Francis Drake

Drake, Sir Francis

Sir Francis Drake, 1540?–1596, English navigator and admiral, first Englishman to circumnavigate the world (1577–80).

Early Career

He was born in Devonshire, the son of a yeoman, and was at an early age apprenticed to a ship captain. He made voyages to Guinea and the West Indies and in 1567 commanded a ship in a slave-trading expedition of his kinsman, John Hawkins. On the voyage the Spanish attacked and destroyed all but three of the English vessels. In 1572, with two ships and 73 men, Drake set out on the first of his famous marauding expeditions. He took the town of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama, captured a ship in the harbor of Cartagena, burned Portobelo, crossed and recrossed the isthmus, and captured three mule trains bearing 30 tons of silver. The voyage brought Drake wealth and fame. For the next few years he commanded the sea forces against rebellious Ireland.

Circumnavigation of the World

In Dec., 1577, he set out with five ships to raid Spanish holdings on the Pacific coast of the New World. He abandoned two ships in the Río de la Plata in South America, and, with the remaining three, navigated the Straits of Magellan, the first Englishman to make the passage. A storm drove them far southward; one ship and its crew were destroyed, and another, separated from Drake's vessel, returned to England.

Drake continued alone in the Golden Hind up the coast of South America, plundered Valparaiso and smaller settlements, cut loose the shipping at Callao, and captured a rich Spanish treasure ship. Armed now with Spanish charts, he continued north along the coast, looking for a possible passage to the Atlantic, feeling it would be unsafe to retrace his course. Sailing possibly as far north as the present state of Washington with no success, he determined to cross the Pacific.

He returned to San Francisco Bay to repair and provision his ship. He named the region New Albion and took possession of it in the name of Queen Elizabeth I. Then, crossing the Pacific, he visited the Moluccas, Sulawesi, and Java, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived at Plymouth on Sept. 26, 1580, bearing treasure of extremely high value. Elizabeth endeavored for a time to justify Drake's conduct to Spain, but, failing to satisfy the Spanish, she finally abandoned all pretense and openly recognized Drake's exploits by knighting him aboard the Golden Hind.

Hostilities with Spain

In 1585, Drake commanded a fleet that sacked Vigo in Spain and burned São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands. Proceeding across the Atlantic, he took Santo Domingo and Cartagena (which were subsequently ransomed), plundered the Florida coast, including the settlement of St. Augustine, and rescued Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke colony under Ralph Lane on the Carolina coast.

Meanwhile, Spain had begun to prepare for open war. In 1587, Drake entered the harbor of Cádiz with 26 ships and destroyed about 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling. He had, he said, merely singed the king of Spain's beard and wished to carry out further expeditions against the Spanish ports, but Elizabeth would not sanction his plans. He was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada in 1588. He was in joint command of an attempted invasion of Portugal in 1589 but failed to take Lisbon.

Drake's last expedition, in 1595, undertaken jointly with Hawkins, was directed against the West Indies. This time the Spanish were prepared, and the venture was a complete failure. Hawkins died off Puerto Rico, and Drake shortly afterward, of dysentery, off Portobelo, where he was buried at sea.


See biographies by Sir Julien Corbett (1890, repr. 1969) and G. M. Thomson (1972); see also Sir Julien Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy (2 vol., 1899, repr. 1970); G. Mattingly, The Armada (1959); K. R. Andrews, Drake's Voyages (1967); K. R. Andrews, ed., The Last Voyage of Drake and Hawkins (1972).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Age of Drake
James A. Williamson.
Adam & Charles Black, 1938
FREE! Elizabethan Sea-Dogs: A Chronicle of Drake and His Companions
William Wood.
Yale University Press, 1918
The Longest Voyage: Circumnavigators in the Age of Discovery
Robert Silverberg.
Ohio University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Drake"
An Elizabethan Garland
A. L. Rowse.
MacMillan, 1953
Librarian’s tip: "Sir Francis Drake and British Enterprise" begins on p. 98
The English Spirit: Essays in History and Literature
A. L. Rowse.
Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1944
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Drake's Way"
The Northwest Coast: British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812
Barry M. Gough.
University of British Columbia Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "Nova Albion"
Tudor and Early Stuart Voyaging
Boies Penrose.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 1962
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Francis Drake begins on p. 7
The Reign of Elizabeth, 1558-1603
J. B. Black.
Clarendon Press, 1936
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Francis Drake in multiple chapters
The Return of the Armadas: The Last Years of the Elizabethan War against Spain, 1595-1603
R. B. Wernham.
Clarendon Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. III "Drake and Hawkins's Last Voyage, 1595-1596"
Tudor England
David Harrison.
Cassell, vol.2, 1953
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VII "The Triumph of the Elizabethan Regime (1585-1603)"
FREE! Drake and the Tudor Navy: With a History of the Rise of England as a Maritime Power
Julian S. Corbett.
Longmans, Green, vol.1, 1898
FREE! Drake and the Tudor Navy: With a History of the Rise of England as a Maritime Power
Julian S. Corbett.
Longmans, Green, vol.2, 1898
Into the Wilderness Dream: Exploration Narratives of the American West, 1500-1805
Donald A. Barclay; James H. Maguire; Peter Wild.
University of Utah Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 " Sir Francis Drake and the Brass Plate (1579)"
Sir Francis Drake (C 1540-1596): A Pirate by Royal Appointment, Drake's Naval Victories Brought Him Greater Rewards Than His Circumnavigation. (Late Great Geographers)
Geographical, Vol. 73, No. 12, December 2001
'That Golden Knight' Drake and His Reputation
Cummins, John.
History Today, Vol. 46, No. 1, January 1996
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