This series has eight easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Sir Francis Drake Sails Forth.
Sir Francis Drake (he had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1580) had waged piracy and war against the Spanish for decades. He had raided “The Spanish Main” (The Caribbean), he had gone around South America and then raided the Spanish from the Pacific Coast; he then got back to England by circumnavigating the globe. In 1586 he was back capturing Cartegena the main Spanish Capital in South America.
Now the King of Spain was assembling an armada to conquer England; now Drake was going to strike at the Spanish homeland.
This selection is from Sir Francis Drake by Julian Corbett published in 1890. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Sir Julian Corbett was one of the Royal Navy’s leading intellectuals in the decades just before and after 1900.
Place: Plymouth, England
The mill of Philip’s purpose went grinding on relentlessly. He invited a large fleet of English corn-ships to the relief of his famine-stricken provinces, and then, as they lay unsuspecting in his ports, he seized them every one. Never once was the growing armada out of his mind. This atrocious outrage was but to feed his monster, and swift and sharp was the retribution it earned. It was in the last days of May, and, ere June was out, far and near the seas were swarming with English privateers, and “The Dragon” was unchained.
Fortified with letters of marque to release the embargoed vessels, Drake hoisted his flag at Plymouth on the Elizabeth Bonaventura, and there, by the end of July, “in all jollity and with all help and furtherance himself could wish,” a formidable fleet gathered round him. Frobisher was his vice-admiral, Francis Knollys his rear-admiral, and Thomas Fenner his flag-captain. Christopher Carleill was there, too, as lieutenant-general, with a full staff and ten companies under him. No such privateering squadron had ever been seen before. It consisted of two battle-ships and eighteen cruisers, with their complement of store-ships and pinnaces; it was manned with a force of soldiers and sailors to the number of two thousand three hundred, and it is not surprising that constant difficulties delayed its departure.
Yet delay was dangerous in the extreme. The Spanish party had again taken heart, and were whispering caution in the Queen’s ear. Even Burghley grew nervous that she would repent; but at last he got sailing-orders sent off, and, with a sigh of relief, entered in his diary that Drake had gone. To his horror came back a letter from the admiral still dated from Plymouth, instead of from Finisterre, as he had hoped, and he sent down a warning to urge the immediate departure of the fleet. August wore away, and the equipment was still incomplete, when Drake, who was now in constant dread of a countermand, was alarmed by Sir Philip Sydney’s suddenly appearing at Plymouth and announcing his intention of accompanying the expedition. Determined to have no more to do with courtiers and amateur soldiers, he secretly sent off a courier to betray the truant’s escapade to the Court. He must even be suspected, in his desperation, of having set men in wait to intercept and destroy any orders that were not to his liking. The precaution was unnecessary. Sydney was peremptorily stopped, and ere any letter came to stay Drake, too, the wind had shifted northerly, and, all unready as he was, he cleared for Finisterre.
There he arrived on September 26th. He was clear away, but that was all. He was short both of water and victuals. There had not even been time to distribute the stores he had, or to issue his general orders to the fleet. He smelt foul weather, too; and, determined to complete somewhere what he had left undone at Plymouth, he boldly ran in under the lee of the Bayona Islands in Vigo Bay. The old Queen’s officers were aghast. Entirely dominated by the prestige of Spain, they believed that nothing could be done against her except by surprise, and they trembled to see their admiral thus recklessly fling his cards upon the table. But he knew what he was doing. As with sagacious bravado he had sprung ashore at Santa Marta, and had mocked the Spanish fleet in Cartagena harbor, so now before he struck he exulted that his unfleshed host should hear him shout “En garde!” to the King of Spain; that they should listen while he cried that England cared not for spying traitors, for she had nothing to conceal; that her fleets meant to sail when and where they would, and Philip might do his worst. It was a stroke of that divine instinct which marks out a hero from among able captains — the magic touch of a great leader of men, under which the dead fabric of an army springs into life and feels every fibre tingling with the strong purpose of its heart.
Two leagues from the town of Bayona the fleet anchored; and resolved at once to display his whole strength, and exercise his men in their duties, Drake ordered out his pinnaces and boats for a reconnaissance in force. His boldness bore immediate fruit. The Governor sent off to treat, and by nightfall it was arranged that troops should land, and in the morning be allowed to water and collect what victuals they could. But at midnight the threatened storm rolled up. The troops were hurriedly reembarked; and, barely in time to escape disaster, the flotilla regained the ships. For three days the gale continued, threatening the whole fleet with destruction till it was got safely up above Vigo. There the whole of the boats in which the panic-stricken inhabitants had embarked their property were captured, and, though by this time the Governor of Bayona had arrived with a considerable force, he was compelled to permit Drake to carry out his purpose in peace.
By October 8th he was out in the Bayona road again, waiting for a wind to waft him on his way, and it was reported at the Spanish court that he had gone toward the Indies. The consternation was universal. The Marquis of Santa Cruz, high admiral of Spain and the most renowned naval officer in Europe, declared that not only the African islands, but the whole Pacific coast, the Spanish Main, and the West Indies were at the corsair’s mercy, and told his master that a fleet of forty sail must be instantly equipped for the pursuit. But though for another fortnight Drake rode defiantly at the Bayona anchorage, not a limb of Philip’s inert machinery could be moved against him; and, while the chivalry of Spain chafed under their sovereign’s deliberation, the second blow was struck.
Madeira was passed by and the Canaries spared; for Palma, which Drake intended should revictual him, showed so bold a front that he would not waste time in trying to reduce it. It was on another point that his implacable glance was fixed.
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