The “Pelican” left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577, with four other ships and 164 men. The weather was so rotten that they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, before finally returning to Plymouth, where they started. The flotilla set out again on December 13 after making repairs, soon to be joined by a sixth ship, the captured Portuguese merchant ship Santa Maria, renamed “Mary”.
Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye. Before it was over, Sir Francis Drake would be the first to circumnavigate the globe in continuous command of the expedition.
He was the third, actually, depending on how you count them. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out with 5 ships and 250 men back in 1519, becoming the first about 58 years earlier. Magellan himself didn’t make it though, he died in the Battle of Mactan on a Philippine beach, in 1521. 19 men and a single ship under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano, was all that remained on the expedition’s return in 1522.
The Spanish explorer García Jofre de Loaísa was the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men on seven ships. None of his ships ever made it back. 25 of his men would return in 1536, under Portuguese guard.
Drake had crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his captains got on his last nerve. Thomas Doughty had been in command of the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo. One thing led to another and Doughty found himself accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”. He was brought before a shipboard trial for treason and witchcraft, establishing the idea that lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain is its absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of that ship’s passengers.
Doughty lost his head, in the end, in the shadow of the weathered and sun bleached skeletons and the bleak, Spanish gibbets where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.
It may have been to smooth over the Doughty episode, that Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind”, (a female deer of 3 years or more), after the coat of arms of Sir Christopher Hatton, one of the expedition’s prime sponsors. Soon reduced to three ships, Drake made the straits of Magellan by August of 1578, emerging alone into the Pacific in September.
Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold near Lima, when he heard about the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, sailing west toward Manila. Nicknamed “Cacafuego”, translating as “Fireshitter” (I wouldn’t make that up), the ship carried 80 pounds of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins) and 26 tons of silver. It was the richest prize of the voyage.
After a fine dinner with Cacafuego’s captured officers and gentlemen passengers, Drake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.
Drake landed near Alta, California in June 1579, where he repaired and restocked his vessel. He claimed the land for the English Crown, calling it Nova Albion: “New Britain”. The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish, who by this time had a bounty of 20,000 ducats ($6.5 million in today’s money) on the head of “El Draque”.
The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew onboard, on September 26, 1580. The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s income for the entire year. Drake himself was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the earth.
Drake’s seafaring career ended in January 1596, when he died of dysentery, anchored off the central American coast. There he was dressed in his armor and buried at sea in a lead coffin, off the Portobelo District of Panama. Divers search for his coffin, to this day.
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