Was Sir Francis Drake a swashbuckling English hero of the high seas, or a ruthless privateer who smashed and grabbed his way to fame and fortune? It’s a highly emotive question. Drake is a figure of such totemic significance in the English psyche that he even spawned the legend of a King Arthur-like return. According to this story, if anyone beats a particular snare drum that once belonged to Drake – dubbed 'Drake’s Drum' – the great seafarer will be summoned back to defend England in her hour of need.
Of course, what sets Drake apart from King Arthur is that he actually existed, and comes with all the inconvenient moral baggage of someone who didn’t spring from the pages of chivalric romance, but in fact operated in an age of pitiless colonial violence. Even in his own day, he inspired as much hate as love. As far as the English were concerned, he was a fearless adventurer and war hero – the fêted favourite of Queen Elizabeth I herself. To the Spanish, however, he was 'El Draque', the dragon – a pirate who ruthlessly pillaged his way across the globe.
There’s also the towering issue of slavery. Drake began his naval career under the mentorship of his cousin John Hawkins, who is generally regarded as the founder of the English slave trade. Hawkins had started his career in 1562, sailing to the coast of Sierra Leone where he violently seized hundreds of Africans and sold them to Spanish colonies in the New World. Hawkins was so successful that he gained investment from merchants and aristocrats. Queen Elizabeth even granted him a coat of arms that displayed the image of a captive slave.
The young Drake learnt seamanship on Hawkins’ slave ships, so it could convincingly be argued that he personally played a role in establishing England as a state that trafficked in human cargo. Some onlookers from the vantage point of the 21st Century will see this as grounds to have Drake condemned as a villain, plain and simple. Others may mount the familiar defence that Drake was a product of his time, forging a career in a slavery-ridden age that did not generally regard the trade in human beings with the sense of horror we do today.
But what of his later exploits as a naval officer and adventurer? These commenced in 1572, when he began raiding Spanish colonies in the Americas, making off with gold, silver and other treasures. Pillaging other lands was very much the aim of Drake’s famous voyage around the world from 1577 to 1580. This circumnavigation was undoubtedly one of the most daring undertakings of his time – a journey so treacherous that, of the initial fleet of ships, only Drake’s own vessel, the iconic Golden Hind, would survive to complete the trip.
'God by a contrary wind and intolerable tempest seemed to set Himself against us,' wrote Drake during one particularly arduous part of the voyage. It’s a testament to his resilience and courage that he kept going, crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and nonchalantly attacking and robbing Spanish colonies which had never before seen an English ship in their part of the world.
One of his greatest prizes was a Spanish galleon that was sailing from Peru to Panama when Drake’s Golden Hind intercepted it. The galleon was laden with a dazzling trove of money and jewels, equivalent to hundreds of millions of pounds today. Drake was so delighted by his booty that he dined with the captive Spanish crew and let them go unharmed. The circumnavigation then took Drake across the Pacific to islands in Indonesia where he traded with a sultan and came away with heaps of precious spices like nutmeg and cloves.
On landing at Plymouth after this odyssey, Drake was hailed as the first Englishman to sail across the world, while his cargo of treasures and spices bolstered the royal coffers to a degree that the queen herself could never have imagined.
It’s impossible to deny Drake’s gigantic achievement. It remains a seminal chapter in the history of English exploration, and is all the more impressive for being conducted on a ship that was just over 100 feet long. Yet it’s equally impossible to deny that it was a voyage of violence as well as discovery. Indeed, his attacks on the Spanish communities exacerbated tensions between England and Spain, helping pave the way for the Anglo-Spanish War in 1585.
This outbreak of hostilities allowed Drake to burnish his legend as a naval officer. He led a preemptive strike against the fledgling Spanish Armada in the Bay of Cadiz, destroying so many Spanish ships that the would-be invasion had to be postponed by more than a year. This was dubbed the 'singeing the king of Spain's beard', and added to Drake’s swashbuckling reputation. When the Armada finally came at England, Drake was second in command of the English fleet that resisted the attack. According to a much-told story, Drake was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when he was warned the Armada was approaching, but coolly carried on with the game, remarking that there was plenty of time to win at bowls and defeat the Spaniards.
While the story is almost certainly apocryphal, it highlights just how mythic a figure Drake became in the eyes of the English. Today, many will argue that his actions as a raider and privateer were justifiable in the context of his time, when England and Spain were rival powers playing a long and bloody geopolitical game. They will also point to the role he played in scuppering Spain’s plans to invade England. Others will argue that he was a state-sponsored pirate whose reputation is fatally compromised by his early years as a slave trader. Whether he was a hero, a villain or something in between is sure to be debated for some time yet, as we continue to come to terms with England’s turbulent past.