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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reduced 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.
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.
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.