were, from a delicious and pleasant arbour into a waste and desert wilderness: besides the variableness and changes of the wind and weather, so stormy and blustrous as he never saw it before. But he most wondered that since his coming out of England he never saw sail worth giving chase unto. Yet, in the greatness of his mind, he would, in the end, conclude with these words: 'It matters not, man; God hath many things in store for us. And I know many means to do her Majesty good service and to make us rich, for we must have gold before we reach England.'

"And since our return from Panama he never carried mirth nor joy in his face, yet no man he loved must show he took thought thereof. And he began to grow sickly. And now so many of the company were dying of the sickness, and food was getting so scarce, that at last he resolved 'to depart and take the wind as God sent it.'"

But the lurking fever in the swamp had done its work, and on January 28, 1596, after a brief fight with illness and death, Drake "yielded up his spirit like a Christian to his Creator quietly in his cabin."

"The General being dead," we are told, "most men's hearts were bent to hasten for England as soon as they might. 'Fortune's Child,' they said, 'was dead; things would not fall into their mouths, nor riches be their portions, how dearly soever they adventured for them.'

But Sir Thomas Baskerville assumed the command and took the remains of the fleet in his charge, and did not return home till he had met the Spaniards and fought a battle with them at sea.

Before the fleet left Puerto Rico he burned that port, and sunk two of the ships no longer needed, and all the prizes. And, there, a league from the shore, under seas, he left the body of Sir Francis Drake, heavily freighted with death and silence. But I like to think that his soul went a-roving again among the stars.