Together the Elizabethan explorers, and authors like John Dee and Richard Hakluyt built excitement about the possibilities of global exploration. Francis Drake gave it expression.
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The Spanish Main and Caribbean
When I was a lad, three heroes stick in my mind. No, 4, given that no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. In no particular order – Richard the Lionheart; Horatio Nelson; Francis Drake; and maybe the most amazing of all of them, Ernest Shackleton. I am sorry for the lack of diversity or cleverness about this list, but I was 12, and as yet unreconstructed.
Of course, as you get older your attitudes change a bit, and of course to begin to realise that war, death and destruction is without doubt something the world could well do without. Despite that, the fascination still remains, though slightly guiltily, so I might mutter the universal get-out clause, about finding military history ‘problematic’. And of course for these heroes, the attitudes today are very different to they were when I were a lad. Now the most common comment about Richard was that he was only in England for 10 months and spoke English with a Brummie accent. Now sorry, French accent. Booo. Horatio Nelson’s personal relationships often play centre stage; and he’s been accused of supporting the slave trade, though those accusations have been thankfully kicked firmly into touch. But anyway. Booo. And then Francis Drake – well he doesn’t seem quite so omnipresent any more, and he’s now all mixed up with shame about Empire and colonialism, and in a race to the historical bottom, works have come out marking him down from a national hero with a passion for lawn based sports at inappropriate moments, to just plain inappropriate and nothing more than a vicious pirate. Boo. And then there’s Ernest and he’s fine I think, though regrettably Irish. So, frankly before I came to research this Elizabethan exploration stuff, I was looking not to either bore you or annoy you, and dispatch our Fran with a short description of the main points. And to be honest, in many of the general books, Martin Frobisher and Humphrey Gilbert get more attention than Drake. Many people seem a bit embarrassed. The jaw of the 12 year old me now rests gently on my toecaps in horror.
Too much blather. The point is that once you get into Francis Drake you quickly realise that this is a story that just must be told, and re told. It must be told because of the 12 year old me, sitting nerd like in the school library ignoring the delights of footie on ‘asphalt to read all the derring-do and audacity of Drakes’ raid with the Cimaroons and Huguenots on the Spanish in Panama, halfway across the world. It must be told because of the sheer drama and human achievement of a 36,000 mile journey around a world unknown to the travellers, it must be told because it showed how sheer chutzpah and the opportunities of the sea raised a farmer’s son to a knight of the realm, at a time when being a knight of the realm really meant something and farmers were meant to stay in the station in society if they wouldn’t mind. It must be told because Drake’s story reflects so much about the Elizabethan state, Navy, globalisation and Early modern Europe. And simply it must be told because Drake shook the world. In 1588, Spanish mariners complained ‘Sir Francis Drake … was a devil, and no man!’. When news of his death was received in Spain, Seville lit up with public celebration, as merchants gloried in the death of their scourge and of a heretic; Phillip II, ill old and dying smiled and declared he would now get better. And yet despite this, some of his opponents who knew him recognised his quality too
‘one of the most famous men of his profession that have existed in the world, very courteous and honourable with those who surrendered, of great humanity and gentleness, virtues which must be praised even in an enemy.’ 
Wrote Alonso de Sotomayor.
Ok, so the summary of all that rattling, sorry for that, is that I will be covering Drake and his explorations, and then his fellow explorers. I meant to try and knock it all on the head in a single episode, and it may surprise you to learn just how comprehensively I have failed in that – sadly there are three. I hope I do not bore you, but they will be broken up by two guests you will be relieved to hear, Ben Jacobs, and the return of Joel Kindrick.
Now obviously, this won’t just be about Francis, but also about the wider historiography. As far as Drake is concerned, the debate falls between two extremes – at one end, the Victorian vision of a patriotic, protestant hero who transformed the English navy; to the other end and view of one biographer Michael Kelsey as merely a pirate, incapable of acting from better motives, and therefore unworthy.
And while I am on the topic of historiography, you might ask what all the fuss is about with these Elizabethans? After all surely the main feature of the Elizabethan age is fruitless endeavour. Not once did the English capture the Spanish treasure fleet and let me tell you, they tried hard enough, hanging about the Caribbean and the Azores like 15 years olds around the bike sheds; there were no colonies founded at all, let alone to compete with the Spanish and Portuguese. The Naval superpower remained Spain, and the new naval kid on the block was the Netherlands as much as England. Many of the new routes established were effectively abandoned for 70 years, such as the growing African trade. Explorations seemed to have yielded nothing – so maybe Martin Frobisher’s expedition to discover Gold in Canada is a suitable analogy for the whole thing – full of courage, endeavour and danger, and yielding nothing but fool’s gold. That, ultimately, is the question we should try to answer, while enjoying all the excitement.
Contemporary Elizabethans most certainly enjoyed all the excitement – they absolutely lapped up all the exotic stories that flooded back as Elizabethan adventuring grew. We talked about some of them in the West Africa episode – weird and wonderful creatures with one foot, sea unicorns, mountains of ice, sirens, ghostly fires. Explorers suffered from new diseases, and suffered extremes of heat and cold, sailing into unknown waters. One of the odd things was, that the more was discovered, the more the stories grew, a bit like the ubiquitous fisherman but still the old ones stubbornly survived too. Stories circulated and were published both to promote the reckless bravery of the adventurers, and but also to promote new investments in their business ventures and new voyages.
Around all these ventures and stories, also developed a theory of what England’s role should be in the world. Let me introduce you then to John Dee. John Dee was already a well-known astrologer and mathematician by the time the 1670s rolled around, and had established a vast and eclectic library at Mortlake, near London. He was involved in a discussion about whether or not to establish the Gregorian calendar into England, a couple of hundred years before it actually was. At Mortlake, he developed a passion for the promotion of England’s role and mission in the process of exploration, and became a centre of knowledge for the arts of navigation; many explorers such as Humphrey Gilbert beat a path to Dee’s door to learn about navigation before casting off on the most daring voyages. For which you can’t help but think they really ought to have had a better and more, you know, anutically-based training, the ocean at Mortlake being pretty limited and all that. In 1577 he published the General and Rare Memorials portraying the Perfecte Art of Navigation, dedicated to Christopher Hatton, the Queen’s Vice Chamberlain. Dee argued that England needed to join the colonial endeavour in which Portugal and Spain were so far advanced, had a perfect right to do so, and needed to get on with it. He argued that piracy was all over the place around the British Isles, with dastardly French fishermen taking English fish, which damaged trade and the dignity of the crown. He had a plan for Elizabeth to establish a fleet of 80 small frigates designed for piracy killing duties so that trade could flourish, and for better training in the arts of navigation for mariners.
He was also though concerned with the ‘entitling of Queen Elizabeth to very large foreign dominions’ based on historical right in his view. So according to Dee, who mined the ancient works such as the Welsh Brut which spoke of Arthur, and of course the ubiquitous Geoffrey of Monmouth, north America had once belonged to the ancient British kings, and therefore Elizabeth should take it as her role not to establish a British Empire, but to re-establish the British Empire. And so here we are – the first use of the phrase British Empire for your delectation, invented by Master John Dee. His writings were carefully crafted propaganda, advancing the cause and rights of Elizabeth as an Imperial ruler, and at the same time, presenting images of the Goddesses of Opportunity – trade, profit, agriculture, mining.
Dee was not alone in this image of an imperial majesty creating a global empire; George Gower’s portrait of 1579 features a globe behind Elizabeth’s right shoulder; another version in 1583 has the globe painted in, with the British Isles glowing in the sun. Meanwhile Elizabeth’s privy Councillors were principal players, both in encouraging new expeditions, and providing an avenue to the Queen to persuade her to support new ventures. Christopher Carleill for example was a trader and step son of Walsingham, and involved in the Eastward trade towards Muscovy. There he found local politics, war between Denmark and Muscovy in this case, disrupting his trade; and argued therefore for greater westward expansion, to trade with the natives of North America.
There was another reason for Carleil’s advocacy of westward expansion – freedom of religion. He wrote that traders and their families would face no
Confessions of idolatrous religion enforced on them, but contrarily shall be at their free liberty of conscience
Thus from a very early date, North America was associated with freedom of religion. In time this was not just a protestant or puritan urge; Catholics also saw the opportunity to escape the increasingly repressive recusancy laws; two Catholic squires, George Peckham and Thomas Gerard set out to establish a colony in what would one day become Rhode Island. Some of this seems really silly to the modern eye; Dee proposed the area, advising it as most suitable for settlement – Dee knew pretty much nothing about the area, certainly never having been there. And then on the basis of Dee’s super spurious British Empire claims, Gerard was allocated the rights to 2 million acres, and he and Peckham planned the colony in fine detail defining what the settlers should be required to provide depending on the size of their land grant. Peckham then went on the advertise the venture, really bigging up the benefits of course; the new world was presented as a fertile paradise, huge stocks of fish with more enthusiasm than Peter Shilton for the Yantse, grapes as big as a man’s thumb, potato roots, maize, gold silver and precious stones easily bartered from the natives. And what of the natives? Well, they of course would benefit from the gospel, plus an education in all sorts of science and arts.
There are a couple of common themes here emerging. Firstly, there was a sense of panic that everyone else seemed to be charging ahead – England musn’t get left behind/ And, that the English claim to colonies was just:
Our foreign neighbours…are enriched by this abounding land, while pent at home like sluggards we remain…
Then England thrust among them for a share, since title just and right is surely thine
In the end Peckham’s venture crashed and burned; but more famous and influential than all of these was an Anglican clergyman called Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt had been an enthusiast for the world of exploration and cartography and the weird and wonderful reports of exotic life since he was a lad, as I guess you would be, and pursued his studies through school and university at Oxford. He travelled nowhere near the new world – but he did travel to France and work with scholars there and of course all over Europe. In England, he gained the patronage of influential men such as Francis Drake, Walter Ralegh, but most importantly of Francis Walsingham. In the late 1570s he was to be found at Walsingham’s house on Seething Lane in London, pouring over maps and texts to create a treatise called the Discourse of Western Planning. Hakluyt made a powerful argument that America was wonderfully fertile. He also argued that its inhabitants were naturally gentle, and the climate was so benevolent that two harvests could be gathered in a single year. There was a vast storehouse of goodies to be gained – oranges, almonds, cloves, peppers, silkworms, woods. Seriously, it is a good job there was nothing like the trade description act back in those days, Hakluyt would have hit the back of the prison cell before you could say ‘you’re nicked mate’.
Hakluyt stressed that such a western planting would not only supply materials and goods for a country where they were growing scare, but that the exploitation of the land was pleasing in God’s eyes. And another important theme emerged in this work, which would grow over the centuries, and about which the Spanish still complain to this day – the creation of the so called Black Legend. The work of Bartholomew de las Casas such as ‘A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies’ painted a painful picture of the suffering of the natives within the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires. Hakluyt’s account of the destruction caused overflowed with fury and horror – 15 million of souls destroyed he claimed. The Catholic powers had talked of converting the natives he wrote, but had brought only tyranny and death, and in this Hakluyt referenced and exploited the deeply embedded association in English Protestant minds between Catholicism and tyranny. This then was the Black legend; there was a book recently published by a Spanish historian in which he complains of this protestant calumny that has besmirched the Spanish reputation, He may have a point, though I suspect the argument has moved on from what was the best European Colonial Empire to rather more fundamental questions about the evils and damage wrought by all kinds of Imperialism, but whatever.
This is not the way the English settlements would be, declared Hakluyt, not at all; when brought face to face with the Queen, Hakluyt built a picture of a childlike, and gentle native people, eager to learn – and the English would teach them. He claimed that the people of America
Cry out unto us as their next neighbours to come and help them and bring unto them the glad tidings of the gospel
He also played the project fear card; look at Phillip II arming the Irish rebels against her realm; so why not arm the inhabitants of Florida against Spain? Soon after the meeting, Walsingham, Drake and Phillip Sydney met to confirm Walter Ralegh’s entitlements in the New World.
Hakluyt’s most popular work though, was his Principal Navigations of the English Nation, published in 1589 with a later, vastly increased edition in 1598. It was dedicated to Walsingham, with a ringing compliment of his
Special care of the honour of her majestie, the good reputation of our country, and the advancing of navigation, the very walls of this our island
Which as John Cooper notes in his biography of Walsingham, is a ringing phrase which maybe finds it’s way into the famous Sceptred Isle speech by you know who. Anyway, Principal Navigations was massively successful, as demonstrated in the number of copies that have survived. With detailed and extensive reports of the travels of English explorers, he lit the fire of enthusiasm amongst Elizabethans, and the fervour for God’s command as reflected in Psalm 107
They which go down to the sea in ships and occupy by the great waters, they see the works of the lord and his wonders in the deep
Hakluyt’s work was immensely influential in generating support and interest in the voyages and exercises which followed.
However, I can see your brows furrowing – don’t deny it I can see it. If Hakluyt was so influential, where are all these colonies then? Given the Elizabethans crash and burn in that neck of the woods, what did Hakluyt and all these writers really achieve? The square root of naff all?
To answer that question, let us turn to the Queen shall we? After all she was the decision maker here, all those influential councillors and courtiers simply presented ideas, she made the call. Elizabeth had to struggle with some big problems. One of those was the danger of war with the 16th century superpower, Spain; and it’s worth noting that in 1580 of course Phillip II had also inherited Portugal and the vast Portuguese empire to boot. Furthermore in 1584 Vera Cruz’s victories with a fleet of galleys over the last remaining Portuguese outpost, the Azores, demonstrated that Spain’s naval power was far from being limited to the Mediterranean – she was supreme throughout the western seas. How to avoid war was Elizabeth’s question, how to avoid being crushed.
As part of that, Elizabeth needed to be sure that English activity in the new world was defensible and legal. Hakluyt and Dee gave Elizabeth the justifications she needed. She followed Hakluyt in angrily rejecting the basis for Spanish claims to monopoly – which were of course based on a ruling by the Pope whose authority she didn’t recognise. She poured scorn on the claims of Spain to many parts of the new world, where they held no settlements or subjects
The Spaniards have no claim to property there except that they have established a few settlements and named rivers and capes. This imaginary right of property ought not to prevent other princes from carrying on commerce in those regions, or establishing colonies there in places not inhabited by Spaniards.
She defended the depredations of privateers like Drake by pointing out that
The Spaniards have brought these evils on themselves by their injustice towards the English whom, against the law of nations they have excluded from trade with the West Indies
In addition, the histories of John Dee seemed to provide the legal claim held by the English to North America. Obviously, we can see that all this talk of King Arthur and Gog and Magog is historically speaking tripe, but the Elizabethans did saw no reason to disbelieve it.
So I would like to turn now to one of the explorers that so delighted the English public, the afore mentioned Francis Drake. One of the great things about Drake’s story, is that of the ordinary man rising to greatness in the days of strict social hierarchy; Drake’s family came from Devon, and leased land near Tavistock – they were therefore part of that group we identify as yeomen, better off peasant farmers essentially. The people of Tavistock looked to the nearest town of Plymouth for trade and the higher value items they could not find locally.
Let us just for a moment reflect on the extraordinary contribution of this part of Devon to Elizabethan mariners. In 1539, Humphrey Gilbert was born in the valley of the River Dart, and would be an adventurer in Ireland as we have heard, and explorer to Newfoundland. His friend John Davis was born nearby around 1550, and would search for the sadly mythical North West Passage. Humphrey Gilbert’s mother remarried, and remarried one Walter Ralegh who lived near Exmouth, and gave birth to one Walter Raleigh in 1552 – making the ever famous Walter Raleigh Gilbert’s half brother. Meanwhile John Hawkins was born at Plymouth in 1532. The relationship with the Hawkins family would be very important to Drake; the Hawkins were a significant power in Plymouth, Francis was related to John Hawkins, his second cousin. Anyway this whole Devon thing is really quite remarkable.
However, much of Drake’s childhood would be spent not in Devon, but in Kent. It looks as though his dad Edmund fled with the family to Kent in about 1549; Francis would have been about 9 at the time, born around 1540. The myth has been that Edmund was the victim of religious persecution at the hands of the Catholics in the Prayer Book rebellion; but this is complicated by the revelation that Edmund was revealed to have stolen a horse. Maybe the two are linked, and the horse stealing was to help flight – who knows, but Edmund Drake took up residence as a Protestant Preacher in a hulk on the Kent coast. Religious ferment followed Francis around; Kent was of course home to Wyatt’s rebellion, a protestant uprising against Mary Tudor. Kent was also the home to numerous burnings of Protestant martyrs during the reign at Canterbury. Some biographers try to downplay Drake’s religious motivations, in the interests of emphasising the profit motive, but it seems very clear that religious fervour played a large part in Drake’s life. Foxes Book of Martyrs was his constant companion, as it was for many English families, and he wrote to John Foxe; for many years he spent hours of each day in private worship. He wrote to Walsingham in 1588 declaring his belief that Elizabeth and her subjects had a special relationship with God
our most gracious Sovereign, her poor subjects, and the church of God hath opened the heavens in divers places, and pierced the ears of our most merciful Father…
Drake would have agreed with the more extreme protestants of the day such as Francis Walsingham and the Earl of Leicester, that Catholicism was not just a corrupted church, as the early reformers had thought, but was the work of the anti christ seeking to corrupt the souls of the faithful. Drake was to identify powerfully against the manifestation of Catholicism made state, in the form of the Spanish Empire, for which his antagonism would be fed by experience as well as by religious conviction.
Around 1561, Edmund Drake landed himself a living, at Upchurch on the estuary of the River Medway in Kent. The phrase as poor as church mice springs to mind; Edmund would be OK for his life with a small Glebe as well as salary, that’s glebe not Grebe, by the way, although who knows, maybe he also had a small grebe as well, but the point is that this is not a grand, Barchester Chronicles type vicar with a grand house and a rich social life lording it over his parishioners and his curate; he would leave very little in his will, and only to his youngest, because he had managed to place all his other children in trades, in which they would have to make their own way in life.
Francis was placed in the apprenticeship of the owner of a bark on the Kent coast – a bark meaning nothing more specific than a small sea going vessel. There Drake started to learn his seafaring trade, plying a coastal trade; and he seems to have impressed and formed strong relationships, because when he died, the Master willed the bark on Drake. As Drake’s career is evidence, the sea was one of those walks of life where birth counted for less and where anyone could make a good living, with luck, with opportunities. However, that did not divorce anyone from the realities of 16th century life, where precedence relied on birth; Drake would frequently have problems on his voyages with members of the nobility expecting the same level of precedence at sea as they did on land; on occasion he would need to be brutal. For himself, one of Drake’s most attractive features was his ability to work as one with his fellow seamen.
Drake next returned to his homeland in Devon, selling the bark but taking some of his mariners with him. In 1566, his connection with John Hawkins landed him his first international campaign; not directly with John Hawkins, but under the command of one of Hawkins’ captains, John Lovell. This was Drake’s first experience of travel to the Caribbean, and it was an affair of straightforward piracy, with the wafer thin justification that Spain and Portugal were illegally keeping the English out of trade with the West Indies. The campaign therefore included attacks on Portuguese shipping seizing wax, ivory and enslaved Africans. The small flotilla of three ships then travelled on to the West Indies, tipping up at Rio de Hacha, a small pearl fishing port on the coast of what is today Venezuela. There Lovell tried to trade with the governor. The Spaniard had to balance his desire for trade, and the possible retribution from Spain if he did so. The result was, to cut a long story short, that Lovell was forced to leave the enslaved Africans on the beach for the Spaniards to seize, for minimal payment, and an unhappy return to England after an unprofitable journey. The experience would have taught Drake a lot; it also fed his suspicion of the Spanish who, it seemed to him, had diddled the English traders.
In 1567, Drake then joined Hawkins’ ill fated third voyage, dealing specifically in the enslaved – once more raiding Portuguese ships and trading centres on the West African coast to take the enslaved they had bought from African states, and taking them to the Caribbean to sell. We’ve covered this voyage in episode 300 – it’s the one where Hawkins arrived in San Juan de Ulea, just off the coast of modern Mexico, and was given safe conduct by its governor. Only to then be double crossed, and robbed of most of his admittedly largely ill gotten gains, and seeing many men killed, before limping home with just 2 ships, from the 6 with which he had set out.
Just to say though, that on this voyage, Drake had his first command – a small Bark of just 50 tons called the Judith. As Hawkins on the Minion laboured, over filled with men and understocked with food, he found that overnight the Judith went home. Hawkins was sure he’d been deserted by his cousin – and wrote
‘So, with the Minion only, and the Judith, a small bark of 50 tons, we escaped, which bark, the same night, forsook us in our great misery.’
We do not have any explanation from Drake. What had happened? Maybe desperately overburdened he felt there was nothing he could do for the Minion, and simply needed to get his men back to safety in England. His relationship with Hawkins would recover to a degree, but for the short term, he was without a patron. Secondly, Drake never forgot the duplicity of the Spaniards at both Ria de Hacha and San Juan de Ulua; in his view they had double crossed him without honour; the rest of his career would have within it, an element of a search for revenge for what he saw as the treachery of the Spanish.
These are the only 2 slaving expeditions in which Drake took part, and he never returned to it; and although attempts have been made in Plymouth to deplinth him, I hope they will not succeed. Drake appears to have held the trade in some distaste – certainly he never returned to it. We saw in episode 301 how there seems to be little evidence of the racism in England of later centuries towards black Africans. But there’s more positive evidence than that; Drake would work closely with the escaped slaves the Cimmaron in Panama; on several occasions he freed black slaves; on one famous occasion, the enslaved swam to freedom aboard Drake’s ship, and when the Spanish governor offered money if he would give them back Drake refused. Drake had a good reputation in treating with Native Americans along the coast of America, and had a long partnership with the Black African Diego. All in all, it might be a bit rich to go as far as claiming that Drake was a fighter for equality and liberty, but his desire for profit, which is undoubted, never again extended to the sale of human beings, and he appears to consistently treating both native Americans and black Africans as his equals. So we should keep his statues, and I hope the good people of Plymouth will agree.
In 1569 then, Drake got married to Mary Newman, and by 1570 was living in Plymouth, styling himself a merchant. We know little about Mary; probably she came from London; but she would not see much of Francis, who would spend just as high a percentage of his time away from home as Richard I did. They had no children.
Merchant might be the branding; but trading was not Drake’s intention. In 1570, he launched the first English raiding expedition to the West Indies – the French had already been raiding there before from 1528, and had been raiding in the West indies in 1568 and 9. Drake had not one shred of authority for this raid – he could not claim to be acting as a privateer. The only defence would have been his desire for revenge for his betrayal at San Juan.
We don’t know much about the 1570 raid, but the likelihood is that its main value for Drake was one of reconnaissance. So we might briefly review what he might have found out, from this and his previous voyages. The Spanish South American Empire was still in its infancy; and it’s worth noting that as yet the challenges it had faced militarily from other European nations were slight. Its towns therefore were relatively small – places in Argentina such as Valpariso were little more than clusters of houses. Towns were developing though throughout Peru, Mexico and the Spanish Main as it was known – basically the northern coast and hinterland of the South American continent. Here, and on the main islands such as Havana on Cuba, Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, San Juan on Puerto Rico, Panama and Nombre de Dios on the isthmus of Panama, and Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of South America. There is a map, incidentally on the website thehistoryofengland.co.uk. However, a bit like the Dodo, the towns faced very little opposition or threat and so not only were they small, they were also unwalled, and lacked serious defences. But then from 1545, the wealth of the Spanish Empire increased exponentially, with the discovery of the silver mines at Potosi, in what is now Bolivia, and by 1560 they were pumping out the silver, on the backs of the misery of the local population and increasingly, the enslaved. All this silver needed to be taken back to Seville, which held the Imperial monopoly; along with all the other fabulous products of central and Southern America.
And so emerged the Flota system. Two fleets a year were sent to the Caribbean, to take all the goodies back, and supply the colonies with things they wanted too. Together the Flota consisted of around 70 vessels, set off from Seville in early spring and split in the Caribbean into two fleets – one going north to Vera Cruz in Mexico, and other to Nombre de Dios on the eastern coast of Panama. Meanwhile through the year, silver was taken along the pacific coast from Potosi to Panama City on the west coast of Panama, and then it was transported by mule across the isthmus to Nombre de Dios. The southern fleet then unloaded all its goodies for the colonists – food, oil, wine, equipment and then went to Cartagena on the Spanish Main – north Venezuelan coast that is – and wintered there, picking up all the other goodies from central America as it did. Then the fleets rendez vous’d at Havana on Cuba the following spring and set off back home.
Now the wealth in those ships made men like Drake dribble, dribble which combined with French saliva, and would soon be joined by Dutch salivation to boot. In the 14 years between 1556 and 1570, something like 40 million ducats were shipped on the route and although I do not have a 16th century exchange rate for Ducats to Sterling, some sort of idea might be reached by noting that when Drake did capture a small proportion of the silver on its way to the flota it amounted to something like the annual income of the English crown. This was a lot of money, and gives an idea of the size and dominance of the Spanish imperial Empire – after all, there was an equivalent flota system in the Phillipines too. The French, English and Dutch obsessed about capturing the Spanish Treasure fleet; they never succeeded. Well once, the Dutch East India Company in 1628. Over about 100 years, the Spanish convoys lost 2.6% of their ships, 0.5% to enemy action. Not a bad record.
One of the problems was that finding the fleet was toweringly difficult – the flota only passed land where you might lie in wait around Florida – hence the French attempt to settle there – and the Azores. So the French and English looked to ways to capture the treasure as it made its way to the flota – a French pirate, Jacques de Sores, for example, raided Havana in 1550; Jacques was called the Exterminating Angel which is a neat nickname for the village pub team. ‘Oi, Exterminating Angel – fancy a pint?’. As a result of the raid, the Spanish attempted greater defence with a roving squadron of frigates, into which Drake would run. Just to confuse you, a frigate in the 16th century was not the same as the 18th century version; in the 16th century, it was a small oared galley.
I have once more rattled on…So before we end, let’s deal with Drake up to 1571. His expedition of 1570 about which we know so little, demonstrates the vision of the man; rather than accepting the easy course of a privateer’s mission to cruise the narrow seas on behalf of William of Orange or the French, it was he that realised how vulnerable were the Spanish in the Windies. In 1571 then, he set out again with one small ship, the Swan of 25 towns, all he could get together, and a small oared Pinnace to be built in situ. Drake’s plan was to take advantage of the unprotected mule train route from Panama to Nombre de Dios. However, when he arrived, he found that the French had queered the pitch; Nicholas des Isles had already been active in the area, and been driven off by Spanish frigates, so the area was alert and wary.
None the less, Drake and his small group terrorised the area along the rivers and coast of Panama from May 1571, capturing small barks carrying goods towards Nombre de Dios, and the tiny pinnace captured a Spanish Frigate; the Spanish crew were set on an island from where they were rescued. By the time Drake returned, he’d probably netted £66,000 worth of goods, and terrified the local population; Phillip II was told that Drake was
‘so fully in possession of the whole coast of Nombre de Dios, Cartagena, Tolu, Santa Marta and Cabo de la Vela, that traffic dares not sail from Santo Domingo thither, and trade and commerce are diminishing between the windward islands and this Main.’
Drake’s return caused something of a stir, and of course good ideas generate imitators. By late 1571 and into 1572, a number of English mariners had also launched expeditions to the Windies -William Wynter, John Garret and Lewis Larder of Plymouth, James Raunse of the Isle of Wight, and a Captain Trenel of Totnes.
Drake meanwhile had grander plans; and it could be that bridges were mended with the Hawkins family, and that they provided funding for the next expedition; whether or not they did, Drake had two ships when he left in May 1572 for the Caribbean, the Swan and Pascha, a total of 73 men, and culverins to boot. He’d spotted a place on the Panamanian coast he’d called port Pheasant it had so much wildlife; he planned to hole up there, and then rather than taking a bark here and a bark there, he would go for the big one – a direct attack on Nombre de Dios.
Right, that’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll take Drake’s story up to the early 1580s and his crowning glory, the circumnavigation of the globe.
Until then, gentle listeners, do check out the podcast Revolutions 1, and thank you for your feedback and comments. Do remember that if you want more, membership offers you a large back catalogue and 90 minutes of new podcast every month. To become a member go to the history of England.co.uk/become a member.
With that, good luck everyone, and have a great week.
 Sugden, John. Sir Francis Drake. Random House. Kindle Edition.