Monday, April 7, 2008

Sir Francis Drake Revived: the Third Voyage, the Voyage Round the World, Drake's Great Armada. By Philip Nichols, et al

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Catholic, imperial Spain was the superpower of the Western world in the 1570s and 1580s, and that was reason enough for Sir Francis Drake, doughty English Protestant, to sail around the world robbing Spanish ships and attacking far-flung colonial Spanish towns at will. Religious niceties aside, it would be a little as if, in the middle of the twentieth century, some famed American sea captain had sailed the oceans stopping and searching Soviet boats, or raiding Russian outposts, more or less with the permission of the United States government. The three short books collected here, in volume 33 of the Harvard Classics' "Five Foot Shelf" of great books, tell the stories of three of Drake's greatest adventures.

His exploits are the stuff of fable, or indeed, of Hollywood epic. Anyone who remembers the Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Sea Hawk will recognize, in Drake's Third Voyage, a familiar plot: an ambush of a Panamanian mule train full of gold from the slave-run mines is ruined by an over-eager common English soldier launching the attack too soon. In the Voyage Round the World we are with Drake as his five ships are reduced, by storm and battle, to one, the famed Golden Hind. This is the ship which, midway through the journey, happens to put in for a while at a "fair and goodly bay" at 38 degrees north latitude on the west coast of North America -- in other words, at the site of San Francisco. The Great Armada tells the story of the largest fleet ever to cross the Atlantic up till that time. Twenty-five ships and 2300 Englishmen spent ten months trawling the West Indies, once again trying to pounce on Spain's gold fleet (they failed) and hold the principal colonial towns to ransom (they succeeded). Almost one-third of the men died.

Drake's ambitions were two-fold. He wanted to "make" (profit from) his voyages, and he wanted to show that a free Englishman serving his Prince -- Queen Elizabeth I -- could, with God's help, humble the mighty King of Spain. By the time of the Great Armada, in 1585, humbling Spain was more a matter of national survival than pride. There was another woman, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, waiting to be proclaimed Queen of England as soon as her cousin the Protestant Elizabeth could be removed, and Mary was perfectly willing to march on London with a Spanish Catholic army at her back and a Spanish navy in the Channel. The English knew that invasion was imminent -- it came in 1588 -- and a good part of Drake's efforts went to capturing Spanish cannon held safe in the Caribbean.

Drake was, no doubt, a pirate. He stole on the high seas. But he also made common cause with a quasi-nation of escaped slaves in Panama, the Cimaroons, he prevented the offering of human sacrifice among the Indians of California, he divvied up his profits with the common sailors, and he helped keep England English, when a foreign nation had other plans. These chroniclers robustly "call upon this dull or effeminate age to follow his noble steps for gold and silver" -- and adventure and a share of glory, surely.

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