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Queen Elizabeth I knights her favourite buccaneer

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Ships on Saturday, 29 October 2011

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This edited article about buccaneers originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 851 published on 6 May 1978.

Francis Drake, picture, image, illustration

Drake was wounded by an arrow when approaching Mocha off the coast of Chile, by Severino Baraldi

Francis Drake was alone and wandering in the hills of what is now Panama when, on an impulse, he climbed the tree that was to point the way to his destiny and fame.

It was, we are told, “a goodlie and great high tree”, and from its upper branches the young ship’s captain could see on one side the mighty Atlantic, which he already knew so well, and on the other, the Pacific, shimmering in the distance.

Drake came down from the tree, fell on his knees, and prayed that he might one day become the first of his countrymen to sail on the Pacific. It was a bold prayer, for the Spaniards regarded the Pacific Ocean as all their own and it was unthinkable to them that any foreigner would dare to enter it.

Drake, born in Devon, took to a seafaring life while he was still a boy. Like all English seamen of Elizabethan days, he quickly learned to hate the Spaniards – England’s arch enemies.

He was still a young man when he won modest fame for himself by seizing a quantity of Spanish gold at the Isthmus of Panama. It was then that he went for a walk in the mountains and climbed that tree to see the Pacific for the first time.

Five years later, in 1577, his dream was fulfilled. Queen Elizabeth, protesting her friendship for King Philip of Spain but privately hating him, gave Drake most of the money he needed to sail secretly into the Spanish seas. With it Drake fitted out the Golden Hind and three other ships. Pretending that the Mediterranean was his destination, he sailed to the Cape Verde Islands, and then westwards across the Atlantic.

Drake thought that the only way through to the Pacific was via the Strait which the Portuguese explorer Magellan had named and discovered and through which no English ship had ever passed. He had no maps or charts and the fierce cold of that rough southern sea added to the hazards of the journey.

It took 16 days to get through the Strait of Magellan and Drake turned his ships hurriedly up the west coast of South America, hoping for warmer weather. Instead, terrible storms followed one after the other. The ships were scattered and one was blown away and never heard of again. Another, after being separated from the Golden Hind, sailed back through the strait to England and announced that Drake had been lost. A third was wrecked, and only one of its crew escaped.

Along the coast, native fishermen had told Drake of the Spanish harbour of Valparaiso, where a galleon with a valuable cargo was anchored. As the Golden Hind sailed defiantly into the harbour, the Spaniards, who had never seen an enemy ship there, imagined she was a Spanish ship and hoisted their flags in welcome.

Calmly, the Golden Hind sailed alongside the galleon and moments later Drake’s men swarmed over the side on to her decks. The Spaniards, too surprised to resist, were overcome, and all the gold, wine and jewels in their holds was taken on board the English ship.

Drake hoped to get his richest booty at Lima, capital of the Spanish colony of Peru. Nearby he captured a small Portuguese ship and offered to let it go free if the captain would pilot him into Lima harbour. Thus, in the dead of night, the Golden Hind sailed into Lima, where 17 Spanish trading ships rode at anchor.

An attack? It was the last thing the Spaniards expected. Drake didn’t even have to fire a shot. He plundered the ships of their cargoes of silk and linen, but it was gold he was really after.

But then a Spaniard blurted out the news that Drake wanted to hear: a large Spanish treasure ship had just sailed off to Panama. Drake unfurled his sails; the wind was in his favour and as the hunt began the captain offered a gold chain as a reward to the man who first saw the Spanish ship.

Ten days later a shout rang out – the enemy ship lay dead ahead. Thinking the Golden Hind was a friendly ship, the Spanish captain waited calmly for her to come up with him. It was to prove a costly error, for an arrow from the Golden Hind wounded him and the English gunners shot his mast overboard.

The Spaniards surrendered without a fight and this time Drake found all the plunder he wanted. There was gold, silver, and jewels worth £90,000 – as much as the Golden Hind could carry.

There could be no turning back – the Spaniards would now certainly be on the look-out for the Devon buccaneer. Drake decided to keep going northwards. He held to the popular belief of his times that there must be a sea-passage round the north of North America.

Leaving the Spanish settlements behind him, he sailed farther north up the coast of North America than any man before him, but he could find no way back into the Atlantic. His men did not like the colder weather, either, so he turned southwards again.

On the coast of California, in what is now the harbour of San Francisco, the Golden Hind dropped anchor for some much needed repairs. Here the natives came crowding round to stare at the “white gods”.

The only safe way home now was across the Pacific and round the Cape of Good Hope. It needed all the brilliant seamanship of which Drake was so capable to bring his men safely home.

Few could believe their eyes in Plymouth when, three years after she had set sail, the Golden Hind sailed back into harbour. Drake and his gallant company had been given up for lost 18 months before – now here they were, laden with jewels, like some fairy tale come true.

When the captain had told his story several times, he sailed off to Deptford in the Thames to report to the queen. How, with the complaints of the Spanish ambassador still ringing in her ears, would she receive the bold buccaneer? For a long time Elizabeth hesitated. Then the queen bade Drake kneel before her and taking a sword, knighted him.

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