Sir Francis Drake, English pirate, buccanear, privateer GLOBAL TRAVEL CLUB
Central American Travel Specialists

Sir Francis Drake

(Birth: 1540  /  Death: 1596)
Sir Francis Drake, English pirate, buccaneer, privateer


Sir Francis Drake The Spanish feared him so much that they called him "El Draque", or "The Dragon". He was a successful privateer, a talented navigator, and one of the most renowned seamen in all history.

In his lifetime he led several expeditions against the Spanish Main, as well as a daring attack against the Spanish city of Cadiz. He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, and he helped defeat the Spanish Armada off the southern coast of England in 1588. No other English seaman, not even Nelson, played a more important role in English history than Francis Drake.

For the sake of brevity, this account of Drake's exploits will principally be limited to his exploits in the Caribbean waters of Central and South America.

Early Voyages

Drake made several voyages to the Caribbean with another famed English seaman, John Hawkins, in the 1560s. These voyages were not privateering expeditions, but attempts to turn a profit by selling smuggled goods to Spanish colonies.

The Spanish colonists, who labored under high taxes and a shortage of goods, were quite willing to barter when it could be done without attracting the attention of the royal authorities. The profits for the English were immense, but so were the risks. The Spanish king was losing precious sales tax revenues to the smugglers, and his authorities had orders to attack all English vessels in the Caribbean on sight.

On Hawkin's third voyage his luck ran out. His fleet of six ships, one of which was commanded by his cousin Francis Drake, lay off the western tip of Cuba when a hurricane struck and drove them into the Gulf of Mexico. The ships were so battered that they had no hope of returning to England without repairs. Hawkins led the fleet to the Spanish anchorage at Vera Cruz, where he put into port and demanded the supplies necessary to repair his ship as well as food and water. In exchange for these supplies he offered various trading goods.

Unfortunately for the English, the Spanish treasure fleet arrived the very next day to pick up the stores of gold and silver from Mexico accumulating in the warehouses of Vera Cruz. The Spanish, who were by now far superior in naval strength, had no intention of letting the hated English smugglers escape. They entered port, dropped anchor, and immediately began planning their assault. A few days later they attacked -- killing many men and destroying all the English ships except for two. These two, commanded by Drake and Hawkins, eventually made it back to England but not without much hardship on Hawkin's ship, where the crew suffered from thirst and starvation.

The Attack On Nombre de Dios

On the 24th of May in 1572 Francis Drake sailed from England with two small ships and 73 men. After making an easy passage across the Atlantic the small fleet dropped anchor off the island of Dominica, where they took on water and fresh fish. Soon afterwards the fleet again set sail and arrived off the Spanish coast of Panama by mid-July. Drake landed at a small uninhabited island called the Isle of Pines and began preparations for his attacks against the Spanish.

His plan was to sack the city of Nombre de Dios, a port of call for the Tierra Firme treasure fleet which came every year to pick up gold and silver mined in the south American mountains. To aid him in his design he had brought three small pinnaces (small, shallow draft sailing vessels) from England. These had lain disassembled in the hold of his ships during the voyage, but were now rapidly put together. Within a few days the pinnaces were made seaworthy and loaded with muskets, pikes, powder and other weapons. Leaving a few men behind to watch his two ships, he sailed in the pinnaces for his intended destination.

Using the pinnaces shallow draft to his advantage, he hugged the Panamanian coastline, landing once on a small island to drill his men for the planned attack. Sailing further he soon reached the Francisco River, where he turned inshore and dropped anchor until dark. The men ate a small supper and when the sky darkened, sailed for Nombre de Dios under the pale light of the moon.

The pinnaces glided into the dark harbor and Drake disembarked his men, dividing them into two parties: one led by himself, and the other led by his brother, John. The Spanish by now had spotted the invaders and church bells rang in warning as the local militia poured out of their houses with muskets and swords in hand. The English, who were small in number, used drums, trumpets, and flaming firepikes to raise a stir and give them the appearance of a much larger party. Francis Drake's group reached the town first and entered on to the marketplace. (It was an unwalled town.) Here they were met by a volley of musket fire from the Spanish which killed and wounded several men including Drake himself who suffered a wound to the leg. However the second party of English then entered the other side of town and this broke the morale of the Spanish defenders. They quickly fled, leaving the town to the mercy of the invaders.

Drake led the men to the governor's house where they found a "huge heap" of silver bars. Drake then promised his men they would find still more treasure -- more than their ships could carry -- in the King's storehouse. (His promise seems overly optimistic since the yearly treasure fleet had sailed with that year's loot only a few weeks earlier.) But Drake then fainted from loss of blood and his men, fearing a Spanish counterattack, suddenly panicked. They grabbed their fallen leader and fled with virtually none of the loot.

The Silver Train

After a few days spent in recovery on an island near Nombre de Dios, Drake returned to the Isle of Pines. He gathered his two ships and sailed with them and the three pinnaces to Cartagena, which he now hoped to plunder in a surprise attack. But word had spread of his presence and the city was alerted. After wisely deciding he could not take it with his small crew, he contented himself to capturing a few small ships, which he released after taking what he could, and again retreated, this time to the San Bernardo islands. He abandoned one of his two larger ships since he had too few men to crew both of the larger ships and the three pinnaces, and sailed further south into the Gulf of Darien where he established a small base from which he would hereafter operate.

It was here on the coast of Darien that Drake began to receive help from escaped black slaves who lived in loose tribes throughout the jungle. These former slaves, known as Cimaroons, were adept at harassing their hated Spanish "masters" with hit and run guerrilla raids. They were happy to exchange their labor and knowledge in exchange for weapons, clothing, utensils, shoes, etc. The Cimaroons were to prove crucial in keeping Drake and his men alive, and providing valuable intelligence.

With the help of the Cimaroons the English built themselves small houses ashore and refitted their ships. Drake then took two of the pinnaces and raided a small Spanish settlement east of Cartagena, where he made off with enough livestock, wine, cheese, maize, sugar and other edibles to keep his men well fed for months. He stashed small amounts of these supplies in hastily constructed storehouses all along the coast in case of future need.

Meanwhile Drake had decided that his next target would be a "silver train" -- one of the trains of mules that crossed the isthmus of Panama each year carrying silver from the mines in Peru. The silver was gathered in Panama during the year and then sent to Nombre de Dios for shipment to Spain when the treasure fleet arrived. But conversations with the Cimaroons, who knew the habits of the Spanish well, convinced him that the next silver train would not be sent from Panama until after the rainy season when the next treasure fleet arrived. Drake now had several months to kill and he needed a secure place to hide, so he relocated to yet another base -- about 50 miles east of Nombre de Dios -- where he could better camouflage his ships.

During that autumn of 1572 Drake and a party of men made another voyage to the Cartagena area, where they captured some small ships and more supplies. Upon returning to the base on 27th of November, Drake learned that his brother John had been killed while leading an attack on a Spanish ship off the coast. He didn't have long to mourn before more of his men began to die, struck down by a silent killer -- yellow fever. For Drake his grief must have been immense when in early January another of his brothers, Joseph, died in his arms of the illness.

Two weeks later Drake learned from the Cimaroons that the treasure fleet had arrived in Nombre de Dios, and that the silver train would soon be leaving Panama. With this valuable intelligence he set out from base with fifteen men (some of the ill and others were left behind to guard the base) and thirty Cimaroons. After three weeks of hard marching the party reached the outskirts of Panama. A Cimaroon spy was sent into town to learn about any muletrains moving from Panama to Nombre de Dios in the coming days. The spy soon returned with intoxicating news - that very night a train of fourteen mules were setting out, eight of them ladened with gold and jewels. Two other muletrains would set out later in the evening carrying silver and various goods. Drake and his companions nearly fell over themselves with joy. Hurriedly they moved to a point about twelve miles away which the Cimaroons assured them would be an ideal spot for an attack. During this movement the Cimaroons captured a Spanish soldier who had been posted as a guard along the trail.

Drake and his men hid themselves in the bushes alongside the trail. An hour passed and soon they heard the bells of approaching mules -- but not from the direction they expected. It was a different muletrain moving goods south from Nombre de Dios to Panama. Drake knew that there would be no treasure on a muletrain coming out of Nombre de Dios so he passed word for the men to lie still and let the Spaniards passed unscathed. The mules, their handlers and a few guards approached the ambush spot and began to pass by the hidden attack party. But one of the Englishmen, who was drunk, foolishly stood up to get a view of the mules and remained exposed for several seconds before a quick thinking Cimaroon pulled him to the ground. A Spanish calvary officer caught a fleeting glimpse of some strange figure dressed all in white moving through the jungle (Drake had ordered his men to dress all in white so they would recognize themselves during the fighting). He later reported this observation to the gold ladened muletrain moving north from Panama. That muletrain was wisely turned around and another, without treasure, was sent ahead.

Drake's men and Cimaroons attacked the northbound muletrain as it passed, killing a number of Spaniards and sending the rest fleeing into the jungle. As they fell upon the mules however they realized the only plunder was food and trading goods. The Cimaroons were content - they preferred pots and pans, shoes, clothing, etc. to treasure. Gold is useless in the jungle. But these items meant nothing to the English. With the element of surprise gone Drake resolved to attack a small village a few miles away called Venta Cruz, which the muletrains often passed through. After a brief skirmish in which an Englishman and one of the Cimaroons were killed, Drake took the town but again there was no treasure. So after all those long months, so many bitter deaths, and the endless, brutal march through the jungle -- he had not captured single silver coin. Morale fell to a desperate low for the Englishmen.

Drake could do nothing but retreat. The Spanish would be sending out strong forces to find him and if he remained in the area he would no doubt be captured. He had no choice but to make the long hike back to his base empty-handed.

Upon their return to base, the Englishmen spent a month eating well and regaining their strength. Morale was low, but Drake forced a cheerful face -- reminding them how close they had come, and assuring them that next time they would succeed. He kept his men busy by raiding along the coast in the pinnaces, and had the good fortunes to meet with a French privateer one day while at sea. The Frenchmen, led by Captain Tetsu of Havre de Grace, agreed to join Drake and so their numbers were swelled by twenty men.

Joined again by Cimaroon volunteers, the French and English party sailed up the coast on the pinnaces to a river fifteen miles from Nombre de Dios. They hid the pinnaces here and, leaving a small guard behind, set off marching toward the muletrain trail. Drake planned to ambush the muletrains close to Nombre de Dios this time, so he could spare his men the three week march across the isthmus. They traveled until they were within a mile of the trail, then bedded down and slept for the night.

At this part of the trail the muletrains traveled by day and as the English closed in around the trail in the morning, they saw some three muletrains (about 180 mules total) ladened with bars of gold and silver approaching them. The Spaniards drew closer and Drake gave the order to attack. The muletrains were protected by fifty Spanish soldiers but they broke ranks and retreated after exchanging a few volleys of musket fire. Drake and his men moved forward to loot the mules, staggered by the amount of wealth before them, and drunk on the glory of their exploit. One man, a Cimaroon, had died in the attack and Captain Tetsu had suffered a mortal shot to the stomach.

The biggest problem now for Drake was he had far more treasure than he could carry. For the next two hours his men pillaged what they could lift and then buried dozens more bars of silver in the jungle, planning to return and dig it up later. When the Spanish could be heard approaching, Drake and his men fled into the trees with their haul of loot.

They successfully eluded the Spanish and returned to their base. Several men were sent back to the site a few days later to retrieve the rest of the treasure, but the most of it had been dug up. (The Spanish captured a Frenchman who had stayed behind with the dying Captain Tetsu. They tortured him into revealing the locations of the buried loot, then executed him.) The Englishmen dug up thirteen bars of silver plus a few nuggets of gold which the Spanish had missed.

The loot was divided back at the base and the Frenchmen took their leave. together the raiding party had taken silver and gold valued at nearly two hundred thousand pieces of eight. It was a rich haul, a very rich haul, and the beginning of a glorious career for Francis Drake.

On 9th August 1573, Drake and thirty English survivors returned to England as very wealthy men.

Later Adventures

Drake made several return trips to the New World, including an large assault on Cartagena in 1586 which he sacked and plundered. Drake, however, was known as a humane privateer and did not subject the populace to the vast scale of murder, rape, and torture that was to become the calling card of future buccaneers.

On his last trip to the Caribbean, again in search of Spanish loot, Drake contracted fever and died of it. He was buried in a lead coffin in the waters off Nombres de Dios.



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