August 7, 1573, El Draque

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, far too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

When the casual student of history can hark back to a time when “Britannia ruled the waves”, it’s hard to remember that the world’s great naval powers were once Spain and Portugal.

In the late 15th century, the two determined to slice the world into “spheres of influence”, in order to minimize conflict.   The Treaty of Tordesillas signed in 1494 between the Pope and the respective monarchs, bequeathed most of the Americas, to Spain.

Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Church fewer than twenty years later, triggering the Protestant reformation.  The non-Catholic powers of next-century Europe were not about to recognize Papal authority, nor abide by his treaties.

1280px-Spain_and_Portugal
Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494, dividing the world into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence

Spanish authorities were deeply suspicious of foreign encroachment onto their territory, and murdered several hundred French Huguenot inhabitants of Fort Caroline near the future Jacksonville Florida, in 1565.  At the time, the French had already surrendered.

In 1562-’63 and again in 1564-’65, the English adventurer John Hawkins engaged in trading expeditions with Spanish colonies in the New World, with tacit approval from the British crown. Such trade was technically illegal according to the 1494 treaty, but local authorities were happy to trade for slaves.  Hawkins received glowing testimonials from local magistrates and governors, often in exchange for bribes, and took orders from his Spanish clients for a third such journey.

Spanish authorities were alarmed at this challenge to their monopoly.  The sneak attack of September 23, 1568 at the port of San Juan de Ulúa was a humiliating defeat for the English, resulting in the loss of five British ships and the death of hundreds of British seamen.  One-hundred or more survivors were stranded on the beach and later tortured, burned at the stake, or sentenced to penal servitude for life on Spanish galleys, following the arrival of the Inquisition in 1571.

35456164531_25b62a268f_b
The Battle of San Juan de Ulúa

Hawkins’ relative and protégé Francis Drake was forced to swim for it, and flee for his life at the helm of the Judith, one of only two ships and a mere 70 or 80 crew, to survive. Three more turned up a year later, in Nova Scotia.

Being forced like that to abandon his relative and sponsor to fend for himself was a searing humiliation, leaving Drake with a deep and abiding hatred for all things Catholic.  Most especially, Spain.

Drake launched his first major undertaking in 1572, attacking Spanish operations on the Isthmus of Panama, where Peruvian silver and gold were moved overland to the coastal Caribbean town of of Nombre de Dios, where galleons awaited to remove the treasure to Spain. Drake and a crew including French privateers attacked a Spanish mule train in March 1573 with the help of local Maroons, African slaves escaped from the Spanish.

Twenty tons of silver and gold were captured by the raid, too much to carry.  With Spanish forces hot on their heels, Drake and his party buried part of the trove in the jungle and another part on the beach, probably feeding into later tales of pirate’s buried treasure.

The triumphant expedition returned to Plymouth this day in 1573, heroes in England and reviled in Spain. Gonzalo González del Castillo described “El Draque”, in a letter to King Philip II, “The people of quality dislike him for having risen so high from such a lowely family; the rest say he is the main cause of wars“.

At one point during that raid of 1572-’73, Drake had climbed a tree to scout the vicinity, becoming the first English man to see the Pacific ocean. He remarked that one day, he wanted an Englishman to sail those waters. He himself gained that chance in 1577, when Elizabeth I sent Drake on an expedition against Spanish holdings along the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Historians disagree to this day, whether this was a voyage of exploration, piracy or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King in the eye.  When it was over, Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

This was the third such voyage. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was first, setting out 58 years earlier with 5 ships and 200 men.  Magellan himself didn’t make it.  He was killed on a Philippine beach in 1521.  Eighteen of his men straggled back on two ships, in 1522.

Death of Magellan
Death of Ferdinand Magellan, 1521

Ordered by King Charles I to colonize the Spice Islands for Spain, explorer García Jofre de Loaísa would be the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men aboard seven ships.  None of his vessels ever made it back, nor did the explorer.  25 men returned to Spain in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

The Pelican left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577 with four other ships and 164 men. The weather was so rancid they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, Cornwall, and finally returning to Plymouth, where the whole thing started.  The small flotilla set out once again on December 13 after making repairs and soon joined by a sixth ship, the Mary.

Drake crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his people got on his last nerve. Thomas Doughty had been given command of the captured Portuguese ship Santa Maria, renamed the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo. One thing led to another and Doughty himself was accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”. Doughty was brought before a shipboard trial on charges of treason and witchcraft, establishing a principle which lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain was absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of the passengers.

Golden Hind Replica
Golden Hinde, replica

Thomas Doughty lost his head, near the spot where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.  Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind” (Female deer), probably to smooth over the Doughty episode with the expedition’s sponsors.

From the 16th century on, the Spanish Main was a rich source of treasure. The three sided box enclosing the Caribbean from Florida through Mexico and along the northern coast of South America was a ripe territory for pirates and buccaneers, though that became less so as you traveled south along the South American coast, and unheard of at this time in the Pacific.

Spanish_MainReduced to three ships by August 1578, Drake made the straits of Magellan, emerging alone into the Pacific that September.

El Draque captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of gold near Lima, when he heard about a galleon sailing west toward Manila.  The aptly named “Cacafuego”,  (“Fireshitter”) would be the richest prize of the voyage, with a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins), 80 pounds of gold and 26 tons of silver.

After a fine dinner with the Cacafuego’s officers and passengers, Drake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

cacafuego
Cacafuego, under full sail (left), under attack by Francis Drake

The expedition landed on the California coast in June 1579, claiming the land for the English Crown and calling it Nova Albion “New Britain”. The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish.  First-hand records from the voyage were destroyed in a Whitehall Palace fire in 1698.  Today Drakes Bay, about 30 miles from San Francisco, is anyone’s best guess.

4478294064_fde04ee131_z
Drake’s Bay

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew on September 26, 1580. The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s entire income for the year.  Awarded a knighthood the following year, Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Dysentery brought the seafaring career of El Draque to an end in January 1596, off the coast of Panama. Dressed in his armor and buried at sea near Portobelo, Divers have searched for his coffin, to this day.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
Advertisements

August 6, 1940 A Different Kind of Courage

By the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  For twenty-eight months these guys guarded their seed bank, without eating so much as a grain.

In 21st century America, “diversity” is often seen as that overly PC tendency, leading the backdrop of every political speech and college recruiting poster to feature all those smiling faces, in just the right mix of race, sex and color.

In the world of plant biology, diversity can literally mean the difference between feast and famine.

The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century resulted from the failure of a single crop. The direct cause was the water mold Phytophthora infestans, but the real culprit might have been the over reliance on a single strain of potato. A million Irish starved to death and another two million departed, never to return, in a country starting out with barely 8.4 million in 1844.

Phytophthora_infestans_(late_blight)_on_tomato
Phytophthora_ nfestans (late blight) on tomato

The Irish potato famine was just one of 120 such calamities to afflict humanity in modern times, resulting in the starvation death of hundreds of millions. Blight, climate disruption and insects are but a few of the causes. Often, the only solution was having enough food-source variety that no single crop failure could lead to starvation.

Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov was a Russian botanist and plant biologist.  Vavilov witnessed the death of millions of Russians in three such famines, and devoted his life’s work to the improvement of wheat, corn and other food crops necessary to sustain a global population.

220px-Nikolai_Vavilov_NYWTS
Nikolai Vavilov

Over a lifetime of study of phytopathology and plant immunity, Vavilov organized expeditions and collected plant specimens from every corner of the world. Traveling over 5 continents and 64 countries, “The world’s greatest plant explorer” taught himself no fewer than 15 languages so that he could speak with native farmers, collecting more seeds, edible roots, tubers and fruit specimens than any person in human history.

 

There is hardly any part of our modern day understanding of crop diversity, that doesn’t go back to the work of this one man.

Nikolai Vavilov was a man of pure science.  Not so his young protege, Trophim Denisovich Lysenko. The younger man was a political opportunist, an apparatchik and crackpot who rejected the natural selection and plant genetics of Gregor Mendel, in favor of a cockamamie theory which came to be called “Lysenkoism”.

ilysenk001p1
Trophim Lysenko

Lysenko placed great confidence in the pseudo-scientific theory of environmentally acquired inheritance, by which parent plants pass down to their offspring,  characteristics acquired through use or disuse during their life cycle.  By this theory, rye could transform into wheat, wheat into barley, and weeds somehow transmuted into edible food grains.

 

In 1928, the previously unknown agronomist from peasant background performed experiments in “vernalization“, claiming to triple or quadruple wheat crop yield by accelerating the life cycle of Autumn-seeded winter wheat varieties.

Intense exposures to cold and humidity including direct seeding into snow-covered, frozen fields were known since 1854 to produce marginal increases in crop yield, but nothing remotely similar to Lysenko’s claims.  Nevertheless, Lysenko was hailed as a hero of Soviet agriculture, particularly in light of the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s.

echist1As Stalin’s Soviet Union imposed the “terror famine” of 1932-’33, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasant farmers known as the Holodomor.

Lysenko dove into a variety of agriculture issues with “helpful” solutions such as plucking leaves from cotton plants, cluster planting trees and outlandish & unusual fertilizer mixes. A shameless sycophant and toady to Communist ideology, Lysenko gained status among party officials with one harebrained proposition after another, following one after another, far too quickly to be disproven by the patient observation of reputable scientific method.

At this time, the hottest ideas in plant genetics were emerging from biological studies of Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Lysenko used his increasing influence in party circles to denounce such scientists as “fly-lovers and people haters”, denouncing the lot of them as “wreckers” who were purposely trying to bring about the downfall of the Soviet government.

Scientific research into plant genetics was dead in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

855c4322c0bca57a84dde41308bad993As director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Lysenko put his theories to work, with unsurprisingly dismal results.  He’d force Soviet farmers to plant WAY too close together, on the theory that plants of the same “class” would “cooperate” with one another, and that “mutual assistance” takes place within and even across plant species.

There had to be a reason why Stalin’s agricultural program wasn’t working. There had to be scapegoats.  In a 1935 speech, Lysenko compared dissenting biologists to peasants continuing to resist Soviet collectivization policies, denouncing traditional geneticists as being “against Marxism”.  Josef Stalin himself was in the audience, and jumped up clapping enthusiastically, calling out “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo.”

The gloves were now off. Lysenko and his chief ally Isaak Izrailevich Prezent savaged Lysenkoism’s opponents, including his former mentor, himself.  Over 3,000 mainstream biologists were fired, “disappeared” or even executed, among them Nikolai Vavilov.

800px-Vavilov_in_prison
Botanist Nikolai Vavilov’s mugshot. Note the several deep scars on his right cheek, indicating severe beatings sustained by the scientist in prison

On August 6, 1940, Vavilov was on expedition in Ukraine, collecting specimens when he was snatched up and driven away in a black sedan, his staff helpless to intervene. Vavilov was sentenced to death in 1941 with sentence later commuted to twenty years.  It didn’t matter. In January 1943, this man whose scientific work was at least as important as that of Norman Borlaug, starved to death in a Soviet Gulag.

Nikolai Vavilov had collected some 220,000 specimens of edible fruits, seeds and tubers over the years, which now sat in a Leningrad basement. 120,000 additional specimens were added to the hoard from other collectors, bringing the entire cache well into the tons of edible plant material.

baldaev-gulag-001
‘Third Degree Interrogation’ from Drawings from Stalin’s Gulag Illustration: Danzig Baldaev

On September 8, 1941 the German Wehrmacht completed its encirclement of the city.  The siege of Leningrad lasted for twenty-eight months.  Hunger soon took hold and, before it was over, more than a million Leningrad residents starved to death.

Soviet authorities had ordered the removal of art from the Hermitage prior to the siege, but not these botanical specimens.  Scientists couldn’t know where their leader was, or even whether he yet lived.  They locked themselves in the basement with their trove and took turns standing guard, protecting future food crops and the survival of untold millions, yet unborn.

USSR-Stamp-1977-NIVavilovBy the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  These guys had stood guard over their seed bank for twenty-eight months, without eating so much as a grain.

The verdict against Nikolai Vavilov was set aside in 1955, one of thousands of reversals of Stalin era death sentences. Vavilov’s reputation was publicly rehabilitated by the 1960s.  In time he would come to be seen as a hero of Soviet-era science.

 

Trofim Lysenko would outlive his benefactor Stalin, and retained influence into the era of Nikita Khruschchev.  Lysenkoism was officially renounced in 1964, the bureaucrat denounced by physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov. “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists“.  The disgraced apparatchik died in 1976.  It took Soviet media two days to so much as mention his passing, with a small notice printed in the broadsheet, Izvestia.

In the funhouse mirror world of the Soviet Union, the future was always known.  It was the past, that was subject to change.

Still home to the largest collection of plant genetic material in the world, the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg was scheduled to be razed in 2010, to make way for luxury housing.  Scientists from around the world petitioned Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to rethink the decision, and not destroy the largest collection of European fruits and berries in the world.  At this time, the decision is undergoing “further study”.

For all the good it did the institute’s namesake, long-since murdered by the malignant ideology he had spent his life’s work, attempting to serve.

But hell, he got himself a postage stamp, in 1977.

Lysenko_image.svg
Timeline of Genetics and Science in the Soviet Union
Feature image, top of page:  Soviet Propaganda, Arkady Alexandrovich Plastov Threshing on the collective farm