Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
Replica of the Golden Hind.
Sir Francis Drake left his name in California on a bay not far from San Francisco. He also left a legacy that can be strange to people who come from a democracy that believe that rules and laws are made for everyone from every country. That isn’t so I found out while studying piracy from the 16th to 19th centuries. Francis Drake was one of those who obeyed the laws of England and disregarded those of other countries. He was a privateer or “corsair” given power to disrupt, capture, plunder and generally raise hell on any other ship other than his own country. He got this authority from his government during wartime.
When Spain conquered Mexico and various other areas, she acquired vast sums of silver, gold and commercial goods. This surplus was then shipped to Spain across the Atlantic Ocean from Havana. In the 1560s, the Spaniards began a system of convoys to protect these riches due to the sacking of Havana by the French. By the end of the 16th century, Spain was the richest country in Europe; however the Hapsburgs used this wealth to fight wars against the Ottoman Empire and most of Europe. This eventually bankrupted Spain.
The Spanish treasure fleet developed due to the galleons becoming targets for pirates that preyed on these ships. As many as 50 ships would sail in these fleets and be escorted from the Dutch, English, French and various pirates who worked for themselves.
Francis Drake was born in England in 1544 and started working on a ship (barque) after his father, a vicar of a church, apprenticed young Drake to a neighbor that traded along the coast. At age 23, Drake made his first voyage to the Americas with his cousin Sir John Hawkins. He was caught by the Spanish in a port but managed to get away with his friend Hawkins.
After this experience, he vowed vengeance against the Spanish and began plotting ways to capture the riches Spain shipped home. In 1572, he took two ships and sacked the town on the Isthmus of Panama that collected the gold and silver from Peru for shipment to Spain. In 1873, he and others made an attack on a richly laden mule train and captured 19 tons of silver and gold. They buried much of the plunder as it was too much to carry back to the ships. Carrying what treasure they could, they traveled back to the coast where ships were to meet them, but the ships were not there when they arrived. Burying the loot, he built a raft and sailed along the coast to the flagship and was rescued.
With this much success, Drake returned to England. Elizabeth I, in 1577, sent Drake on an expedition against the Spanish on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. Sailing with four ships and 164 men, he added another ship he captured by Africa. After crossing the Atlantic, he scuttled two ships due to loss of men to run them while crossing the Atlantic. After arriving on the coast of South America, he discovered that his flagship was too rotted to continue so he burned it. After spending the winter at port, he took off for the Pacific with three remaining ships that were soon damaged in a severe storm. Only his ship continued to sail up the west coast of South America. He renamed his ship the Golden Hind, then sailed north along the coast rifling and sacking towns and capturing ships from which he took their valuable cargos.
Outside of Peru, he captured a ship laden with wine as well as a ship carrying Peruvian gold worth $7 million. Another ship yielded 80 pounds of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of valuables and 26 tons of silver. The trip north was slow and full of danger due to the fog and rocks along the coast.
On June 17, 1579, Drake landed at what was believed to be land he called Nova Albion. Because the captains of ships did not always record exact dates in their logs because they didn’t want any enemy to know where they had been, the logs don’t give enough information to state that he landed exactly at what we call Drakes Bay in Marin County.
A brass plaque was later found stating he landed there but it was later proven to be a hoax. After refilling their supplies for the ship, he headed west across the Pacific Ocean. He landed in Indonesia where he almost lost his ship on a reef. He continued sailing toward the tip of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and landed at Sierra Leone on July 22, 1580 — completing his circumnavigation of the Earth. He presented the queen’s half-share of the treasure that paid for the rest of the crown’s income for the year.
On April 4, 1581, the queen of England awarded Drake knighthood by a French diplomat (for political reasons) aboard the Golden Hind. Sir Francis Drake died Jan. 27, 1596.