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Sir Francis Drake

Francis Drake's life begins with a mystery - the date of his birth. 1540 is often mentioned, 1542 has been heard as has been 1538, and other years pop up here and there. Often the given date is based on a portrait which itself is dated and which includes the comment that it shows Drake at a particular age. The only safe conclusion is that he was born around 1540.

His place of birth was Tavistock, in Devonshire, along the river Tavy (which eventually empties into the sea near Plymouth). Here his grandparents held a lease on about 180 acres of farmland and made what was probably a reasonably secure living as farmers.

Here also Edmund Drake, who became Francis Drake's father, had been born. Some reports state that he was a sailor, but there are records that contradict this, and it seems likely that he too made his living from the land. Edmund Drake's wife, the mother of Francis, was of the Mylwaye family but her first name is unknown. The couple had twelve sons; Francis was the eldest.

Papa Edmund had some difficulties, in part because he, not being an eldest son himself, did not inherit the bulk of the Tavistock lease. He also seems to have gotten into some legal trouble, perhaps involving petty crimes. Additionally, there have long been rumors that protestant Edmund was the victim of some sort of religious persecution. In any event, when Francis Drake was still a young boy the family left Tavistock and moved to Kent, nearer the sea, where they lived in the hulk of an old ship and where Edmund made a bare living as a preacher to the sailors of the navy. So, young Francis now was living (and learning) among the ships and seamen that would become the focus of his life.

Francis Drake first went to sea sometime in the 1550's, as a young boy apprenticed to the elderly master of a small coastal freighter. He apparently did well both nautically and personally, because the old captain, having no family of his own, willed the little ship to Drake. This marks the beginning of Drake's nautical career.

Later in the beginning of his career, he served as an officer aboard West African slave ships.

Sailing from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico in 1567 Drake and his cousin John Hawkins were attacked and defeated by a Spanish Armada. They lost all of their vessels, and barely left with their lives. From that time on Drake would have a deep hatred for Catholic Spaniards.

Drake married Mary Newman, about whom little is known, in 1569 when he was still a young unknown sailor; they had no children and she died twelve years later, leaving the then-newly knighted Sir Francis Drake a widower.

In the years 1570 and 1571 Drake familiarized himself with the Caribbean territory, and made many friends amongst escaped African slaves. Soon Drake led battles against the Spanish with the help his African friends.

In 1572 Drake was equipped with 2 ships and 73 sailors by his cousin Hawkins, and his associates. Queen Elizabeth also commissioned Drake as a privateer, to sail for America. In 25 days Drake crossed the Atlantic and found himself in the Caribbean Sea. After an unsuccessful attack on the Spanish port Nombre de Dios (today’s Nicaragua), Drake started to make new plans on plundering a Spanish caravan transporting gold. From the beginning the entire escapade seemed to be another loss for Drake. One of his crew members - Robert Pike - was spoiling the ambush on the caravan near Venta de Chagre because he was drunken. However, with certain setbacks, the enterprise brought Drake success and fame. Bringing his plunder to queen Elizabeth, he was selected to be the head of an expedition that was to sail around the world. Drake was flattered with this appointment, and made new more extravagant and hazardous plans.

On December 13th 1577, Drake began his expedition. Drake set sail with 3 ships, accompanied by two supply ships (Which he later planned to abandon). Drake sailed with the queen’s courtesan and his friend Thomas Doughty. After harsh weather, and tough sailing, Thomas Doughty, a mutineer, convinced Drake’s exhausted crew to revolt against their captain. Drake’s reaction was ruthless. When Drake reached his destination on the West Coast of South America, Drake had Doughty convicted to be beheaded in a court-martial. After the incident, Drake changed his ship’s name to "Golden Hind".

Sailing to Valparaiso, Drake encountered rain, and storms. His three-mast ship was devastated by the journey. No Spaniards were able to identify the Golden Hind as a pirate ship, and fell victim to Drakes attacks. Drake plundered a Spanish war-ship, and the port of Callo. Drake’s real treasure was the information on the heading of Spanish galleon named "Nuestra Senora de la Conception", popularly named by the Spanish sailors "Cacafuego" ("Fireball"). The Spanish galleon sailed smoothly to the coast of Panama unaware of the impending danger.

On the 3rd of March 1579 with the first sign of the "Cacafuego" on the horizon, Drake commanded all sails to be prepared. Around 6:00 p.m., the Golden Hind met the Spanish Galleon with cannon fire, in short the Galleon was forced to surrender. Drake plundered unimaginable wealth. The task of relocating the Galleons hold took Drake’s crew four days. Drake acquired 80 pounds of gold, 20 tons on silver, 13 cases of silver coins, and cases full of pearls and precious stones. On the 26th of September 1580, the Golden Hind burdened with the holds heavy and precious cargo, sailed to the port of Plymouth after three years of adventures around the world. With the Cacafuego, Sir Francis Drake took one of the greatest booties of all time certainly the largest haul ever by one ship with only 85 crewmen. Including smaller prizes, the Spanish ambassador later assessed Drake's total plunder at 1.5 million ducats (£450,000). Taking into account unregistered treasureand jewels, the Spanish estimate probably was close to the truth.

Upon Drake’s return in 1580, Queen Elizabeth knighted him on the deck of the "Golden Hind", and made him the mayor of Plymouth. Queen Elizabeth had a good deal to be grateful for with Drake’s journey, as for each pound used to finance it, she earned 47.

Although Drake established fame for his bravery and courage, he wasn’t well liked by his contemporaries. Drake was; however, liked by Queen Elizabeth, and she placed him in command of a fleet of ships with which he inflicted a great deal of damage on the oversea Spanish Empire.

In 1585 the now-famous and wealthy Drake married Elizabeth Sydenham, some twenty years his junior, who unlike Mary Newman came from a wealthy and well-connected family. The couple moved into Drake's recently purchased estate, Buckland Abbey (which today is still a major monument to his memory). Again, there were no children.

On the 28th of January 1596, 16 years after Drake was knighted, he began his successful last journey against the Spanish strongholds of the West Indies. Sir Francis Drake was stricken by a tropical disease - "the bloody flux" (perhaps yellow fever) - during during this expedition. On January 28, on board his flagship Defiance, in the pre-dawn hours and after rising from his sickbed intending to don his armor so that he would die as a soldier, Sir Francis Drake passed quietly from this world. He was buried at sea off Puerto Bello, Panama, in a lead coffin.