Famous Men of Modern Times - John Haaren

Sir Francis Drake


Queen Elizabeth—popularly known as "Good Queen Bess"—ascended the throne of England in 1558. Her reign was both magnificent and successful; and it added much to the greatness of the nation.

It was during Elizabeth's reign that England first became a great naval power; and among the men who helped to make her so, none were more famous than Sir Francis Drake.

There is some doubt about the date of Drake's birth. It is now generally believed that he was born in 1540, though some writers put the date at least five years earlier.

The place of his birth was the little town of Tavistock, in Devonshire. He seems to have had a great love for the sea even when but a child. His parents were too poor to help him into a good position, and so he began his career at sea as a cabin boy. But he had the merit of pluck; and he soon rose to the highest rank in the English navy.

In 1567 he went with his uncle Hawkins, who was one of the noted sailors of that day, on a slave-trading voyage to Africa and the West Indies. The experiences he met with at that time gave color to the rest of his life.

Being driven out of their course by storms, they were obliged to seek shelter in the harbor of San Juan de Ulua, a Spanish port on the coast of Mexico. There they were received with a show of kindness, but were afterwards attacked by a superior force, and only two vessels escaped.

After this act of treachery, Drake resolved to seize every opportunity to plunder the Spaniards and thus to make good the loss which he and his uncle had sustained.

In the years 1570–71 Drake made two other voyages to the West Indies for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the situation and strength of the Spanish settlements.

In 1572, he sailed again with two ships, one of seventy-five tons, the other of twenty-five. His plan was to capture the town of Nombre de Dios (nom' bra da dyos') on the Isthmus of Panama, which was the port from which the Spaniards shipped to Spain the gold and silver taken from the mines of Peru.

In the attempt to take this town Drake was severely wounded. He tried to conceal his hurt from his men; and they pressed onward into the town. But just as they reached the market place where they hoped to find the treasure, he fainted from loss of blood. His men at once carried him to his ship, and the enterprise was abandoned.

As soon as he was able to do so, he began to sail back and forth along the coast. He seized a large number of ships, and took from them a great amount of wealth both in money and goods.

He formed an alliance with a band of run-away slaves called Cimarrones (the ma ro' nes), and together they built a fort on a small island at the mouth of a river. There Drake and his men remained until February 3, 1573.

On that day Drake set out, with some Cimarrones as guides, to cross the Isthmus of Panama and gain his first view of the Pacific Ocean. Half way across the isthmus they led him to a tall tree standing on a central hill. Among the topmost branches of this tree there was a platform on which ten or twelve men might stand at ease. Drake climbed up to this platform, and was delighted to find that from his lofty perch he could see both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Drake returned to England in the fall of 1573, carrying much treasure which he divided with the strictest fairness among his followers. His own share was large enough to enable him to purchase three ships. With these he sailed to Ireland, and there, as a volunteer under the Earl of Essex, he "did most excellent service."

But Francis Drake is chiefly distinguished as the first Englishman who sailed round the world. In December, 1577, with five little vessels, about the size of those of Columbus, he sailed out of the harbor of Plymouth.

It took him seven months to reach Patagonia, and there he remained for about nine weeks. Two of his ships had become so leaky as to be unfit for further service, and he was compelled to abandon them. The crews and stores were taken on board the other vessels and the fleet started out to sail through Magellan Strait in order to reach the Pacific.

It was sixty years since Magellan had passed through the strait, but Drake's was the first English expedition to follow the great Portuguese navigator over this route.

While the vessels were in the strait, one of those terrific storms arose for which the region of Cape Horn is still noted. One ship called the Marigold  was never heard of again, and the crew of the Elizabeth were so disheartened by the terrible weather that they put about and returned to England.

Although Drake was left with but a single ship he would not give up the voyage. He made his way into the Pacific, and sailed northward along the coasts of Chile and Peru.

The Spaniards had already established colonies on the western shores of South America. Santiago had been founded nearly forty years before, and Lima was already a town of considerable size.

As Spain and England were not friendly toward each other, it was thought perfectly right to capture Spanish vessels and to plunder Spanish towns; and Queen Elizabeth had given Drake a commission, signed with her own hand, authorizing him to do this.

After plundering a number of the Spanish settlements he pursued his voyage until he reached the western coast of North America. Finding that his ship was again in need of repairs, he landed for that purpose at a point which has since been named Drakes Bay, a little to the north of San Francisco Bay.

From California he sailed across the Pacific and visited the Spice Islands and Java. Leaving Java he crossed the Indian Ocean and passed around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic. Then, steering northward, he made his way back to England, reaching home exactly two years and ten months after starting on the voyage.

On his arrival a banquet was prepared on board the ship in which he had thus sailed round the world. Queen Elizabeth was one of the guests. In honor of his achievement she knighted him on the deck of his ship, and it was in this way that he came to be called Sir Francis Drake.

The little vessel had been so battered by the storms through which it had passed that it was unfit for further service. But Elizabeth gave orders that it should be carefully preserved as a monument to its famous captain.

One hundred years later it was found that the timbers were badly decayed. It was then broken up. One piece of the wood, that was still sound, was made into a chair for King Charles II, who afterwards gave it to the University of Oxford, where it can still be seen.

Sir Francis Drake


A few years later, Sir Francis rendered another valuable service to his native land. Philip of Spain equipped an enormous fleet for the purpose of invading England. Drake learned that the larger part of this fleet was in the harbor of Cadiz, making final preparations for the voyage.

He was then at Lisbon with thirty English war ships under his command. He at once sailed for Cadiz, and, on arriving, he sent a fire-ship among the Spanish vessels, burned nearly a hundred of them, and escaped from the harbor unharmed.

This delayed the sailing of the Spanish fleet for nearly a year, and when at length it approached the shores of England, Drake did more, perhaps, than any other man to bring about its overthrow.

The Spaniards had collected about one hundred and thirty vessels of war, and more than fifty thousand men, and to this array they gave the proud title of the "Invincible Armada." Thirty-five thousand men were to land at the mouth of the River Thames and another large force was to land farther to the north. Then a third force threatened the west coast. In this way England was to be attacked at three different points at the same time. The Spaniards thought that the English would be bewildered, and would surrender.

Sir Francis Drake


But all this great armament was not prepared without some news of it getting to England, and preparations were made to repel the foe.

Troops were collected at Tilbury ready to attack the Spaniards in case they succeeded in landing. The queen on horseback reviewed them, and made a stirring speech. The merchants of London and other ports offered their ships to be used as ships of war; the rich brought their treasures; the poor volunteered in the army and navy. Thus the coast was well guarded and the number of vessels in the fleet was increased from thirty to one hundred and eighty.

These carried about sixteen thousand men—not half the number on board the enemy's fleet—but they were sturdy English fighters. Howard was Lord High Admiral, and with him were Drake, Frobisher, and Hawkins, the most famous English mariners of the time.

One evening, late in July, 1588, beacon lights blazed all along the coast of the English Channel telling the news that the Spanish fleet was coming. Next morning, arranged in a crescent, the Armada moved up the Channel. Its line was seven miles long.

The English fleet sailed out from Plymouth. Its vessels were light, while those of the Spaniards were heavy, but more than this, the English ships were finely managed, and their guns were skillfully aimed, while most of the shots of the Spaniards went over the heads of the English.

The Spaniards tried to come to close quarters, but the English vessels were so steered that this could not be done. Day after day for a week the fighting continued.

The Spanish commander then led his fleet into the harbor of Calais on the French side of the Channel. He wished to get provisions and powder and shot. He also wished to get some small vessels—swift sailors—with which he might match the light ships of his adversaries.

Spanish ships under fire


The English fleet followed, but it would not be allowed by the French to attack the Spaniards in the harbor. To force them out into the open sea, the English turned eight of their oldest and poorest vessels into fireships. Tar, rosin and pitch were placed upon them. The masts and rigging were covered with pitch. Their guns were loaded; and thus, all ablaze, they were sent at midnight drifting into the harbor with wind and tide. This fire fleet did its work. It did not indeed fire any Spanish ship but it so alarmed the Spaniards that they sailed from the harbor into the open sea, and there the English attacked them. Many of their ships were disabled, and four thousand of their men were killed in one day's fighting.

Next day the Spanish commanders held a council of war. The question to be decided was whether to try to sail home through Howard's fleet or go round Scotland and avoid his guns. It was determined to attempt the voyage round Scotland. So the whole remaining Spanish fleet of perhaps one hundred and twenty vessels steered toward the north.

On the coast of Scotland, there are dangerous rocks, and when the shattered Armada neared the Orkney Islands, violent storms arose, which wrecked many of the ships. Thus nature finished what man had begun—the ruin of the most powerful fleet that ever had sailed from the shores of Europe. Only fifty-four vessels and about ten thousand men succeeded in returning to Spain. About eighty ships had been destroyed, and thousands of men had perished.

Ten years after the destruction of the Armada, Sir Francis made one more voyage to the West Indies. He still cherished the plan of seizing the town of Porto Bello on the Isthmus of Panama, and thus securing the gold and silver brought there for shipment to Spain.

Sir Francis Drake


He was, however, again doomed to disappointment. He was stricken with fever, and died on board of his ship, January 28, 1596.

His body was buried at sea. Lord Macaulay wrote these lines in reference to his burial:

"The waves became his winding sheet:

The waters were his tomb.

But for his fame—the mighty sea

Has not sufficient room."

He left no children, but his nephew was made a baronet in the reign of James II. England will always remember with gratitude the services he rendered in the days of her struggle to become "mistress of the sea."