Sir Francis Drake: Pirate, Explorer, Human Rights Pioneer

by Jennifer Ciotta

Most pirates, evil by nature, swashbuckling creatures who roamed the Earth’s seas, have seldom been portrayed correctly in literature and film.  Often seen as the “romantic life,” real piracy served as an odious career … literally.  It was a well-known fact in the barbaric 16th century that when pirates arrived in port towns, the aroma in the air rose to putrid levels.

At sea, atrocious sanitary conditions prevailed.  Rats scurried along makeshift beds in sleeping quarters while most food carried squirming weevils.  Infected limbs were amputated without anesthesia.  Burning, hanging and beheading mortally punished disobeying pirates and their victims, yet “walking the plank” was a rarity.  Sensitivity was an aberrant characteristic among these outlawed sailors.

However, there was a pirate who embodied some form of humanity and a bit of pacifism.  His name was Sir Francis Drake.  Born somewhere between 1541-1543 into an English, working class family, young Drake took to the high seas by age twelve.  As an apprentice, he quickly learned the ropes, sailing from Devon, England–his place of birth–to Africa with his cousin, Sir John Hawkins.  These missions, comprised of hauling African slaves to the New World, secured Drake’s reputation as a competent sailor and congenial sea captain.

Drake did, however, obtain one bitter enemy: the Spanish.  In 1567 on a seafaring mission, Drake, as commander, and his men dropped anchor in a Mexican port.  Spanish ships approached in a seemingly friendly manner, yet it proved to be a well-plotted act.  The Spaniards viciously attacked Drake’s English fleet, ending in bloody murder and sinking ships.  Sir Francis Drake never forgot, nor forgave, this horrific incident.

Additionally, from an economic standpoint, the two countries, England and Spain, were caught in a relentless trading feud, which resulted in many destroyed ships and lives.  Therefore, rulers of both nations hired “privateers” to attack ships and seize goods from their enemies.  Queen Elizabeth I contracted Drake to carry out such privateering missions against the Spanish and Portuguese.  Yet more often than not, privateers morphed into pirates, sailors who attack ships and raid coastal lands.  The word “privateer” remains virtually left out of modern vocabulary.  In its place are the words: pirates, buccaneers, swashbucklers, corsairs, etc.

What made Drake so unique in his conquests was the way he chose to pirate.  Perhaps his Protestant upbringing spurred a sense of kindness in the captain.  During his famed voyage around the world from 1577-1580, Sir Francis Drake held religious services, twice a day, for the crew.  This stems as a surprising detail for any pirate, since many corsairs bombarded Jesuit priests and their churches, thus having little respect for religious ideology.

A most unusual incident occurred on a prior mission in 1572.  At Nombre de Dios (Panama) Drake and his men chose to aid an injured captain over confiscating valuable treasure.

Way before his time, the captain peacefully collaborated with escaped slaves from Panama, since these natives, known as cimarrones, loathed their Spanish conquerors as much as Sir Drake.

Possibly his most famous booty came from the treasure-filled Spanish ship, Cacafuego.  Securing the treasure aboard and capturing sailors was a giant feat, but the even larger gain, was Drake’s self-control.  The Spanish crew suffered few casualties, and testimonies from the attack proved that little violence occurred and injuries were borne inadvertently.  In fact, Drake experts Michael Turner and Susan Jackson agree:

Drake was admired by friend and foe for his humane treatment and kindness towards his enemies, when they had surrendered to him in battle.  Subsequent generations, and especially, those of this century, could have learnt valuable lessons in human rights and decency from Sir Francis.

Yet Drake knew he must show a strong character in instances of wrongdoing.  The great pirate, in fact, had his friend and shipmate, Thomas Doughty, beheaded due to a charge of mutiny.  Even though Drake had a soft side, he could quickly revert back to his ruthless, revenge-seeking demeanor at any given moment.

As a navigator and politician, the sea captain proved to be an efficient leader on land as well as at sea.  Drake was compared to Italy’s Christopher Columbus, since he sailed around the world from 1577-1580.  During this voyage, Drake discovered that Tierra del Fuego was a group of islands, instead of the original thought that it was connected to South America.  Thus it was possible to sail below South America, around Cape Horn.  This newfound knowledge created an immense impact on world geography at that time.  He also sailed the furthest north of any European explorer, landing his leaky ship, the Golden Hind, at the area which is comprised of Washington, Oregon and California.  Unfortunately, to this day, the harbor at which Drake docked and repaired the Golden Hind has never been found.  Crossing the Pacific Ocean, Drake visited the Spice Islands or East Indies where he gathered six tons of spices–something new and exciting for the English.

Francis Drake came home a national hero to England, and a despised warrior to the Spanish.  In 1581, Queen Elizabeth knighted the sea commander, making him Sir Francis.  Settling down in Plymouth, he served as a highly regarded Deputy Lord Lieutenant as well as a town councilor, mayor, town governor, MP and first citizen.  In addition, he paid, by his own financial means, for town repairs and fortification.  Historians note that Drake remained “down-to-earth” despite living amongst the vicious snobbery of Queen Elizabeth’s 16th century England.

In 1595, Sir Francis sailed on his last voyage with his cousin Sir John Hawkins.  He attempted yet failed to conquer Panama City.  Sir Francis Drake died of dysentery off the coast of Panama.  His men buried their beloved commander at sea.

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