Beginning his career in 1566, at about age 23, Drake became an ocean sailor by joining his relative, John Hawkins, in the slave trade with the Spanish colonies in the New World. Stopped by a large Spanish force at San Juan de Ullua in 1568 Hawkins and Drake made an agreement with them but, when it was to their advantage, the Spanish attacked. After the ensuing battle, Drake hastily returned to Plymouth and was later accused by Hawkins of desertion. From these expeditions, Drake learned much about ships and the Western Hemisphere, and he developed a great hatred for the Spanish. For the rest of his life, he conducted a personal war against Spain.
Drake returned to the Caribbean in 1569, 1571, and 1572, and attacked Panama in the latter two voyages. In 1572, he was wounded while two of his brothers died in battle. When he returned to England, Queen Elizabeth had made peace with Spain and he had to go into hiding, possibly in Ireland, where he reappeared in 1575. At that time, he announced that he was going to the Mediterranean to open up the spice trade in Alexandria, but his true plan was to circumnavigate the world. In 1581, after his return from this successful and profitable voyage, Queen Elizabeth knighted him.
Relations with Spain continued to deteriorate and, in 1585, Drake returned to the West Indies. On Hispaniola, he captured the supposedly impregnable city of Santo Domingo. Later, in Columbia, he captured Cartagena. By now, with one-third of his men dead and many others unfit for service, Drake was unable to attack Havana. After sacking St. Augustine, he sailed up the coast to Roanoke Island where he arrived on 26 June 1586. There, he visited Sir Walter Ralegh's colony headed by Ralph Lane, planted in 1585. He found a disheartened group of men. The once-friendly Indians were now hostile, and the supply ship was late. Drake offered Lane victuals for one month and a ship, the 40 tun Francis. He also agreed to take some of Lane's weaker men back to England and to replace them with his own men. A major storm, however, forced the Francis out to sea and caused a change in plans. Drake offered Lane a larger ship, the 170 tun Bark Bonner but it was too large to pass through the inlets. Instead, Lane and his colonists decided to return to England with Drake.
This expedition did not make great profits for investors but it did inflict great damage on the Spanish Empire and led almost directly to the launching of the Armada that Philip II began to assemble. The Spanish planned to attack in 1587; but, learning of these plans, Drake attacked Cadiz and Lisbon, where he destroyed ships, and at Cape St. Vincent, where he burned barrel staves needed for casks for food and water. These actions delayed the Armada until 1588 and caused it to sail with unseasoned casks which leaked water and allowed food to spoil.
Historians now discredit the tale that Drake continued his game of bowls while the Spanish Armada approached England. Even with the tide against him a man such as Drake would have been actively preparing to fight. Drake was accused of attempting to obtain personal gain to the detriment of the English efforts when, at night in the lead ship Revenge, he suddenly extinguished his lights, causing confusion in the English fleet. He said that he had followed ships he believed were maneuvering to take advantage of the wind. The Lord Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, accepted Drake's explanation.
The defeat of the Armada in 1588 was Drake's last success. Now forty-five years old, he had passed his prime. In 1589, Drake led an expedition to Portugal to set up Don Antonio as King of Portugal in opposition to Philip II who had annexed Portugal in 1580. This expedition was badly planned, the men were poorly trained, there was little food, expectations were too high; it was a dismal failure. Drake now delayed when he should have acted quickly. It was as if he had lost his nerve.
For the next five years, Drake lived in retirement at Buckland Abbey near Plymouth. His first wife, Mary Newman, whom he married in 1569, died in 1583 and he then married Elizabeth Syndenham. There were no children by either wife. After his retirement, he improved Plymouth's water system and served in Parliament.
During this period, Spain recovered from the loss of its Armada and fortified its cities in the New World; thus, in 1595, when Queen Elizabeth sent an expedition to America headed by Drake and Hawkins, it met disaster. From the beginning, there was dissension between the two leaders. Through a series of English errors the Spanish learned their destination was Puerto Rico and prepared for their arrival. Failing there, Drake sailed to Panama where he was also unsuccessful. Discouraged and sick, Drake died on 28 January 1596. Thus ended the life and career of one of England's great men. With others, he made English sea power great, carried the English flag around the World, and defended his country against the Armada.
Text by John D. Neville, Chairman, North Carolina 400th Anniversary Committee