Sunday, October 09, 2005


Elizabethan hero


The Washigton Times
By Priscilla S./ John M. Taylor
October 09, 2005

Considering how Britain came to "rule the waves" in the 18th and 19th centuries, the origins of its naval strength were remarkably humble. During the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, England was too poor to maintain a standing navy, and in time of need turned to pirates like Francis Drake, the subject of a splendid new biography by Stephen Coote, Drake (St. Martin's Press, $27.95, 337 pages).

In an era when an Englishman was defined by his religious affiliation, Drake was brought up in a strongly Protestant household. Having decided to go to sea, Drake, in 1566, joined John Hawkins in a slave-trading expedition to the Caribbean. It ended disastrously when the English were treacherously attacked by Spanish ships that regarded the Caribbean as their private preserve.

The incident fired Drake's lifelong hatred of Spain, an attitude that made him welcome in the Elizabethan court. He became "an Elizabethan adventurer bound by his faith, his nationalism and his ambition."

While the queen looked the other way, Drake and Hawkins set to pillaging the trade between Spain and the New World. In Mr. Coote's words, "an exhilarated Drake realized that he had found a highly effective way of greatly enriching himself while causing distress" to his country's enemies. The author calls this "state-sponsored terrorism." The gold and silver treasure looted from Spanish ships was duly divided among Elizabeth and her court, Drake and his crews.

The flamboyant Drake was a natural leader. His sheer courage and navigational expertise won the admiration of his peers. His officers held him in awe. "None of them dared to sit down before they were asked to do so and . . . none of them dared put his hat on until repeatedly urged to do so by Drake."

In 1577, with the queen's backing, he embarked on what became a voyage of discovery. In the 100-ton Golden Hind, Drake entered the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan and captured Spanish prizes off the coasts of Chile and Peru. He intended to return through the rumored Northwest Passage, but bad weather permitted him to sail no farther north than the latitude of Vancouver.

Drake was reluctant to return by Cape Horn, lest he encounter the Spanish navy in force. Instead he sailed across the Pacific and, in a remarkable feat of seamanship, circumnavigated the globe for the first time. (Magellan's earlier claim was dismissed by Drake's admirers because the Portuguese navigator did not live to complete his voyage.) Drake was knighted by the queen, and with the proceeds from the voyage bought a great house near Plymouth.

With England formally at war with Spain in 1587, the English became increasingly apprehensive about Spanish plans to invade the British Isles. Drake was sent on a mission against a Spanish fleet assembling at Cadiz, and in a daring raid destroyed many supplies, including water casks, required by the Spanish for their Armada. In the author's judgment, "Drake had not defeated the Spanish Armada but he had made it impossible for it to sail in 1587."

As the country's leading seaman, Drake doubtless expected to command the English fleet that gathered at Plymouth the following year to confront the Armada. In the end the queen made Drake second in command to Lord Howard of Effingham, but it was Drake who led the navy's weeklong pursuit of the Armada up the English Channel. Although distracted -- predictably -- by the chance to seize a valuable Spanish straggler, Drake played a major role in one of the greatest triumphs of English arms.

Drake was on yet another voyage of pillage in the Caribbean when he died of yellow fever in 1596. The greatest of Britain's sea dogs is portrayed warts and all in Mr. Coote's very accessible biography.


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