Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

Elizabeth's Sailors

"Brave the captain was; the seamen

Made a gallant crew,

Gallant sons of English freedom,

Sailors bold and true."


Now, of all the great sailors who helped Queen Elizabeth to build up England's sea power, the greatest was Francis Drake. Of all the heroes whose exploits have set our world's history aglow with romance, there is not one more thrilling than the life-story of this man. His every deed from the cradle to the grave is a story. The first sight of him is as a small blue-eyed, curly-haired boy in the midst of a party of desperate Protestants in Devonshire flying for their lives from an outburst of Roman Catholic fury. Coming of a large Protestant family, the boy grew up full of hatred for the Church of Rome.

At the time of the abdication of Charles V. he was fifteen, and already apprenticed to the master of a small ship plying between England and the Netherlands. There he would hear of Philip's tyranny, of Alva's massacres, of the Netherlands revolt.

His rough school on the high seas was not without its reward. He became a remarkably clever sailor, and when the skipper of his ship died he left it to young Francis Drake.

"But the narrow seas were a prison for so large a spirit born for greater undertakings," and the very year that the Counts Egmont and Horn were beheaded in Brussels, 1567, Drake was commanding a small ship, the Judith, in an expedition commanded by his kinsman, John Hawkins.

Now, John Hawkins was a Devonshire man too, and related to the Drakes. His father had been a sailor in the time of Henry V., and his son John, who was to do so much for the navy of England, was about thirty at the time when Elizabeth became queen. With young Drake in command of the Judith, and some other ships, Hawkins set sail from Plymouth in October 1567.

The little fleet was a good deal knocked about in the rough gales then blowing in the Bay of Biscay, but they reached the Canary Isles in safety, and sailed thence to some of the Spanish settlements along the coast of America. Here, having collected a vast store of gold, silver, and jewels, they turned homewards. But a gale blew them into the Gulf of Mexico, where they knew full well no welcome would await them from the Spaniards there. However, they made a treaty and stopped to repair their injured ships. But treachery was in the air, and without note or warning the Spaniards suddenly attacked them furiously. Bravely enough they tried to defend their ships and their cargo, but at last they had to escape as best they might, Hawkins in one battered ship and Drake in another.

On the 23rd of January 1569 a weather-beaten man was riding post-haste from Plymouth to London with tidings of a desperate fray with the Spaniards. It was Francis Drake, and soon all England was ringing with the news, which had the great result that trade between Spain and England was stopped. It was the beginning of the end.

True, Hawkins and Drake became the heroes of the hour; but over England herself a fierce war-cloud lowered, the horizon was dark with the danger of coming storm. The Netherlands were in open revolt against Spain, but so far England had taken no part publicly.

The very year that the Beggars of the Sea were sailing to Brille, Drake was stealing secretly away from Plymouth port with a little fleet and crew of seventy-three men, all under the age of thirty, on a desperate venture against Spain on the farther side of the Atlantic. He had found out that Philip's treasure from the mines of Peru was landed at Panama, and carried across the narrow neck of land on the backs of many mules, to be reshipped for Spain on the other side.

"I have brought you to the treasure-house of the world," cried Drake, when he had sailed safely across the broad Atlantic. "Blame yourselves if you go away empty."

They were but a handful of men against the Spaniards, who attacked them. As Drake led his little party of adventurers forward he was badly wounded, and fainted from loss of blood. This prevented the Spanish treasure from being carried off by the English. The sun rose next morning on their glorious failure, and the famous attempt on the "treasure-house of the world" was at an end.

But Drake was still undaunted. Disasters befell him. His brother died in his arms, thirty of his little band died of sickness, others were too ill to stand. It is impossible to follow all his adventures, but the story of how he first saw the Pacific Ocean must be told. With eighteen men and native guides he started off to climb the forest-clad spurs of the dividing ridge of mountains dividing the two seas. The expedition was not unlike that of Balboa some sixty years before. Arrived at the top, he climbed a tree, and for the first time an Englishman gazed on the vast Southern Sea, named by Magellan the Pacific Ocean. Returning to his men, he fell on his knees, like a crusader of old, and besought "Almighty God of His goodness to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship on that sea."

It was a great moment in the history of England. Jealously had Spain guarded this Southern Sea which now lay under the eyes of an Englishman.