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Who Was Sir Francis Drake?

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, in Devon, England around 1540 (we don’t know his actual birthday). He became a sailor at a young age and by 1567 he began voyaging the sea for his country, England. Just beginning his career as a privateer, Drake was attacked by a Spanish squadron and lost two ships. However, Drake showed grace under fire. The Spanish quickly became afraid of him, and labeled Drake a pirate and an enemy of Spain.

In 1570 and 1571, Drake made two voyages to the West Indies for trading purposes. He was very successful. In 1572, he commanded two ships and sailed to the Carribean in an expedition against the Spanish. He sailed on to the Pacific Ocean and captured the port of Nombre de Dios in Panama.  He returned to England with loads of Spanish treasure and his reputation as a brilliant and exceptional privateer began to blossom.

In 1577, Drake was secretly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to fight against the Spanish colonies in America, along the Pacific coast. This would be the grand voyage that would go on to make Drake one of the most respected ship captains and privateers in history.

Drake left England with five ships, but by the time he reached the Pacific Ocean in 1578, only one ship was left. This ship, originally named The Pelican, was renamed to become Drake’s most famous vessel The Golden Hind.

Early in this famous voyage, Drake would become the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan. But that wasn’t all. Drake sailed up the west coast of South America and then continued north, hoping to find a route across to the Atlantic. Unsuccessful, he turned back south. But once again, Drake set a record that would go down in the history books. He had sailed further up the west coast of America than any European had done before.

Drake pressed on.  He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and then returned to England in September of 1580, three years from the time he began the trip. He brought with him loads of spices, riches, and Spanish treasure for Queen Elizabeth. But more than that, Drake had accomplished what seemed nearly impossible in that day and age – he had circumnavigated the globe. While he wasn’t exactly the first person to do so (that title goes to Ferdinand Magellan), he was the first Englishman to accomplish such a feat.

His popularity with the Queen soaring, Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth seven months later, aboard his beloved ship, the Golden Hind. However, Drake and his crew were sworn to secrecy about the details of their voyage. Elizabeth didn’t want Spain (or anyone else for that matter) to hear about Drake’s adventures, and most likely the treasures they found along the way.

In 1585, Drake returned to the West Indies. This trip, he sailed on to Florida and beyond to Carolina, where he picked up the unsuccessful English colonists off the coast of Roanoke Island. In 1587, war broke out with Spain and Drake was to become a huge force within the war effort. He became vice admiral of the fleet that went on to defeat the Spanish Armada.

Drake continued sailing well into his fifties, and his last expedition would take him back to the West Indies. This time the Spanish were better prepared for him, and the voyage ended badly. Drake became sick with dysentery off the coast of Panama, and died in January of 1596. As was often custom in this situation, his body was buried at sea.


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