Person

Sir Francis Drake

Contemporary portrait of Sir Francis Drake
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake

Library of Congress

Quick Facts

During his time, Sir Francis Drake was known in England as an expert sailor, adventurer, privateer, navigator, and war hero. The Spanish, however, viewed him as an illegal trader of enslaved people and a ruthless pirate.

Francis Drake came of age during a time of empire building for England, which trailed the earlier explorations and colonial expansion of its chief rival, Spain. His early years among the ships of the Thames Estuary were marked by the intensely emotional turmoil of the Protestant Reformation, which governed not only Europe's spiritual life, but also its political life.

Drake's quest for new lands and riches took him on many voyages across the Atlantic. During his first three trans-Atlantic voyages, he sailed with John Hawkins, his second cousin and the man who is considered to have been the first English slave-trader. In 1568, during the third expedition, Hawkins' fleet was attacked by Spanish warships for engaging in illegal trade in the Caribbean Sea, including trading enslaved people. Hawkins lost four of six ships, and he and Drake narrowly escaped death. This event was a catalyst for Drake's hatred of Spain and preceded the many battles he waged against the Spanish.

It was during his fourth trans-Atlantic voyage, in 1572, that Drake is said to have climbed a tree on the Isthmus of Panama and first glimpsed the Pacific. Captivated by this view, he swore to sail an English ship to those waters.

Drake made good on this oath when he sailed from Plymouth in 1577 with a fleet of five ships and headed south and west amidst storms and mutiny. Passing through the Straights of Magellan, Drake reached the Pacific in September of 1578, and continued north, seeking the Northwest Passage. As he headed north, he continued striking at ships and ports along the western coast of South America, a significant source of Spain's colonial wealth. His ship, the Golden Hind (which had originally been named the Pelican), was soon filled with gold and silver, chests of rare porcelains from China, spices, and silks.

He ultimately gave up his search for the Northwest Passage and is believed to have spent six weeks at a "convenient and fit harbourgh" in what is now Point Reyes National Seashore in California, repairing the Golden Hind and preparing for a long voyage west across the Pacific.

Drake continued across the Pacific to Indonesia and then around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, completing the last leg of "The Voyage of Circumnavigation" as he returned to England. The Golden Hind, bulging with treasures from the East Indies, arrived in Plymouth in September of 1580. On April 4, 1581, Queen Elizabeth I knighted Drake onboard the Golden Hind in recognition of this journey.

While "The Voyage of Circumnavigation," is one of Drake's most famous maritime exploits, after serving as Mayor of Plymouth and a Member of Parliament in the early 1580s, he returned to sea in 1585 to raid Spanish settlements in the Caribbean. Drake commanded a fleet of about 25 ships and 2,300 men. His most important targets during this expedition were Santo Domingo (in present day Dominican Republic) and Cartagena (in present-day Colombia); from both of those towns he wrung fat ransoms.

Having devastated Spanish colonies in the Caribbean through the spring of 1586, Drake set course for England, following the Gulf Stream Current along Florida's east coast. On May 28, his lookout sighted the coastal watchtower of the San Agustín (St. Augustine) settlement (in present-day northeast Florida). Only about 150 soldiers constituted the bulk of the town's population, so Drake's forces were easily able to raid and burn the town. This action should have made clear to the Spanish both the weakness of the struggling colony and the formidable character of the English opponent. Yet, despite both the English and pirates repeatedly harassing the Spanish colony over the next century, the Spanish government was slow in building fortifications to strengthen its control of the area. Construction of Castillo de San Marcos to guard the Saint Augustin Inlet didn't begin until 1672, and construction of Fort Matanzas, to control Matanzas Inlet, the "backdoor" to San Agustín, didn't begin until 1740. Both fortifications are now National Park Service sites.

As he continued his voyage home, he also rescued the English military colony that was established on Roanoke Island in 1585 at what is now Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Drake arrived at Roanoke in June of 1586 in time to rescue the 115-man military detachment from starvation and impending Algonquian attack, transporting them and their leader, Ralph Lane, back to England.

He didn't get to stay home long before he was dispatched by Queen Elizabeth I to lead an attack on the Spanish fleet at Cadiz in 1587. The expedition was a military success, with over one hundred Spanish vessels destroyed or captured and delaying King Philip's plan to launch his armada to invade England by a year. When the Spanish Armada did launch in 1588, Drake, serving as vice admiral in command of the nimble English fleet of warships, was instrumental in the destruction of the mighty Spanish Armada off the coast of England, helping to pave the way for England to become a global superpower and helping Drake secure a reputation as one of the finest sailors in history.

However, the defeat of the Spanish Armada was among the last of Drake's successful ventures. An expedition to attack Spain failed in 1589. Six years later, he returned to the Caribbean, where he would suffer two significant defeats.

After crossing the Atlantic, Drake passed through a channel between what are now the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, a channel which now bears his name. And while Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John borders the Sir Francis Drake Channel, there is currently no evidence that he set foot on the island of St. John on his way to Puerto Rico, where the Battle of San Juan was fought.

On November 22, 1595, Drake encountered the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro)—which gained a reputation for being unconquerable and which is now part of San Juan National Historic Site—defending the harbor of San Juan. Good fortune was on the side of the Spanish; a miscalculation by Drake, together with the bravery of the defenders of El Morro, led to a totally unexpected defeat for the English.

Drake sailed on with his injured fleet to attack the port of Panamá in early January 1596, but was, once again, defeated. A couple weeks later, Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship of dysentery on January 28, 1596, and was buried at sea near Portobelo on the Caribbean coast of Panamá.

Last updated: June 18, 2020