Tuesday, December 8, 2009

People: The Original Sea Hawk

Above, looking surprisingly like Paul Giamatti (who knew?) is the original Sea Hawk, Sir Francis Drake, whose youthful distaste for all things Catholic and Spanish spurred him on to wealth and fame. What ever it takes, I guess.

Drake was born in that most seafaring of English provinces, Devon, probably some time in 1540. His father was a protestant preacher and during the bloody persecutions of Catholic Mary I the Drakes were forced to flee their home and take up residence in an abandon ship. Young Francis blamed not only the Catholic church for his family's misfortune but also Queen Mary's suitor, Spanish monarch Philip, and his urge for revenge began to smolder.

In his twenties, Drake went to sea with his cousin John Hawkins. Hawkins amassed a small fortune working the slave trade and Drake eventually became Captain of one of Hawkins' ships. They sailed the perpetual triangle from Africa to the West Indies to England and so on until 1568 when hurricanes forced Hawkins' small flotilla into the Gulf of Mexico. There, on the island of San Juan de Ulua off Vera Cruz, Hawkins was refitting his wounded ships when a surprise attack by the Spanish navy decimated his fleet. Only Hawkins and Drake managed to get their ships out to sea and Drake's hatred was now set in stone. Hawkins had been promised an armistice by the Governor at Vera Cruz. The Spanish had lied, and Drake was now their sworn enemy.

By 1570 Drake had a privateer's commission from Elizabeth I and he set out for the Spanish Main in a caravel named Swan. Drake had no interest in the commerce that made his cousin rich. He was interested only in plunder. He set up a base at Port Pheasant in the Gulf of Darien and, with the help of local natives and the run away slaves known as Cimarrons, he attacking Spanish shipping.

Drake was nothing if not ambitious, and he began to sack Spanish cities along the coast as well. In 1572 he was able to capture the city of Nombre de Dios. He was severely wounded in this raid and needed time to recover. While he patched up, he formulated a plan to attack the Spanish mule train that regularly carried gold, silver and jewels from the mines in Peru to Panama for shipment to Spain. During this time he also became partners with a French pirate named Guillaume Testu. The two freebooters tried to raid the mule trains twice before finally succeeding and capturing thousand of pounds of gold and silver.

Unfortunately, Testu was badly injured during the raid and he was left behind with the silver and some trusted mates. Although Drake did come back for the men after hauling the tremendous amount of gold captured to the Swan, the men and the silver had disappeared. Most probably, they were taken by the Spanish.

Drake sailed back to England and, though the local people of Devon hailed him as a hero, Elizabeth had to pretend shock and disappointment. She was trying to work out a peace with Philip of Spain and so, to avoid having to hang Drake as a pirate, she sent him off to Ireland until things cooled down politically.

By 1577 any hope of settling amicably with Spain had fallen apart and Elizabeth "unofficially" sponsored Drake for another voyage to the Main. This time he had five ships including his flag ship Pelican, which he would rename in tribute to the "official" patron of the cruise Sir Christopher Hatton. (Sir Chris' coat-of-arms featured a gold stag at the top, thus the Golden Hind.) The flotilla sailed to North Africa and then on to South America. They hit heavy weather off Tierra del Fuego, where three ships sank with all hands and a fourth had to turn back to England. Golden Hind pressed on, though, making it into the Pacific and up the coast where Drake sacked Valparaiso in Chile. The Spanish now referred to him as the Dragon - El Dragon.

It was in the Pacific that Drake hit the big time. He took the enormous treasure ship Cacafuego (and yes, that means "shit fire") as she was leaving Peru on her way to Spanish holdings in the far east. She was so full of gold and silver bars that Drake emptied the balast from Golden Hind's hold and filled it with Cacafuego's treasure. Drake then continued up to the California coast and on east, circumnavigating the globe before returning to Plymouth in 1580, a hero and a millionaire. Elizabeth knighted him the following year.

Unhappy by land like so many other sailors, Drake never did settle down. In 1586 he mounted another successful trip to the Spanish Main, this time with 25 ships under his command. He was back at it again in 1595 with 27 ships. This cruise was much less successful than his previous endeavors and it seems the writing was on the wall for Sir Francis Drake. In February of 1596 Drake died of "fever and the bloody flux" off the coast of Panama. He was buried at sea with full naval honors.

From preacher's son to sailor to knight and national hero, most people in the English speaking world at the very least recognize the name of Francis Drake. And in the Spanish speaking world he is sometimes still referred to as El Dragon. I think he would appreciate that.

4 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is quite the success story. Two quick observations: 1) I can't stop saying "Cacafuego!" to myself like Beavis doing "The Great Cornholio" and 2) Wouldn't Drake have to sail west from the California coast in order to circumnavigate the globe? I'm just saying...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Yes! Way to catch my directional error. My compass is still in the binnacle. Also - Cacafuego became Jack Aubrey's first prize as Captain aboard Sophie in O'Brian's "Master & Commander". It is a funny word!

dwightjacobs said...

Cacafuego sounds like a great name for a Latino hip-hop band...

The reproduction of the Golden Hind is one of the cooler things along the Thames in London: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Francis-drake-galleon-southwark-london-uk.jpg

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Dwight! Thanks for the link. That is made of awesome! I love historical ships (shocking, I know).