Sir Francis Drake: The Privateering Pirate

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1590 or later Marcus Gheeraerts, Sir Francis Drake Buckland Abbey, Devon

Drake was all things to all people: a colorful, adventuring, pioneering, slave-trading cutthroat who left his mark on the Spanish sphere of influence in the New World.

The Englishman Sir Francis Drake was no friend to the Spanish and unlikely to have made the Spanish king’s Christmas-card list even during the best of times. Even today Drake is regarded as a child’s best bogeyman in the Spanish-speaking world, primarily for his merciless raids on Spanish ports. To the Spanish he was a pirate, an outlaw with bounty circulars in every port and the scourge of the seas.

To the English, however, he was not a pirate but a privateer, a much sweeter and far more legitimate-sounding term, working for the good of the crown against those diabólico Spaniards. And to his countrymen he was also a circumnavigating explorer, protector of England and tactically clever victor over the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Drake first made his name in the Caribbean in the early 1570’s. The Spaniards controlled all of the land around the Caribbean, calling it Spanish Main, with their principle sea ports being Santo Domingo, Panama City, Santiago and Cartagena. Eye-popping amounts of silver and gold bullion were being mined in New Spain and Peru and shipped back to Spain during this period.

Like flies to sugar, the transfers by sea attracted pirates and privateers alike –among them, Drake. After tracking a huge shipment of gold to the Panama port of Nombre de Dios, Drake raided the shipment and successfully made off with it. The haul was so bountiful that Drake, to his regret, was unable to carry away any of the silver on hand, which would have been too heavy for his ship.

One additional non-gold achievement during the raid was when Drake stopped off at the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific. Here Drake is said to have climbed a tall tree in the mountains to become the first recorded Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean.

The tree also would have been a very good vantage point from which to spot any Spanish ships which would be full of irate Spaniards eager to get their gold-deprived hands on Drake.