Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero 
by John Cummins.
Weidenfeld, 348 pp., £20, September 1995, 0 297 81566 0
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One of this book’s chief virtues is candour. If John Cummins first saw Drake as the knightly figure sans peur et sans reproche who had been held up for admiration to so many generations, it must have grieved him to find how far upwards the feet of clay could reach. But he states the facts with a fine impartiality. This account will have nothing to do with myths such as Drake’s drum (a 19th-century invention, it appears) or the game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe or Drake as the conquering hero in the battle against the Armada; yet even so it is by no means that dreary thing, a debunking book.

Drake’s humble origins are sometimes brought forward to explain his often uneasy relations with those of higher rank: yet were these origins so very humble? He had a peer as a godfather and was related to the ship-owning Hawkins family of Plymouth. But it is true that his early years are obscure, and even Cummins gives no information on his schooling. Camden, however, says:

This Drake (to relate no more than what I have heart from himself) was born of mean Parentage in Devonshire, and had Francis Russel (afterwards Earl of Bedford) for his Godfather, who, according to Custome, gave him his christen name. Whilest he was yet a Child, his Father, imbracing the Protestant Doctrine, was called in question by the Law of the Six Articles, made by King Henry the Eighth against the Protestants, fled his Countrey, and with-drew himself into Kent. After the death of King Henry he got a place among the sea-men in the King’s Navy, to reade Prayers to them: and soon after he was ordained Deacon, and made Vicar of the Church of Upnore upon the River Medway (the Road where the Fleet usually anchoreth). But by reason of his Poverty he put his son to the Master of a Bark, his Neighbour, who held him hard to his Business in the Bark, with which he used to coast along the Shoar, and sometimes to carry Merchandize into Zeland and France. The Youth being painfull and diligent, so pleased the Old Man by his industry, that being a bachelour, at his death he bequesthed the Bark unto him by Will and Testament.

Here was Francis Drake set up: for some time he carried on with his calling, but then, in the early 1560s, he joined one or two of the Hawkins slaving voyages, which brought him acquainted with the Guinea coast and the Spanish West Indies. In 1567 he sailed with the formidable John Hawkins himself in a fleet of six vessels, the flagship being the aged Jesus of Lubeck, 700 tons, lent by the Queen, who also provided the Minion (this was a venture in which she took part, apparently, as a private person). The idea was to fill up with negroes, bought or captured, and to sell them in the West Indies or on the Spanish Main – an illegal trade, but one that by proper bribery and a show of force could be carried out very profitably. By February 1568 they had about four hundred slaves and with them they crossed the Atlantic to Dominica. By this time Drake was in command of the Judith, about fifty tons. They traded along the coast with moderate success until they reached Rio de la Hacha. Drake had been sent ahead to open negotiations. He was answered with gunfire; this he returned and stood off to wait for Hawkins, who dealt with the Spaniards’ reluctance by storming the town and burning most of it. They moved on, with some success at Santa Marta, none at all in the well-fortified Cartagena, and then shaped their course for home before the hurricane season.

But in August, when they were off Cuba, heading for Florida and the Atlantic westerlies, they met with an appalling four-day blow which so battered the Jesus that they had to cut down her upper works: her rudder was much shaken and she had a very dangerous leak. They found no shelter on the coast of Florida and another storm blew them right across the Gulf of Mexico and down that of Campeche, where, after a month of incessant pumping, they were able to take refuge at San Juan de Ulloa, the harbour of Vera Cruz.

The local officials made no objection to Hawkins’s entry with his ships: the guns even fired a salute. This was at least in part because it was thought these vessels were an advance party from the expected Spanish fleet, bringing the new Viceroy. When the officials came aboard, Hawkins pacified them with promises: all he wanted to do was to repair his ships – he wanted nothing else at all. Next morning the Spanish fleet appeared. Hawkins sent civil messages (England and Spain were at peace), proposing an exchange of hostages. He also set up a battery on the island of San Juan. The Viceroy sent an amiable reply, and a trumpet-blast signified his agreement. It was nearly a week before the Spanish fleet managed to get into the harbour: two days later they began their carefully prepared attack. A very furious action followed, in which one Spanish ship was blown up, and another burnt and another sunk. The Jesus was dismantled, while others were sunk or set on fire. Hawkins moved into the Minion with most of his treasure, and he and Drake sailed away from the helpless Jesus and anchored out of range, knotting and splicing. During the night Drake and the Judith disappeared. ‘She forsook us in our great myseries,’ as Hawkins put it.

The Minion and the Judith reached home within a few days of one another, and although Drake’s desertion of his leader was often brought up against him, Hawkins appeared to have borne no lasting grudge. They sailed together in the fleet that overcame the Armada as well as in yet another expedition against the Spaniards in the West Indies, an expedition on which Drake died.

Although Hawkins may not have blamed him, it has been suggested that Drake blamed himself, converting much of this powerful emotion into a still more bitter hatred for the Spaniards. At all events he conceived a huge, undying indignation against them which was probably his most important spring of action, though a love for gold and a hatred of Catholics had a not inconsiderable influence – he was after all brought up in a strong Protestant atmosphere; he nearly always sailed with a chaplain, and there were continual prayers and singing of psalms in his ships. Preying on the Spaniards became his way of life; and if any justification at all were needed, the Viceroy’s treachery at San Juan provided it in abundance.

Other voyages followed, always in the hope of immense quantities of treasure, for the Spaniards sent the wealth of Peru in gold and silver bars by mule train across the neck of land from Panama on the Pacific to Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic. In these raids Drake often had the help of the cimarrons, the black slaves who had run from their owners and who lived in the forest. They hated the Spaniards, and at one point led Drake to an immensely tall tree with steps cut in its trunk and a platform near the top: from this Drake beheld both oceans, to the east his own home waters, to the west the Great South Sea, which washes the shores of Chile and Peru, and on which the Acapulco galleons plied between Mexico and the East Indies.

The Pacific, rather than the isthmus of Panama, was to be his aim: here he was in his own element, here was sea-room and to spare, no muddy soldiering in the jungle heat. Although his voyages had never produced the tons of treasure that with good luck and no drunken fools to spoil an ambush they might have done, Drake did go home very much richer than he set out, and in 1577 he assembled a little fleet for the South Sea voyage: the Pelican of 150 tons, built for him, and four others all much smaller, with 164 men and boys for the five of them; but as well as sailors Drake took several young men of good family, including the brothers Thomas and John Doughty.

The voyage was arduous, of course. With the ships, the provisions and the primitive navigation of the time it could not have been otherwise, and it is scarcely worth mentioning the various perils they encountered: the routine shortage of water, the uncounted seals eaten off the River Plate, the three thousand penguins in Magellan’s Strait; but Drake’s treatment of Thomas Doughty is something else again. There was ill-feeling between them before the ships left Africa; it grew during the long voyage across the ocean, and Drake apparently came to believe that Doughty was plotting against him. When the fleet reached St Julian, an inlet on the desolate Patagonian shore, he summoned a court, asserting that by the Queen’s commission he had the right to punish disobedience, mutiny or sedition with death. Drake was the judge, his subordinates the jury; they found Doughty guilty and he was given two days to prepare himself for death. On the second day he and Drake took the Eucharist and dined together. Then after some prayers Doughty knelt to the block, and his head was struck off.

Samuel Johnson, one of the very few men to look on Drake with a cold eye, says of this trial, in which it was alleged that the ‘plot’ had been concocted in Plymouth: ‘How far it is probable ... that Doughty, who is represented as a man of eminent abilities, should engage in so long and hazardous a voyage with no other view than that of defeating it, is left to the determination of the reader.’

The passage of Magellan’s Strait, during which Drake changed his ship’s name to the Golden Hind, was comparatively easy, but once they were through, the weather turned very foul indeed, with furious winds and towering seas that scattered the fleet, driving them far to the south. The Hind and the Elizabeth reached the western end of the Strait again nearly a month later, but the next day the Elizabeth was driven back into it. She eventually sailed for home and the Hind carried on alone, on an uninterrupted and extraordinarily successful voyage up the coast of Chile and Peru, pillaging the unprepared Spaniards with such unremitting zeal that Drake’s name – El Draque or El Draco – became terrible to them.

Right up the coast he went, as far along California as 38° N (roughly where San Francisco now stands), where he careened his ship and where, in apparent agreement with an Indian chief, he annexed the country for his queen, calling it Nova Albion. After a northward search to perhaps 48° it became clear that there was no obvious north-east passage home; nor was it possible to return along the now fully prepared South American coast. The Golden Hind therefore steered for the East Indies, the Cape of Good Hope and Plymouth; and in spite of a brief grounding in the Celebes they accomplished this prodigious voyage between 22 June 1579 and 26 September 1580, having first set sail on 15 November 1577.

Their arrival in England caused an immense sensation: the Queen knighted Sir Francis on the deck of the Golden Hind and caused her to be laid up in a Deptford creek ‘for a monument to all posterity of the famous and worthy exploit’, while William Borough wrote: ‘So now at length our countriman Sir Francis Drake, for valorous attempt prudent proceeding and fortunate performing his voyage about the world, is not only become equall to any of them that live, but in fame far surpassing.’

This, with another massive raid on the West Indies and the famous ‘singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ – the burning of some ten thousand tons of shipping in Cadiz, which delayed the sailing of the Armada – made it obvious that Drake should be given high command when the huge Spanish fleet appeared in 1588, and Lord High Admiral Howard gave him, Hawkins and Frobisher each a squadron. In the well-named Revenge Drake certainly battered the Spaniards heartily; but in spite of legend he did not defeat them single-handed, or anything like it. Indeed, on this occasion, too, his conduct aroused vehement protest. At one point in the extremely confused battle it was understood that he, with a great stern-lantern, should stay close to the enemy to allow the English fleet to keep station and to show them where the Spaniards were. But the enemy vanished, the English fell into disorder and no light was seen, for the very good reason that Revenge had turned back to take the disabled Nuestra Señora del Rosario, remove the massive pay-chests and other wealth that she was carrying and send her in to Torbay. To be sure, Drake played his full part in the later action and in the pursuit of the enemy into the North Sea, and his popular fame mounted higher still. But the Rosario stuck in many a naval gullet. Frobisher, one of the most distinguished sailors of his age, said that Drake ‘reported that no man hath done so good service as he, but he lyeth in his teeth.’

The end was sad, as most ends are, perhaps: Drake had grown more and more intolerant of differing opinion, and after some unsatisfactory actions on Spanish ports in which he as usual disagreed with the commander of the land forces, he and Hawkins set out on yet another expedition to the West Indies. Here again the two leaders fell out: the long, slow campaign was unsuccessful, for although they took Nombre de Dios the tropical rains made it impossible to cross the isthmus to Panama. They sailed away for Nicaragua, many hands being sick: at the island of Escudo Drake fell ill with dysentery, and off Porto Belo he died; more, it was thought, of grief than of his disease.

This book is the fruit of a very great deal of reading in earlier accounts, histories and biographies, of a very great deal of research in archives and unpublished material, and although it is not very long as these things are reckoned, it is fairly heavy going. Some of this is due to the author’s delight in such words as ‘major’ and ‘importantly’, some to his publisher’s reluctance to give him adequate maps, so that one often has to turn to an atlas, but much more to the fact that the presentation of a long series of voyages (including a circumnavigation, no less) and battles (the Armada fight among them), together with a complex political situation, calls for a most uncommon genius. Yet the book’s virtues very far outweigh its faults.

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