Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church

In The Western Seas

No man was more hated in England during the second half of the sixteenth century than Philip II., King of Spain. Men remembered how busy he had been in the cruel persecution which had been carried on during the reign of his wife, Queen Mary. They knew that he was always on the watch to recover the power which he had lost at Mary's death, that he hoped to conquer and enslave their country, and that he had plotted more than once the death of their Queen Elizabeth. And in the minds of many there was a feeling at work which was not less strong than hatred. This was the hope of gain. Spain had become, since the discovery of America, marvellously rich. The Gulf of Mexico and the neighbouring seas were called the "Spanish Main." Ships came in numbers from thence, bringing treasure, chiefly silver, to fill King Philip's treasury. It is no wonder that bold English seamen began to think that it would be a fine thing if they could at the same time do damage to the great enemy of their country and enrich themselves. One of the plans they had was to seize the treasure-ships as they sailed across the sea; another, bolder and more dangerous, but, if it succeeded, certain to be even more profitable, to plunder the settlements on the Main from which the ships were wont to sail.

The most famous of these adventurers was Francis Drake. He was a Devonshire lad, born in 1545, the son of a yeoman, who was a Protestant preacher, and afterwards became Rector of Upchurch in Kent. The elder Drake had, it is said, been a sailor himself, and the son went to sea when quite a young boy. He was apprenticed to a master-mariner, who traded with France and Holland. His master, dying, left him his vessel, and young Francis began business on his own account. This, however, he soon gave up, to serve, under one leader or another, in voyages across the ocean. A fine story might be told about every one of these voyages, and about others which Drake made on his own account; but I have to be brief, and must be content with telling the tale of one expedition.

In November, 1577, Francis Drake sailed out of Plymouth harbour with five ships, not one of them of more than 100 tons burden. It was pretended that he was going on a trading voyage to Egypt, but it was scarcely a secret that he was really bound for the Spanish Main. The Queen had helped him with money in fitting out his ships, and many of the chief nobles about the Court had taken shares in the venture.

[Illustration] from English History Stories - II by Alfred J. Church


On his way out a terrible thing happened. The Queen had tried to keep the help which she gave to the expedition a secret from her chief minister, Lord Burleigh. She knew that the thing was not to his liking, and that he would try to stop it. The fact was that he wanted England to remain at peace with Spain, and that this could not be if Drake was not only permitted to sail, but even helped by the Queen. Lord Burleigh found out what was going on, but he could not stop the expedition. All that he could do was to try to make it fail. He employed a man, Thomas Doughty by name, whose business it would be to do all the harm he could to Drake and his venture. Doughty soon went to work; a deadly quarrel grew up between him and his chief; things went on from bad to worse, till Drake, feeling sure that unless he got rid of the cause of the trouble the whole business would be ruined, resolved to act. When he reached the Straits of Magellan, he brought Doughty to trial on a charge of treason. The court, which consisted of officers of the ships, with the second-in-command as their chief, found the accused guilty. Drake and Doughty had been close friends. They now took the Holy Communion together; Doughty kissed the Admiral in token of his forgiveness, and then knelt down at the block. The executioner dealt him a blow with the sword, and holding up the severed head, cried out, "Lo! this is the end of traitors."

This terrible duty done, Drake set sail again. He passed through the Straits of Magellan without loss, but when he had reached the Pacific a dreadful storm burst upon his little squadron—three out of the five ships which had sailed from Plymouth had been broken up. One of the three, the Marygold, after three weeks' struggle with the weather, went down with all hands, another, the Elizabeth, was taken back to England by the second-in-command. Drake was left alone with the Pelican, now named the Golden Hind.

Slowly he made his way up the western coast of South America. He sailed into the harbour of Valparaiso, seized a ship laden with gold and provisions, and took all that was worth taking in the town itself. At other points on the coast he laid his hands on sundry prizes, and just missed getting hold of others. The country was becoming alarmed, and Drake, who had been hoping to be joined by the Elizabeth, taken home, as we know, by its captain, resolved to act by himself. He boldly entered the harbour of Lima, and searched all the vessels that were in it for treasure. He found nothing, but he heard of a prize which, if he could only secure it, would repay him for all his labours. A treasure-ship had been sent off some fortnight before to Panama. For three days a dead calm kept him where he was, and almost betrayed him into the hands of the Spaniards. Then a breeze sprang up, and he started in pursuit. The treasure-ship had a great start, but the Golden Hind was a fast sailer. At Payta, near the northern boundary of Peru, he was only two days behind; on March 1 his lookout man, his own nephew, John Drake, spied the prize. All day he followed her unseen; when it was dark he ranged alongside, and took her without having to strike a blow. It took three days to count and transfer the booty. When they came to reckon their gains, they found that they had secured thirteen chests of piasters, eighty pounds weight of gold, a great store of precious stones, and uncoined silver in such quantities that it served to ballast the ship.

After such a piece of good fortune the best thing to do was to go home. Another capture he made, and this was of two pilots who had with them the charts by which the Spanish ships were accustomed to navigate the Pacific. Then he turned homewards, but the thought came into his mind that he might go by the North-West Passage, and so gain the glory of a great discovery. Accordingly he sailed northward, and reached about 45 north latitude, when the increasing cold, and the look of the land, which showed no prospect of a passage eastward, made him turn back. He coasted along to where the town of San Francisco now stands. Thence he boldly made for the Moluccas, three thousand miles away across the unknown Pacific. For more than two months the voyagers were out of sight of land. When they reached it they were by no means out of danger. Their narrowest escape was early in 1580, when the Golden Hind struck on a reef near one of the islands of the Celebes group. For nearly a day and a night it seemed that the great voyage was to end in shipwreck after all. Drake began to lighten the ship, a painful business when the cargo was so precious. Suddenly the wind changed, and the Golden Hind slipped back into deep water. After refitting in Java, Drake set his face homeward. We, who are used to go round the world in less than seventy days, read with surprise that the journey took him the best part of a year. It was not till September 28, 1580, that the Golden Hind reached Plymouth. Drake had been away from home nearly three years.

For a time it seemed as if the great sailor was to receive a very poor welcome at home. King Philip was of course furiously angry at what had happened, and had instructed his ambassador to demand justice. No news of Drake had reached England. There had been one report, that he had been taken by the Spaniards and hanged, another that his ship had gone to the bottom. Lord Burleigh hoped that either one or the other of these might be true. As for the Queen, she solemnly declared to the Spanish ambassador that she had had nothing to do with the expedition, and that when the pirate—for so the Spaniards called him—came home he would be severely punished. And now the "pirate" had come.

Drake had friends at Court, and they warned him to be on his guard. He refused to take his ship into Plymouth harbour, keeping her where, if need should be, she could escape. A week afterwards the Queen sent for him. He went, but did not go empty. He carried with him some of the best of his spoils. When he reached London he found that alarming news had come from Spain. King Philip had seized Portugal, and had landed some soldiers in Ireland. Burleigh and his friends were terribly frightened, but the Queen heard enough from Drake to give her fresh courage. He told her what he had done, and showed her how easily it might be done again.

The Spanish ambassador still called for justice, and the Queen spoke him fair. An account, she said, should be taken of the treasure brought home. His master should have what belonged to him. An account was  taken, but Drake was allowed to take 10,000 out of it for himself. Then the Golden Hind was brought round from Plymouth to the Thames, and everybody in London flocked to see it. The Queen still answered the ambassador with excuses and promises, but she had made up her mind to stand by her bold servant. In April, 1581, she let everybody know it by going down to Deptford, where the Golden Hind had been hauled ashore, and making Drake a knight. His ship was to be preserved as a trophy.

Great schemes for carrying on the work which Drake had begun were made. But now the Queen hung back. The schemes would cost money, and she did not like spending it. They meant open war, and from open war she still shrank.

At last, in September, 1585, Drake was afloat again. He did damage at various places on the coast of Spain, and then sailing to the West Indies, burnt three of the chief Spanish settlements. When he came home again England was in great danger, for King Philip had been steadily preparing fresh forces to subdue her. Drake was put in command of a squadron, with which he boldly sailed into the harbour of Cadiz. He burnt there, it was said, 10,000 tons of shipping,—this he called "singeing the King of Spain's beard,"—afterwards sailing to the Azores to capture Philip's own merchantman, the San Filippe, with a cargo worth a million of money. In my next chapter I shall have something more to say about Drake. For the present, all that remains to be told is, that he sailed in 1595 with another expedition, which was to act against Spain in the West Indies, and that he died on board his ship, off Portobello, on January 28, 1596.