Tuesday, April 27, 2010

History: The Captain At Nombre De Dios

Drake wounded at Nombre de Dios from The Childrens Heroes books by Mrs. Elton via Heritage History

Our familiar friend, the Sea Dog Francis Drake, was not the most humble of historical figures. But that should surprise no one. How many humble testosterone fueled warriors have any of us ever met? None. So it is again not surprising that when Drake penned the story of his dark-of-night raid on the Spanish treasure town of Nombre de Dios (on the Caribbean side of modern day Panama), he was self-congratulatory even in the face of death.

The prose has a very Shakespearean lilt to it and, if I'm honest, I had to read more than one paragraph over twice just to make sure I was getting the jist. The story is typically heroic, and Drake piles on by naming himself "the Captain" and constantly referring to himself in the third person, as if another party were actually writing things down.

The story opens with Drake in command of Pascha, of 70 tons, and his brother John commanding Swan, of 25 tons, keeping company as they leave Plymouth on May 24, 1572 (Whitsunday Eve). The object of the expedition is to return to ports already visited by Drake along the Main, and plunder as they go.

The first thing that struck me was the speed with which Pascha and Swan crossed the Atlantic. Our modern perception of seafaring at the time tends to cling to the idea that it was slow and arduous a la the Mayflower crossing. Indeed, that was not always the case and Drake, being a seasoned adventurer, chooses spring to set out rather than fall. Of course there was some luck involved as well and the two ships site the Canaries by June 3rd and are at the island of Guadeloupe in the Leewards by June 28th. If your counting that is exactly five weeks to cross the Atlantic and make the Caribbean. Impressive indeed.

Drake is clear that his men worked virtually non-stop to achieve such speed and it is only upon reaching the island of Dominica on June 29th that he drops anchor and allows some down time. By July 1st they are back out and eleven days later they have made their goal, a sheltered harbor known to them as Port Pheasant. Drake has been here previously, and cleared brush to make paths leading inland. He doesn't recognize the place at first though because his handy work has been reclaimed by the burgeoning tropical forest.

Once at anchor, the men unload the as yet unassembled pinnaces they have carried in their ships' holds. They will spend a fair amount of time in port putting these together in preparation for the hit on Nombre de Dios which is described as "...to the westwards." First though, in an interesting vignette whose smoking gun is never sufficiently explained, they spot a signal fire in the jungle. They are concerned that this may be a sign of a group of runaway slaves, who Drake refers to as "Cimaroons" but instead they find a metal plaque attached to a nearby tree reading:

Captain Drake: if you fortune to come to this port, make haste away: For the Spaniards which you had with you here the last year have bewrayed this place, and taken away all that you left here. I depart from thence this present 7 of July, 1572. Your very loving friend, John Garret

The spelling is from the original. It is never mentioned where Garret may have gotten off to and we never hear more of him. The lead plaque, which itself seems unlikely, comes off as a chance for Drake to thumb his nose at danger. Betrayed by Spaniards indeed; onward men! But anything is possible, especially historically speaking, and I am somewhat compelled to take the story at face value.

So it is onward that Drake and his party go. They come upon some of those Cimaroons and, though Drake does not mention whether or not the men are taken captive or comply willingly, the former slaves give intelligence about the entrances and arms at Nombre de Dios. Drake is joined by Captain Rance, whose bark appears in the Port Pheasant on July 13th. Agreeing to join Drake, Rance and his men help to finish the building of the pinnaces and on July 20th the party departs for Nombre de Dios.

By July 28th Drake has made Rio Francisco, which will lead them into the town, and he is extremely concerned with keeping their approach a secret. They decide to attack at night, but are first pleasantly surprised by a merchant at anchor in the bay who is carrying a shipment of wine. The story is not clear as to whether Drake takes the ship immediately, but he will take it with him when he leaves.

Using the merchant as a screen, Drake's pinnaces hit the shore undetected around three in the morning. Unfortunately the townspeople are skittish about the Cimaroon problem and they have loaded cannon waiting for an attack. Drake gets to the cannon before they can be fired but it seems almost too little too late; the church bell begins to clang, sounding the alarm.

At this point "... the soldiers, and such that were joined with them, presented us with a jolly hot volley of shot". Drake and his raiders engage in order to achieve their final destination: the Governor's house and King's Treasure House where the Spanish treasures are kept. Drake puts his brother and a man named John Oxnam in charge of getting into the Treasure House and the fighting continues. According to the narrative, it is not the surprising number of muskets that Drake has dragged along with him but good old fashioned bow and arrow that break down the Spanish guard. The story is surprising and exciting all in one as Drake's skilled archers pick off the town's soldiers.

Drake's group arrives at the Governor's house and force their way in. They are literally astonished to find, illuminated by a dramatic single candle at the top of a staircase, "... a huge heap of silver in that nether room." The potential haul is enormous, consisting of bars of silver stacked twelve feet high. Drake's brother is unable to breech the Treasure House, so Drake steps out to call he and his men over to assist with the silver.

Things start to fall apart at this point with tragic results, at least for Drake. Word that his pinnaces are in danger of capture leads Drake to order his brother and Oxnam back to the river to guard the boats. Meanwhile, he manages to keep his men from falling on the silver bars. When John Drake and Oxnam return, stating the pinnaces are safe, Drake steps into the Market Place to head back to the Treasure House. And then:

...his strength and sight and speech failed him and he began to faint for want of blood which, as then we perceived, had in great quantity issued upon the sand out of a wound received in his leg in the first encounter whereby, though he felt some pain, yet (for that he perceived divers of the company, having already gotten many good things, to be very ready to take all occasions of winding themselves out of that conceited danger) would he not have it known to any, till this his fainting against his will bewrayed it...

The sentence goes on to describe the hideous loss of blood being suffered by the Captain. Seriously, sentences were long back in the day. At this point, the company turns all their care and concern to Drake. They "...bare him aboard his pinnace and so abandoned a most rich spoil for the present, only to preserve their Captain's life..." Basic logic tells them that they might achieve the treasure without Drake, but they would never make it home should he expire. Humble to a fault this guy.

Thinking quickly, the men take the merchant and her wine "... for the more comfort of our company." The townspeople manage to get a cannon aimed and fired at the departing pirates, but it is a hollow gesture. Drake's company make landfall again at the Isle of Victuals (now, I believe, the San Blas Islands) "... where we stayed the two next days to cure our wounded men and to refresh ourselves in the goodly gardens."

It's a harrowing and heroic tale, with more plunder actually achieved than one would imagine from reading it through. Of course Drake recovers from his wound and goes on to greatness on the Main and at home. But it is little wonder that he wrote about his adventure at Nombre de Dios, when the Captain came so close to death.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I have to agree with you, while the whole story is filled with hyperbole, the part about the metal plaque seems especially far fetched, particularly since it is dated only a few days before Drake and his men "discover" it... Oh well, it is a fun story anyway, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It is a good story, I think; strict adherence to the "truth" aside. It's certainly full of swashbuckling adventure. And what good are stories about pirates without swash and buckle?

Pauline said...

Also, I neglected to add that "a jolly hot volley of shot" is an outstanding turn of phrase!

Timmy! said...

Indeed it is!