As reflected in the virtual pages of this blog, we live in an era in which historical figures are being re-evaluated in light of the legacies of empire, slavery, sexism, and racism–though it should be noted that history has always been a process of re-evaluating the past in light of later concerns. You may recall, for example, the Early Modern Times considerations of the possible connections between Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy and his colonial schemes in the Americas–which included his ownership of slaves–and which led to my being interviewed (along with others) for this recent article in Trinity College Dublin’s University Times. While preparing lectures next week on Renaissance piracy in EMSP 2480/HIST 2750: The Pirate & Piracy, I have reflected on the complicated and troubling legacy of Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1540-1596), who has been lauded as one of England’s greatest national heroes; and yet, as esteemed maritime historian Claire Jowitt has remarked, was a murderer and slaveowner as well. Let us examine how Francis Drake’s career was entwined with God, slaves, (and) the Queen.
God: Drake’s father was a Puritan preacher to sailors in Devonshire. Francis was sent to apprentice with a shipmaster, learning to navigate the treacherous winds and waters around the British Isles. But his father’s Puritanism may well have influenced his anti-Catholicism, especially after Queen Elizabeth I reinstated Protestantism in England with her accession in 1558. By the 1560s, Drake had accompanied his cousin John Hawkins on several piratical and slaving expeditions (more on this below), and eventually acquired his own command. He may have had a side-business assessing the ratio between the circumference and radius of circular baked goods, which would explain his pi-rating as well as pie-rating.
The principal targets of English piracy were the Portuguese and especially the Spanish. This had strong economic and political bases: the Spanish had become immensely rich from plundering the Americas, which they regarded as their dominions, and were ferrying vast hoards of treasure aboard galleons between the Spanish main (their overseas possessions) and the home country, which were ripe pickings for pirates and enemies in war. This was an opportunity not only for small, relatively impoverished countries like England to profit at Spain’s expense, but also to strike a blow against Catholicism on behalf of rising Protestant empires. Privateering and piracy against the Spanish was seen as doing God’s work against reprobates who had corrupted the Christian religion. So successful was Drake that the Spaniards nicknamed him El Draque, ‘The Drake’ as well as ‘The Dragon’. Who was this fierce pirate who rose from the Drakes of society, they asked? Well, whoever he was, life for his victims was a real Draque.
Slaves: I mentioned above that Drake participated in expeditions commanded by his cousin John Hawkins (1532-95). Hawkins followed his father, who was a merchant as well as privateer, and raided Spanish and Portuguese trading ships in Africa and the Caribbean. In 1562, he captured West African slaves on the Guinea coast and illegally sold them to Spanish towns. Although it was the Spanish who began the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which African slaves were transported in dismal conditions to the Americas to work on European colonial plantations, Hawkins’ actions initiated the English trans-Atlantic slave trade. Drake was an eager and willing participant and eventually co-commander on Hawkins’ slaving voyages. Although the 1725 anonymous Voyages of Sir Francis Drake emphasises the willingness of Maroons (i.e., escaped slaves of the Spanish) to cooperate with and support Drake’s attacks on the Spaniards, there is no doubt that he continued to engage in slave-trading during his sole expeditions, as indicated by references to his anger at those who treated his slaves badly. Like his cousin, then, Drake was Hawkin’ not only stolen goods but human chattel.
The Queen: Drake’s reputation in England was won through his piracy as much as his privateering (i.e., commissioned acts of piracy during war) and naval campaigns. Even when the Spanish would complain about Drake’s piracy despite their not being at war with the English at the time, Queen Elizabeth–while officially disavowing endorsement of such activities–nevertheless referred to Drake unofficially as ‘my pirate’. Queen Elizabeth’s interest in augmenting English sea-power by both legal and illegal means shows that while she was not given to navel-gazing, she was definitely into naval-gazing.
Such royal favour was given despite the fact that Drake was also responsible for the illegal trial and execution of Thomas Doughty, a gentleman-adventurer on board Drake’s ship accused of the questionable charges of theft and treason. The affair was hushed up, and overshadowed in the eyes of the Queen and the English by his spectacular seizure of the Spanish ship the Cacafuego in 1579 off the coast of San Francisco. The booty of gold and silver was massive, and immortalised, in the annals of piracy, Drake and his flagship The Golden Hind. Moreover, since he was pursued by Spanish ships both before and after this act of piracy, Drake decided to head west across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and eventually back home. Having begun the voyage on the Atlantic and around the Straits of Magellan, he thus circumnavigated the globe. For these astonishing feats, he was knighted Sir Francis Drake. Partly in retaliation for this and other English piracy and Drake’s raids even on the Spanish coasts themselves, as well as the perceived illegitimacy of Elizabeth’s reign, Philip II of Spain ordered a fleet of ships to invade England in 1588. The Spanish, Elizabeth would have been told, armada than ever.
Drake, however, participated in the successful thwarting of the attempted invasion. Elizabeth had to rely on these sea-rovers to constitute her navy, but their experience with piracy and privateering was a distinct advantage in the rough waters off England over the Spanish, who also did not have the weather on their side. Drake’s involvement in this victory only cemented his reputation as perhaps the greatest Englishman of his time, which only persisted in subsequent centuries as Britain arose to global mastery of the seas. In the post-imperial era, however, we should be reminded of his violence and bloodthirstiness; his murder of Doughty and involvement in the slave-trade; and often brutal treatment not only of European enemies but also non-Europeans, including, as Jowitt notes, abandoning ‘a pregnant black woman, Maria, on an island in Indonesia’. It may well be time, then, to wean English history from its centuries-old Drake-addiction.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern achy-Drakey heart Studies Program