Sir Francis Drake: Naval Hero or Warmonger?

Sir Francis Drake, c. 1591.
Sir Francis Drake, c. 1591.

Was Sir Francis Drake a pirate or a privateer? Firstly, despite having actually delved into piracy early in his career, Drake has often been referred to as a privateer rather than as a pirate directly. Of course, the terms “privateer” and “pirate” are relatively interchangeable as both employ the same techniques in order to accomplish basically the same goal. In other words, both cases would use seafaring expertise to raid unsuspecting vessels whilst out in the ocean far from land or unwanted naval incursion. The only discernible contrast between both parties was the notion that privateers received private government funding to carry out their raids, especially during wartime.[1] Essentially, privateers are just pirates under the employment of a group that benefits in some way from their actions.

Early in his youth, Francis Drake was drawn to the seafaring life, offering his services as an apprentice to a maritime merchant to gain experience traveling between his home in England and the various ports along the northern coast of France.[2] By age 23, Drake had become a master sailor and set out on a voyage to the Americas with his cousin, John Hawkins. Unfortunately, when the fleet of five merchant vessels arrived at the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulúa, it came under fire from Spanish warships.[3] Drake and his cousin had actually been illegally smuggling slaves from the Mexican ports back to Europe for lucrative profit. This led to the attack on Drake’s fleet as the Spanish sought to regulate trade between Europe and the Spanish ports in Mexico and were only doing their part to enforce maritime law.[4] Suffering heavy losses from the encounter, Drake was forced to swim to safety aboard the only two surviving ships out of his former fleet. From that point forward, Drake held a personal vendetta against the Spanish Empire and swore vengeance upon King Philip II of Spain.[5]

Tensions had been steadily increasing between England and Spain over the course of the sixteenth century.[6] The reformation and severance of religious ties between England and the Papacy had caused a jarring disconnect between the monarchies of Protestant England and staunchly Catholic Spain. Furthermore, Henry VIII’s determined efforts to produce a male heir had delayed the succession of the Catholic-born Mary I of England (the daughter of Catherine of Aragon). The Spanish viewed Mary I as the rightful heir to the English throne and were pleased when she eventually did inherit the crown. The marriage of Queen Mary I of England to King Philip II of Spain sought to rectify the division in diplomatic relations, thus leading to the reinstatement of Catholicism as the dominant religion in England. However, after the sudden death of Mary I and subsequent succession of the Protestant-born Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne, England returned to Protestantism and a rift between the two countries developed once again. Though this split could’ve also stemmed from (at least in part) from Queen Elizabeth’s support of the pirate raids of Spanish merchant vessels overseas and the various Protestant rebellions occurring in other Spanish territories. Francis Drake, whose tenacity and tactical intelligence greatly impressed Queen Elizabeth I, spearheaded a series of such attacks.[7]

In 1572, with the aid of no more than 73 men and two vessels, Drake embarked on a voyage to Nombre de Dios in Peru, where he planned to intercept shipments of gold and silver meant for Spain. After having captured the town and appropriated the loot, Drake and his small army decided to take refuge in the Nombre de Dios for an extended period, continuing to raid and attack the Spanish throughout the following year.[8] Satisfied with the results of this (overwhelmingly illegal) endeavor, he returned to his home in England to find support from Queen Elizabeth I and the offer of an expedition to circumnavigate the Earth. Unsurprisingly, Drake accepted Elizabeth’s offer and made history as the first Englishman to captain a ship entirely around the globe, being awarded a knighthood and receiving his arms upon his return. This expedition is what most people remember Sir Francis Drake for and is undoubtedly what drew the attention away from the copious war crimes and atrocities he committed against the Spanish people in the name of nothing more than a grudge.

It was at this point when Queen Elizabeth I decided to bestow an exceedingly high honor in the eyes of the English kingdom onto a man who was widely considered to be a criminal and warmonger by Spain. While she publicly denied any claims of involvement with Drake, Elizabeth was secretly utilizing Drake as her personal pirate (hence the title of privateer). Under the orders of Elizabeth, Drake was to conduct a series of planned naval attacks on Spanish ships known to be carrying valuable cargo in an attempt to impair King Philip financially.[9] These hostile acts eventually culminated in a raid led by Drake on the Spanish ports of Cadiz and Corunna; pre-emptive strikes on the Spanish Empire. This encounter caused the destruction of 37 naval and merchant ships dealing a massive blow to the Spanish Navy and undoubtedly cost the lives of many hard-working, innocent Spanish citizens who had the misfortune of becoming collateral damage in Drake’s strife. The English privateers then proceeded to patrol the Iberian Coast, intercepting and destroying any supply ships that had the misfortune of crossing his path to further cripple Spain economically.[10]

After a year’s delay due to the Cadiz Raid, Philip had finally amassed the resources to send the enormous Spanish Armada on a planned invasion of England. Philip utilized the Armada as a last resort in an attempt to forcefully end the hostility between England and Spain.[11] Of course, this decision to send the Armada on a mission to dethrone Elizabeth and claim the English nation ended in disaster for Philip. Such a profound success for the English forces would not have been possible without the intervention of Sir Francis Drake.[12] For instance, the cloak and dagger tactics that Drake employed were critical in scrambling the Spanish forces to allow for a direct assault by the English Navy. Attacking the fleet under to cover of darkness and from positions that prevented the English fleet from receiving any unwanted retaliation deal some blows to the Armada while the English Navy remained safe.[13] Interestingly, the most efficient method of defeating the Spanish didn’t come from any naval encounter, but simply from waiting. The Armada, in its state of disarray, experienced lethal storms off the coast Scotland in their attempts to flee and return to Spain. This lead to the destruction of far more warships than the English would’ve been able to do. In the end, England was left alone by the Spanish empire, thus solidifying Protestantism as the dominant religion in England for centuries to come.[14] The fall of the Spanish Armada was one of the most pivotal naval encounters in the early age of intercontinental sail, the outcome of which determined whether the mighty Spanish Empire would continue it’s domination over the seas or the smaller, upstart English Navy would usurp control. The majority of the Armada perished in the endeavor and led to further economic collapse for the Spanish Empire. Seemingly against all odds, the Spanish Armada suffered an absolute defeat at the hands of a small English fleet led in part by one of the world’s most notorious sea captain’s, Sir Francis Drake.

No matter how sympathetic one could be of Sir Francis Drake, nothing changes the fact that the Spanish viewed him as a criminal (privately funded by the queen, but still a criminal). Drake personally took it upon himself to utilize every resource at his disposal to engage in politically loaded and emotionally charged assaults upon the Spanish Empire under the guise that he was delivering unto them some skewed and morally ambiguous representation of justice. In fact, his crimes transcended the boundary of what could be considered mere piracy to the point where Drake was a terrorist in a way.[15] To this end, as a result of his endorsement and personal benefit from the English war with Spain, Drake could most properly be identified as a warmonger than a hero. Of course, the views and opinions that could be made about Drake are wholly dependent on the individualistic perspective of the viewer. People are prone to have a different interpretation of whom Drake was, no matter which background they come from. Yet despite this, even the most exalted manifestation of historical characters should be presented with the utmost sincerity in relation to the totality of their actions, morally wrong or otherwise.

-Jon Perroni


[1] John Hampden Francis Drake, Privateer: Contemporary Narratives and Documents (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1972) 40.

[2] John Campbell, Lives of the British Admirals and Naval History of Great Britain from the Time of Caesar to the Chinese War of 1841 Chiefly Abridged from the work of Dr. John Campbell. (Glasgow: Richard Griffin & Co, 1841), 104.

[3] Hampden, Francis Drake, 40.

[4] Timothy R. Walton, The Spanish Treasure Fleets (Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2002), 74.

[5] Hampen, Francis Drake, 40.

[6] D.M. Loades, The Making of the Elizabethan Navy, 1540-1590: From the Solent to the Armada (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2009), 1.

[7] “Sir Francis Drake Biography.” Accessed October 2, 2015.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Loades, The Making of the Elizabethan Navy, 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Sir Francis Drake Biography.” Accessed October 2, 2015.

[12] Loades, The Making of the Elizabethan Navy, 113.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Loades, The Making of the Elizabethan Navy, 121.

[15] Dan Jones, “Warmonger or Idealist: The Roots of Human Conflict” New Scientist 25 (2012): 40-43.

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