Story of Sir Francis Drake - Mrs. O. Elton

"The Troublesome Voyage"

The four centuries before the sixteenth, in which Drake lived, have been called the Age of Discovery. The world widened before men's eyes as new lands and seas, new peoples, and even new stars, became known to them. The little country of Portugal was the first to begin those discoveries. Her ships explored the coasts of Africa and traded there. One of her mariners discovered the passage round the Cape of Good Hope to India, the Spice Islands, and China, and for long she had no rival in her trade.

About fifty years before Drake was born, America was discovered by Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailor in the service of Spain. The ships in use in those days were very different to any we see now. There have been three kinds of ships made, ships with oars, ships with sails, and ships with steam. They are divided into two kinds, fighting ships and merchant ships.

The old-fashioned galley was long and low-decked, and could be rowed or sailed. In the middle of the ship, between two platforms or upper decks, the rowers were chained to their seats. Three or four men worked each of the long oars, or sweeps as they were called. There were twenty-five oars or more on each side of the ship. The rowers or galley-slaves were generally prisoners taken in war, and to "be sent to the galleys" was a terrible fate. They lived on the benches, ill-fed and ill-clothed, with only an awning to cover them when in port, though the low sides of the ships protected them a little from the weather and from the fire of the enemy. Drake seems always to have released the slaves he took on Spanish galleys. Once, we are told, they included "Turks, Greeks, Negroes, Frenchmen, and Spaniards."

The sailors who worked the ships were free. The ships were always armed, at first with shields and spears and arrows, later with guns and powder. With such ships the Italians fought many great battles on the Mediterranean, and in such ships, the Norsemen had invaded England and raided the Northern Seas; and, with his caravels, or light Spanish ships, Columbus reached the islands which he called the West Indies. In later voyages he reached the mainland of America, but to the day of his death be always believed that he had found the coast of Asia. Another Italian sailor, named Amerigo, also in the service of Spain, gave his name to, the New World. The Italians had long been good sailors and ship-builders, and great fighters at sea, and they had the glory of discovering America, though they gained no possessions there.

Spain, at that time the most powerful state in Europe, seized upon a great part of the new land, and found there gold and silver mines. The natives they first subdued and afterwards forced to become Christians, as the custom was in warfare with a Pagan race.

The American Indians, however, have never been easy to subdue, and have always had an undying affection for their own way of life. The Spaniards found them unfitted for hard work in the mines. The Portuguese had already captured negroes in their West African settlements, and numbers of those were sent to America as slaves.

From the time of Henry the Eighth the English were building and buying fine ships, and learnt to sail them so well that they began less and less to use the old galley ship with its many oars. They traded mostly with Spain and the Low Countries; but as they got better ships, and became expert sailors, they wanted to go farther away, to discover new countries and get more trade. They began to sail to the Canary Islands, to Africa, and America.

The Hawkins family had taken a large part in this new activity. The elder William Hawkins had sailed to Brazil; and his son, John Hawkins, with whom Drake took service, made several voyages to the "Isles of the Canaries." Having learnt something about the West Indies, he made several voyages there, carrying with him numbers of negroes to sell, whom he took, partly by the sword, and partly by other means, on the coast of Africa.

Hawkins and the other adventurers who joined him brought home great riches. In the account of those early voyages we see the beginning of a quarrel with Spain, which was to last through the reign of Elizabeth, till Philip sent his great Armada. to invade England.

The third and most famous voyage of John Hawkins to the West Indies was called "the troublesome voyage," for it ended in disaster. It was the biggest venture that had yet been made by the English, and Drake took part in it. Hawkins sailed with six ships. There were two "great ships" of the Royal Navy—the Jesus, commanded by Hawkins himself, and the Minion;  the William and John, named after and owned by the Hawkins brothers; and three smaller ones, the Swallow, the Angel, and the Judith, the last being under the command of Francis Drake.

They got slaves in Africa and sold them in the West Indies, though not without difficulty, because the Spaniards had been forbidden by their king to trade with the English. As they were about to start on their way home, the ships met with fearful storms, and as the Jesus  was much shattered, Hawkins made up his mind to seek for haven. They were driven at last into Vera Cruz, the port of the city of Mexico. Here they sheltered, hoping to buy food and repair their fleet. Now in this very port lay treasure which was said to be worth thousands of pounds. It was waiting for the fleet of armed ships which was to take it safely back to Spain. The Spaniards were much dismayed to see the English ships, with their Portuguese ships and prisoners captured on the voyage, come, as they thought, to seize their treasure. It was this very danger they had feared when Hawkins first began his slave trade and disturbed the peace of the Spanish colonies.

Next morning thirteen great ships appeared, and proved to be a Mexican fleet returning with a new Viceroy or Governor from King Philip. A solemn and peaceful agreement was made, and the Spanish ships were moored alongside the English ones, which were already in possession of the harbour. However, the Spaniards afterwards broke faith and fell upon the English, and a great and fierce fight took place, which lasted from ten in the morning until night. The Angel  and the Swallow  were sunk, and the Jesus  so damaged that it could not be brought away.

As the remaining ships were sailing away the Spaniards sent two "fire ships" after them. This was not an unusual way of fighting in those days. The empty, burning ships were sent to try and fire the enemies' ships, and were borne along, flaming, by the wind, an awful and terrifying sight. The men on the Minion  became panic-stricken, and set sail without orders. Some of the men from the Judith  followed in a small boat. The rest were forced "to abide the mercy of the Spaniards," which, Hawkins says, he doubts was very little.

"The same night," he goes on, "the Judith  forsook us in our great misery. In the end, when the wind came larger, we weighed anchor and set sail, seeking for water, of which we had very little. And wandering thus certain days in these unknown seas, hunger forced us to eat hides, cats and dogs, mice, rats, parrots, and monkeys."

Some of the men asked to be put on land, rather than risk shipwreck and starvation in the overcrowded boat. Hawkins did, in the end, get safely home, with his weather-beaten ship, and the survivors of his feeble, starving crew. But he says that, if all the miseries and troubles of this sorrowful voyage were to be written, the tale would be as long as the "Book of Martyrs." Some of the men that were left also reached England, after weary wanderings and years of terrible sufferings. Some were put to death as heretics, and others were sent to the galleys as slaves. Others, more fortunate, were sent to serve in monasteries, where the monks made kind and gentle masters.

Five days before Hawkins reached England, the little Judith  struggled into Plymouth Harbour with Drake and his load of men. William Hawkins sent him at once to London on horseback, "post, post haste," as the old letters say. He carried letters to the Lords of Council, and to Sir William Cecil, the Chief Secretary of the Queen. So he rode swiftly along the country roads, only stopping to fling himself off one weary, smoking horse on to, the back of a fresh one. The people would gather round him as he made the change, and wonder what great news was going to town.

Sir Francis Drake


William Hawkins said in his letter: "There is come to Plymouth, at this present hour, one of the small barks of my brother's fleet, and as I have neither writing nor anything else from him, I thought it good, and my most bounden duty, to send you the captain of the same bark. He is our kinsman, and is called Francis Drake."

He was to tell the whole story, and the Queen was to hear it. He was to tell of the losses of John Hawkins, and of his absence, which his brother says "is unto me more grief than any other thing in the world."

Drake was much blamed at the time for deserting his general. It is difficult for us to see what he could have done. His little ship was crowded, and he had small store of food and water, and he no doubt thought it best to get home as soon as possible. His story of Spanish treachery and English loss must have roused the country side. The excitement was at its height when the Minion  appeared off Cornwall.

A man "for goodwill" came riding to William Hawkins, at Plymouth, to get help. He sent a bark, with thirty-four mariners and a store of fresh food and other necessaries. And again letters were sent to London with the news. Haste! Haste! post haste!