Sir Francis Drake was one of the earliest English privateers. His became a legendary hero to the English, participating in feats such seizing Spanish treasure while protecting colonies, circumnavigating the globe, and protecting the British Isles from the threat of Spanish invasion. To the Spaniards, he was a ruthless pirate, whom they referred to as El Draque, meaning “The Dragon.” His continuous plundering of their towns and ships earned their lasting hatred.
Drake was born around 1540 to a devoted Protestant family in England – a religious background that led to his lifelong hatred of Catholic Spain. At an early age, he became an apprentice on a cargo barque, which sailed across the English channel to trade with the French. When the master died, he left the barque to Drake.
At the age of 23, Drake made his first voyage to America in a fleet belonging to his cousin, Sir John Hawkins. Later, in 1568, he was again present with Hawkins when their fleet was attacked and defeated by Spanish ships at San Juan de Ulúa in Mexico. Both Drake and Hawkins managed to survive the battle and escape, and vowed revenge on Spain.
Drake spent the early 1570s in the Caribbean, raiding Spanish towns and capturing treasure galleons. His biggest coup was the 1572 capture of Nombre de Dios, the town in Panama where the Spanish treasure fleet was loaded with silver and gold from Peru. He remained in the area for a year raiding local shipping. In 1573, he carried out his next great conquest – an attack on the Spanish Silver Train, a mule train which carried wealth from the Pacific overland to Nombre de Dios.
In 1577, the Queen sent Drake to plunder the Pacific coastline of the New World. After rounding the tip of South America in his ship Golden Hind, he made his way up the coast of Chile and Peru, raiding ports along the way. While the Spaniards were used to English privateering attacks on their colonies, a privateer in the Pacific was unheard of, so the towns there were unprepared for Drake’s attacks.
Near Lima, Drake captured the ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, nicknamed the Cacafuego by its crew – literally, “fire-shitter”. This was a treasure galleon sailing north to Panama. After a short battle, the ship surrendered, and Drake’s crew seized silver, gold, jewels, and coins — the most profitable prize Drake would ever capture. In fact, the English crown’s share of the spoils dwarfed the rest of its income for the year.
Following this capture, Drake took sailed the Golden Hind north and explored the coast of California, then sailed west across the Pacific. After a stop in Indonesia, he rounded Africa and returned to England in 1580, becoming the first Englishman and non-Spanish captain to circumnavigate the Earth. He was knighted by the Queen, and remained in England for several years engaged in politics.
Despite his work for England, Drake prioritized self-enrichment over strategic goals. In 1588, the Spanish Armada threatened to invade England, and he was given vice-admiralty over the fleet that pursued it through the English Channel. Drake was tasked with leading the rest of the fleet through the fog with a lantern on his ship. But when he saw a chance to capture the Rosario, a ship carrying the payroll for Spanish soldiers, he extinguished the lantern to close in for the capture, creating confusion and delays within his fleet.
Drake’s last expedition was in 1595, in which he sailed unsuccessfully against several Spanish ports in the Caribbean. After the failed attack on San Juan in Puerto Rico, Drake contracted dysentery and died in early 1596. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin, which has never been found.