7 Facts about Francis Drake, the English Pirate-Hero

Sir Francis Drake, a pirate turned English hero, is perhaps the most renowned nautical figure in English history.

Aug 30, 2023By Anthony Arcane, BA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient Cultures

sir francis drake facts


Tudor England (1485-1603 CE) created some of the most renowned figures in the history of England. Figures who came from all sectors of Tudor society, from the aristocracy to intellectuals to martyrs. Remembered as one of the greatest nautical heroes of Tudor England, Sir Franics Drake was a privateer and circumnavigator. Having created a legacy defined by ingenuity and bravery, Drake would forever be entrenched in England’s psyche.


1. Sir Francis Drake Participated in the Atlantic Slave Trade

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake, 1581 CE, via National Portrait Gallery, London


Born in Tavistock, England, between 1535 and 1540 CE, Drake was the son of a Protestant farmer and shearman who was forced to flee to Kent in 1548 CE after being charged with robbery and assault. Placed in the care of William Hawkins, merchant and privateer, Drake joined the Hawkins fleet around the age of 12. Drake became a skilled sailor and eventually became integral on his voyages.


With command of his own ship, the Judith, in 1560 CE, Drake followed the lead of his cousin John Hawkins and helped in the lucrative but immoral profession of trading in slaves. Drake accompanied Hawkins on three slaving voyages between 1562 and 1568 CE, becoming one of Britain’s earliest slave traders. In 1568 CE, Drake would abandon the slave trade after a crippling attack from the Spanish at San Juan de Ulúa. Having lost four vessels and experienced the death or capture of a significant number of crewmates, San Juan de Ulúa would leave Drake with an immense hatred towards Spain.


Despite Drake’s abandonment of the slave trade, by 1569 CE, 1200 slaves were taken from Sierra Leone, Africa to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola on Hawkin’s slave voyages, a 6,500 km (4038 mile) journey. Although the San Juan de Ulúa expedition proved disastrous, Drake’s transatlantic ventures would earn him the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and his life would change forever.

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2. Drake was Queen Elizabeth I’s Very Own Privateer

Drake crowned by Hioh, or King of New Albion, 1774 CE, via Yale University Library, New Haven


During Drake’s participation in the slave trade, Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean were largely controlled by the Spanish Empire. With Spain and England always on the precipice of war, Elizabeth I sought Drake’s seafaring talents to vex the Spanish. In 1572 CE, Elizabeth I conferred on Drake the position of a privateer and gave him permission to plunder Spain’s assets with impunity. Not only was Elizabeth I disrupting Spain’s economic expansion by means of seafaring but Drake found it a fitting form of retribution. In command of two ships — the Pasha and the Swan, Drake set sail for America and immediately started wreaking havoc on Spanish territories.


Drake ambitiously wanted to begin with a raid on Nombre de Dios, Panama, a significant Spanish shipping port. Due to Drake having fainted from an injury and a torrential rainstorm, the first attempt at raiding Nombre de Dios was abandoned.


After the fruitless raid, Drake set out for the coast of the Spanish Main and had immediate success. Within a year of leaving Nombre de Dios, Drake’s fleet had seized Spanish merchant ships and raided Spanish settlements resulting in a small fortune. However, despite Drake’s vast success, he wasn’t content. Drake wanted and needed to successfully raid Nombre de Dios. In doing so, Drake attempted a most daring attack on the Spanish-American treasure holdings. A task that, without Diego’s guidance, would have been much more difficult.


3. Drake’s Fortune and Stardom was Due to Diego, a Freed Slave

Sir Francis Drake Revived, published by London for Nicholas Bourne, 1653 CE, via Marshall Rare Books


So, who was Diego? No portraits and no surname, all scholars know about Diego derives from Philip Nichols’ Sir Francis Drake Revived (1628), a reworking of Drake’s manuscript account of the raiding expedition that was given to Elizabeth I in 1593 CE.  Prior to Diego and Drake’s meeting in 1572 CE at the port of Nombre de Dios, Diego was enslaved by the Spanish.


Whether taken as a slave from West Africa, or born into enslavement within the Spanish territories, Diego was recognised as a black man. While in Panama, Diego mastered Spanish and eventually English, skills that later saved his life. During the middle of Drake’s first attack on the port of Nombre de Dios, Diego escaped the clutches of his slave owners and made his way to the English ships. England, although it had the presence of slaves, was considered a land of freedom, a critical detail in Diego’s decision.


Whether or not Diego knew of Drake’s past with slave trafficking is unclear but the potential for freedom was too high to squander such an opportunity. Upon approaching Drake’s ship, Diego was fired upon numerous times while pleading to see Drake and warn him of the danger of continuing the raid. Although Diego’s warning was fictitious, Diego proved he was resourceful and quite daring. Joining Drake’s crew, Diego would be an integral part of the later Nombre de Dios heist. Having built a relationship with the Cimaroons, a population of black people that had escaped Spanish imprisonment around 1512 CE. Drake would also benefit from Diego and the Cimaroons’ pre-existing relationship.


4. Drake’s Nombre de Dios Heist was the Most Daring Attempt on Spanish-American Treasure

The Maroons in Ambush on the Dromilly Estate, by Francois Jules Bourgoin and J. Merigot, 1801 CE, via British Library, London


Due to Diego and his subsequent meetings with the Cimaroons, Drake learned of a 190-strong mule silver train, headed en route to King Philip II’s treasury in Spain in 1573. With the help of the Cimarroons and French privateers led by Captain Le Tetu, Drake was able to seize the silver train with little Spanish resistance. Although the initial heist was a success, having recovered 20 tonnes of silver and gold, the escape proved to be problematic. Firstly, the sheer amount of treasure created a logistical problem and the crew had to bury a significant portion of the silver and gold near the ambush location (the Spanish recovered a portion of it later). Secondly, the crew had to transport what they could nearly 30 km (18 miles), and endure a storm while navigating rugged terrain through the night.


Likely the biggest problem was that the Spanish were on their trail. When Drake and his men finally reached the rendezvous point the ships were nowhere in sight (the ships relocated due to the storm). Drake ordered his men to bury the treasure they had successfully transported to the beach while he sailed out on an improvised raft to retrieve his ships. In due time, Drake and his men recovered what they had buried during the expedition and returned to Plymouth, England as heroes. Diego accompanied Drake back to Plymouth and resided there four years before joining Drake on his circumnavigation voyage as a free man.


5. Drake was the First English Man to Circumnavigate the World

Silver plaque depicting Sir Francis Drake’s voyage, by Michael Mercator, 1589 CE, via British Museum, London


In 1577 CE, following expeditions to Africa, America, and the West Indies, Drake was covertly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to terrorize Spanish settlements on the American Pacific Coast. Under the guise of a “voyage of discovery,” Drake’s fleet was sponsored by members of Elizabeth’s court and supplied with five ships — the Golden Hind, Elizabeth, Marigold, Benedict, and the Swan.


Due to his skills as an interpreter, guide, and builder, Diego was a paid member on Drake’s voyage as well. However, Diego would be struck by misfortune in 1578 CE. On the way to the coast of Peru, Drake and his crew were attacked during a brief stop on the Island of Mocha by the Mapuche people. According to Sir Richard Hawkins, a member of Drake’s crew, Diego was wounded over twenty times and would later die near the Maluku Islands of Indonesia in 1579 CE. Although Diego’s story came to an end, Drake completing the voyage allowed Diego’s death to not be in vain.


By the time of Drake’s return in 1580 CE, Drake had devastated the Spanish colonies and brought England a vast amount of wealth. Drake was not only the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world, but also the second person to have ever done it in history. Due to his achievements abroad and his contribution to England’s wealth, Elizabeth I knighted him. For the next five years, Drake would spend time serving as the elected Mayor of Plymouth and enjoying his money.


6. Drake Defeated the Spanish Armada

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588, by Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1796 CE, via artuk.org


It wasn’t long before England was in need of Drake again. The Kingdom of England and Spain were in a cold war for some time due to religious differences, trade pressures, and navigational and colonial expansion. During the Protestant Reformation which was sweeping across Europe, England drew the attention of Spain, a Catholic nation. Due to Mary I of England (1516-1558 CE) and Ireland and Philip II of Spain (1527-1598 CE) being Catholic, the Protestant Reformation of England was at a standstill and hundreds of Protestant advocates were brutally executed. Following the death of Mary I in 1558 CE, Elizabeth I took the throne and revitalized the Protestant Reformation in England — an action that would aggravate the Spanish crown and Catholic Church.


Following the plundering of Spanish ships and colonies by Drake, the peace between the Kingdom of Spain and England deteriorated to an all-time low. With the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, a devoted Catholic, in 1585 CE, Philip II finally sought to eradicate England and declared war.


The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, 1588 CE, via the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


Preemptively in 1585 CE, Elizabeth I commissioned Drake to assault Spanish colonies in the New World. By 1586 CE, Drake had captured Cartagena de Indias, Santo Domingo, and had raided St. Augustine. Upon hearing of the immediate success of England,  Philip II commissioned the Spanish Armada to set sail to England.


Proving his worth yet again, Drake assaulted Cadiz, Spain in 1587 CE and delayed the initial Armada invasion by a year. In 1588 CE, the Spanish Armada set sail for England with 130 ships and 18,000 soldiers. With easily manoeuvrable ships, Mother Nature, and strategic genius, Drake forced the Spanish Armada to retreat to Calais after a confrontation. Perhaps the most recognized event during the naval war, Drake dispatched eight flaming English ships against a recovering Spanish formation causing great fear and forcing the formation to break.


In the middle of the chaos, the English blasted the Spanish with cannon fire for hours. After the surprise assault, the English blocked the most direct escape route to Spain and the Spanish Armada was forced to sail northwards. The Spanish Armada would return to Spain defeated, with only 67 ships.


7. Sir Francis Drake Helped Birth the Golden Age of Piracy

Print of Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, 1725 CE, via British Museum, London


In 1596 CE, Drake died of dysentery in Portobelo, Panama. Although his death was unglamorous, Drake was supposedly laid to rest outfitted with his full suit of armor and entombed in a lead coffin at sea. Till this day, the whereabouts of Drake’s watery grave remain undiscovered.


Within 50 years of Drake’s death, the Golden Age of Piracy (1650 – 1730 CE) would be born — largely influenced by Drake’s legendary life. Following the legacy of Drake, sailors sought glory and wealth by means of piracy. However, these pirates did not all fly under a nation’s flag. Thousands \stalked commercial and military shipping throughout the Caribbean, North America’s eastern seaboard, the West African coast, and the Indian Ocean.


Several of them not only made a fortune but became entrenched in the mythos of piracy, such as Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Henry Avery. However, piracy had its consequences. Of the aforementioned figures, none would die peacefully or free. Because piracy had become such a problem, the Piracy Act of 1689 was passed and over 600 pirates were executed. Unlike Drake, during the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates did not become heroes of the nation but enemies.

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By Anthony ArcaneBA Anthropology (Archaeology Concentration), MSc Ancient CulturesAnthony Arcane is an experienced explorer, archaeologist, academic, adventure-athlete, and classicist with a focus on Eastern and European material culture. Arcane's focus is emphasized through the study of material culture and ancient texts in: Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking and Late Norse, Egyptian, Scythian, Native American, and the Ancient Kingdoms of Britain. Arcane founded Horizons International Archaeological and Environmental Co. Arcane has been approached by National Geographic and the Discovery Channel due to his intense passion for the ancient world. Having traveled the world, Arcane is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Explorers' Club.