Sir Francis Drake: Sailor, Soldier, Strategist

The Golden Hinde from an old drawing. Nothing remains of the ship today except for one or two pieces of furniture.
The Golden Hinde from an old drawing. Nothing remains of the ship today except for one or two pieces of furniture.

A rather strange burial took place at sea over four hundred years ago. On January 29, 1596, A group of English sailors committed the body of Sir Francis Drake to the deep in a remote corner of the world. At his own request, he was buried in the armor he received when knighted by Queen Elizabeth. To this day, archeologists and divers have been unable to locate his remains and his sleep continues undisturbed somewhere off the coast of Portobello, Panama.

Drake is a fascinating figure who has captured the imagination of everyone from paupers to queens. For those who loved him, he possessed no flaws. For the Spanish of his time, he was known as El Dragon, a devil to be captured and beheaded.

Drake first sailed with the Hawkins family, relatives with whom he demonstrated an exceptional ability to fight, navigate, and lead. But one battle in the Caribbean changed John Hawkins’ opinion of his cousin. In the confusion of battle, they got separated, and Drake sailed away. Hawkins later claimed Drake abandoned him out of cowardice. Reports from eyewitnesses and Drake’s own reputation for bravery seem to discount this claim. Nevertheless, Hawkins cherished a particular animosity for Drake the rest of his life.

As a sailor, soldier, and strategist, Drake was unparalleled. Hired to bring back as much gold as possible from the Spanish Main, he adapted fighting and raiding techniques to the situation much like Special Forces teams today.  One of his targets were mule trains loaded with gold and silver headed to Nombre de Dios. The town was buried in a remote jungle far from his plundering ships, but his men adapted to the trek through snake and mosquito infested forests.

Though his initial efforts were unsuccessful, Drake would not be deterred. A chance meeting at sea with French pirate Guillaume le Testu was the stroke of luck he needed. Testu shared with Drake a hatred of Spain and a love for gold. With another raid by Drake farthest from their mind, the Spaniards were unprepared when privateer and pirate struck.

Drake carried off so much gold and silver, his men had to bury part of the booty. This no doubt help to popularize the belief that pirates buried their treasure. Unfortunately, le Testu was captured by the Spanish and beheaded, and the buried treasure reclaimed by the Spanish.  

A later expedition brought Drake into the unfamiliar territory of the Pacific where no English ship had been. Here, aboard the Golden Hinde, he plundered the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion with almost no resistance. It was the largest booty ever plundered from a ship. Despite the success in the unfamiliar Pacific, it was the next leg of Drake’s adventure that was fraught with mystery. He had been commissioned by the queen to carry out a covert operation that would have made even the CIA envious. His mission was to search for the elusive Northwest Passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans thus sparing mariners the long voyage around the tip of South America.

It wasn’t a novel idea. Spain, Portugal, Italy, England, even the Dutch were all searching for it. The queen’s hope was that if Drake could discover it before anyone else, England would have a distinct trade and military advantage over other countries.

Drake explored the western coast of North America extensively but never found the passage. Others would come after him and die trying. When he finished his survey, he regrouped in what is now present day California to refit his ship for the voyage home.

Because he was a wanted man, Drake could not risk sailing back around the tip of South America and into the Atlantic. The Spanish, eager to separate his head from his shoulders, were waiting, so he continued across the Pacific and, like Magellan’s fleet fifty-four years earlier, circumnavigated the globe.

Queen Elizabeth was delighted with Drake. She had personally invested some of her own money in the venture and realized an obscene profit. England’s prestige soared. He had disgraced the Spanish and proven their fleet in the Pacific was vulnerable to attack.

The relationship between the queen and the pirate was later to be romanticized by historians and writers. For her part, she knighted Drake on the deck of his ship. Years later Drake would prove to be influential in the defeat of the Spanish armada and solidify England as a naval power.

When Drake was in his mid-fifties, he was sent on another expedition to the Caribbean but failed to make any significant impact on any of the Spanish holdings he attacked. His raid with his cousin Hawkins on San Juan, Puerto Rico was likewise repulsed.

Hawkins died of malaria, and Drake was lucky to be alive after a cannonball fired from El Morro Castle landed inside his cabin. He survived, but the Spanish fort proved impenetrable, and he withdrew.

It wasn’t the steel blade of a Spanish soldier or a cannonball that brought Drake down. It was something smaller and more sinister. Drake contracted dysentery and died at sea while preparing to plunder Spanish treasure ships caught in a storm off Panama.

Carl Jung says within all of us there are two or three archetypes ready to help us fulfill our destiny. Our job is to invite them into our lives and nurture them. Drake was almost mythical in stature. His archetypes no doubt included figures like Hercules whose boldness, wisdom, and strength enabled him to do heroic things.

In our voyage through life, the seas we plow are sometimes stormy, and our way not always clear. Like Drake we sometimes need to regroup, but never, never, never should we forget we are on a quest. Each morning remember to raise your sails and follow the dreams in your heart. Good luck out there on the high seas, and never forget you too like Drake are on the adventure of your life.

                                                                  Bill Hegerich 

                                                                  The Uncommon Mariner 

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4 thoughts on “Sir Francis Drake: Sailor, Soldier, Strategist

  1. Thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking post about an accomplished man. It seems fitting that not only was he buried at sea in his knighted armor, but that his remains have not been located after a life spent evading his enemies. And I love the imagery and message at the end ☺️.

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  2. Drake lives today in the subconscious of every Adventurer. It’ll be a sad day when someone discovers his burial site. I don’t think he’d like it if they were Spanish. May you have smooth sailing through 2017.

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  3. Sir Francis Drake was quite the adventurer. I’m sure there is a lot more to this story. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book the Uncommon Mariners when it comes out. A lot of people could learn how to live life to the fullest. The Mermaid

    Like

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