10 Facts About Sir Francis Drake | History Hit

10 Facts About Sir Francis Drake

Peta Stamper

08 May 2023
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake with his hand on the globe.
Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain

Sir Francis Drake was Elizabethan England’s most notorious mariner. After leading two successful expeditions to the West Indies, Drake soon caught the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and swiftly rose to seafaring prominence when he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

As privateer to the Queen, Drake led England to new far-off shores all the while plundering, raiding and enslaving in his country’s name. Indeed, ‘privateer’ was often another way of saying ‘pirate’.

A man loathed by his enemies and loved by his queen, here are 10 facts about Sir Francis Drake.

Jamie L.H. Goodall joined Dan on the pod to discuss pirates of the Chesapeake Bay.
Listen Now

1. His exact birthday is unknown

Francis Drake was born sometime between 1540 and 1544 in Devonshire, England, although his date of birth was not recorded. Drake was the twelfth son of a tenant farmer, Edmund Drake, who worked on the estate of Lord Francis Russell, Earl of Bedford.

His father fled Devon after being charged for assault and robbery in 1548, so a young Francis was brought up by relatives in Plymouth who worked as merchants and privateers.

Drake went to sea for the first time around the age of 18 with the Hawkins family fleet and by the 1560s had command of his own ship.

2. Drake was one of England’s first transatlantic slave traders

During his early expeditions of the 1560s, Drake accompanied his cousin John Hawkins to West Africa where they captured and enslaved African men and women. The pair also attacked Portuguese slave ships, stealing the human ‘cargo’ onboard.

They sailed to New Spain hoping to sell their captives, which broke Spanish law, so they were attacked by the Spanish in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulua. Many of Drake’s shipmates were killed and he returned to England with a strong hatred for Spain and its king, Philip II.

3. Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe

An engraving of Drake’s West Indian Voyage 1585-86 by Giovanni Battista Boazio, 1589.

Image Credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain

He was also the second person ever to complete a circumnavigation of the globe, the first being Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. In 1577 Queen Elizabeth sent him on an exploratory voyage to South America.

Drake returned to England via the Pacific on his 100-ton flagship The Pelican (later The Golden Hind), becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. As a reward, the queen awarded him a knighthood making him Sir Francis Drake.

4. Drake served as a privateer for Queen Elizabeth I

Drake was commissioned by the crown as a ‘privateer’, meaning he had permission to raid enemy ships and the cargoes they carried. As tensions between England and Spain grew, the Queen commissioned Drake to lead an expedition against Spain’s American colonies along the Pacific coast.

In 1572, he captured the port of Nombre de Dios where the Spanish held silver and gold brought from Peru. Drake returned home with this huge amount of treasure, earning him a fearsome reputation as a leading privateer.

5. There were no records of the loot Drake collected during his travels

The main reason for this secrecy was to avoid taxes from the Spanish, who might also make a claim for it to be returned. Only Queen Elizabeth I and Drake knew exactly how much booty he had acquired along the way. In fact, Elizabeth had Drake and his crew sworn to secrecy on pain of death if they revealed the true nature of their voyage.

First episode of a double-bill about Queen Elizabeth's Pirates.
Listen Now

6. Drake was not the first person to bring the potato to England

Francis Drake is often given the credit for introducing the first potatoes to England. Instead, the first potatoes were most likely brought by the Spanish during the 1570s – a decade before Drake’s voyage. However, he did bring back tobacco and potatoes from his 1586 trip to America having failed to find the mysteriously missing Roanoke settlers.

7. He was nicknamed ‘El Draque’ (the Dragon) by the Spanish

Because of Drake’s royal pursuits against Spanish ships and settlements during his voyages, he was loathed by the Spanish. In fact, some Spanish sailors were so afraid of Drake they thought he used witchcraft to aid his successes. The story went that Drake was working with the devil who had given him a magical mirror showing him all the ships at sea.

8. Drake helped England defeat the ‘unbeatable’ Spanish Armada

He served as second-in-command to Admiral Charles Howard during the English victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Only several years before, Drake had also led a fleet of 30 ships into the port of Cádiz, destroying a large number of ships being readied for the Armada.

Philip James de Loutherbourg’s painting ‘Defeat of the Spanish Armada’.

Image Credit: National Maritime Museum / Public Domain

9. His final voyage was a dismal failure

In early 1596, Queen Elizabeth enlisted Drake for one more voyage against Spanish possessions in the West Indies. Unfortunately for Drake, Spain fended off the English attacks and Drake came down with a fever.

10. He died from dysentery on 28 January 1596

Drake was buried at sea off the coast of Portobelo, Panama, dressed in a full suit of armour and laid in a lead coffin. Multiple attempts have been made to find the coffin by historians and treasure hunters alike, but it has never been found and remains lost at sea.

Peta Stamper