Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2005 Issue

Exhibit Recognizes Francis Drake, First Englishman to See California

A0301

Sir Francis Drake

By Mike Stillman

His name may not be quite as familiar as that of other notable voyagers and explorers, such as Magellan or Cook, but Francis Drake was one of the great navigators of that era when much of the world was unknown to the West. That's Sir Francis Drake, to be exact, for he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in honor of his achievements. However, there was a less seemly side to those achievements. It has perhaps kept Drake from sharing quite the honor that other explorers reached. However, an exhibition recently posted online by the U.S. Library of Congress should afford Drake a little of the recognition he has missed. We'll provide a link to that exhibition at the end of this article.

The problem is that Drake wasn't a pure explorer, nor even a trader, as were many others who helped "discover" the world Europeans did not know. Drake was a privateer. For those unfamiliar with the profession, a "privateer" is someone who operates on the borderline between a respected government agent and a pirate. A pirate who operates with the acquiescence of his crown, and shares his loot with his monarch, gets to rise from the status of mere pirate to that of privateer. To others, he doesn't look much different from an ordinary pirate, but to his rulers, he is a useful participant in government policy, though one likely to be dumped overboard at the first moment his behavior brings embarrassment to those rulers. That fate befell others, such as Captain Kidd, but not Drake. Queen Elizabeth appreciated Drake's work, which brought much gold and silver to the British treasury. In return, she also allowed Drake to share in and reap the benefits of the wealth he procured. Nevertheless, she repressed most information about his work, as she did not want to offend Spain, with which she was at peace, too much. That left Drake without quite the recognition he might otherwise have received.

Drake first commanded a ship on behalf of his cousin, John Hawkins, who was engaged in the slave trade. That's another blot on his resume. It was on such a journey that Hawkins and Drake and their six ships pulled into a harbor near Veracruz, Mexico, for repairs, under a mutual nonaggression pact with some Spanish vessels. It didn't last. The Spanish did not appreciate English competition in the slave trade. They attacked. Only two of the ships, those commanded by Hawkins and Drake, escaped. It left Drake with a lifelong hatred for the Spanish, and he would get his revenge many times over during the three decades which followed.

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