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Stopping the Dragon: Francis Drake
The efforts of King Phillip II of Spain
Now we step back even further in time to one of the most famous seafarers in English history: Sir Francis Drake.
Drake is a man so steeped in mythology that contemporary biographies of him are the subject of much historical debate and discussion. An 1890 biography told the story of Drake’s rich and colourful life through the gentleman/explorer/hero lens that would play out through the 20th century. It placed him as the single most important figure in the founding of the British Navy.
Once piracy became scrutinised in a more academic sense, Drake’s exploits came under more critical examination, particularly for his defiance on English laws and treatment of the Spanish. By the end of the century, some biographers outright called him a pirate. This means that today, finding an impartial account of Drake’s life is quite difficult to come by.
Born sometime in 1540 (his actual birth date was not formally recorded) Francis Drake was best known for being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world in a single expedition.
But before he set sail on that claim to fame, Drake had a dubious reputation for engaging in illegal slaving. From 1570, he led repeated raids against Spanish treasure ships and colonies, often without a commission. But the missions were highly profitable, to the great benefit of Queen Elizabeth I. She publicly criticised Drake but privately condoned his actions.
For the next seven years, Francis Drake raided and robbed the Spanish along what is now South and Central America. To the Spanish, he was ‘El Draque’ – The Dragon – a notorious pirate.
Circumnavigating the world
In 1577, Drake fronted an organised and privately funded expedition to raid the Spanish along the Pacific side. This would become the first circumnavigation of the world undertaken by an Englishman. Although the Queen most likely contributed financially to the voyage, there has never been any evidence she authorised it, in direct violation of English law.
Drake’s voyage was beset by disease and bad weather. Drake’s co-commander Thomas Doughty repeatedly questioned his authority to interfere with the Spanish treasure fleet. Eventually Drake had Doughty executed after a farcical ‘trial’.
Drake pushed on, eventually circling the southern tip of South America, raiding Spanish settlements along the way. After reaching as far north as modern-day Oregon, Drake set a course across the Pacific towards the Moluccas, in modern-day western Indonesia. He then set a course across the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and, three months later, sailed in to Plymouth on 26 September 1580 with a wealth of spices and captured Spanish treasures.
The Queen’s half-share surpassed the rest of the crown’s income for the entire year. She then set about hiding Drake’s exploits from the eyes of Spain.
King Phillip of Spain
In 1554, Phillip was King of England, thanks to his marriage to Mary I, his father’s cousin. He then ascended to the Spanish throne on 16 January 1556 at the age of 29. Two years later, Mary died and Phillip lost the English throne to Elizabeth I, a Protestant.
A devout Catholic, Phillip sought to suppress Protestantism in Europe. However, as King of Spain, he worked hard to maintain peace with Protestant England under Elizabeth. But Elizabeth was terrified of a Catholic alliance against Protestants in Europe. To her, this justified sending ‘Sea-Dogs’ like Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh after Spanish treasures.
As a direct result of Drake’s attacks, Phillip began assembling the famed Spanish Armada for an invasion of England. This failed but the strengthening of his Navy helped Phillip fight off depredations from foreign privateers.
Under Phillip II, Spain reached the height of its economic power. But he too has been the subject of much historical debate, much of it perpetuated by the man himself. Phillip forbade any biographies to be written of him during his lifetime and ordered all his personal papers to be burned just before his death.
As a result, over centuries English-speaking historians tended to show Philip as a fanatically religious, imperialist monster. Yet to objectively assess Philip’s reign requires the re-assessing the reign of his great adversary, Elizabeth I, considered a great hero of her time. Nobody seems prepared to do that.
When we look at the actions of Francis Drake and what he did to the Spanish without her authorisation, perhaps Phillip was far more patient and consolatory than he is given credit for.
Drake contracted dysentery on an unsuccessful voyage to attack Spanish Caribbean and died at sea.
Phillip died on 13 September 1598 of cancer. He was 71.
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