Chronicles of America 

Sir Francis Drake On the Spanish Main

It was 1572 when Drake, at the age of twenty-seven, sailed out of Plymouth on the Nombre de Dios expedition that brought him into fame. He led a Lilliputian fleet: the "Pascha" and the "Swan", a hundred tons between them, with seventy-three men, all ranks and ratings, aboard of them. But both vessels were 'richly furnished with victuals and apparels for a whole year, and no less heedfully provided with all manner of ammunition, artillery [which then meant every kind of firearm as well as cannon], artificers' stuff and tools; but especially three dainty pinnaces made in Plymouth, taken asunder all in pieces,' and stowed aboard to be set up as occasion served.


A pinnace is a light boat, propelled by sails or oars, formerly used as a "tender" for guiding merchant and war vessels. In modern parlance, pinnace has come to mean a boat associated with some kind of larger vessel, that doesn't fit under the launch or lifeboat definitions. In general, the pinnace had sails, and would be used to ferry messages between ships of the line, visit harbors ahead of the fleet with messages of state, pick up mail, etc.

Without once striking sail Drake made the channel between Dominica and Martinique in twenty-five days and arrived off a previously chosen secret harbor on the Spanish Main towards the end of July. To his intense surprise a column of smoke was rising from it, though there was no settlement within a hundred miles. On landing he found a leaden plate with this inscription: 'Captain Drake! If you fortune to come to this Port, make hast away! For the Spaniards which you had with you here, the last year, have betrayed the place and taken away all that you left here. I depart hence, this present 7th of July, 1572. Your very loving friend, John Garrett.' That was fourteen days before. Drake, however, was determined to carry out his plan. So he built a fort and set up his pinnaces. But others had now found the secret harbor; for in came three sail under Ranse, an Englishman, who asked that he be taken into partnership, which was done.

Then the combined forces, not much over a hundred strong, stole out and along the coast to the Isle of Pines, where again Drake found himself forestalled. From the negro crews of two Spanish vessels he discovered that, only six weeks earlier, the Maroons had annihilated a Spanish force on the Isthmus and nearly taken Nombre de Dios itself. These Maroons were the descendants of escaped negro slaves intermarried with the most warlike of the Indians. They were regular desperadoes, always, and naturally, at war with the Spaniards, who treated them as vermin to be killed at sight. Drake put the captured negroes ashore to join the Maroons, with whom he always made friends. Then with seventy-three picked men he made his dash for Nombre de Dios, leaving the rest under Ranse to guard the base.

Nombre de Dios was the Atlantic terminus, as Panama was the Pacific terminus, of the treasure trail across the Isthmus of Darien. The Spaniards, knowing nothing of Cape Horn, and unable to face the appalling dangers of Magellan's straits, used to bring the Peruvian treasure ships to Panama, whence the treasure was taken across the isthmus to Nombre de Dios by "recuas", that is, by mule trains under escort.

At evening Drake's vessel stood off the harbor of Nombre de Dios and stealthily approached unseen. It was planned to make the landing in the morning. A long and nerve-racking wait ensued. As the hours dragged on, Drake felt instinctively that his younger men were getting demoralized. They began to whisper about the size of the town--'as big as Plymouth'--with perhaps a whole battalion of the famous Spanish infantry, and so on. It wanted an hour of the first real streak of dawn. But just then the old moon sent a ray of light quivering in on the tide. Drake instantly announced the dawn, issued the orders: 'Shove off, out oars, give way!' Inside the bay a ship just arrived from sea was picking up her moorings. A boat left her side and pulled like mad for the wharf. But Drake's men raced the Spaniards, beat them, and made them sheer off to a landing some way beyond the town.

Springing eagerly ashore the Englishmen tumbled the Spanish guns off their platforms while the astonished sentry ran for dear life. In five minutes the church bells were pealing out their wild alarms, trumpet calls were sounding, drums were beating round the general parade, and the civilians of the place, expecting massacre at the hands of the Maroons, were rushing about in agonized confusion. Drake's men fell in--they were all well-drilled--and were quickly told off into three detachments. The largest under Drake, the next under Oxenham--the hero of Kingsley's "Westward Ho!"--and the third, of twelve men only, to guard the pinnaces. Having found that the new fort on the hill commanding the town was not yet occupied, Drake and Oxenham marched against the town at the head of their sixty men, Oxenham by a flank, Drake straight up the main street, each with a trumpet sounding, a drum rolling, fire-pikes blazing, swords flashing, and all ranks yelling like fiends. Drake was only of medium stature. But he had the strength of a giant, the pluck of a bulldog, the spring of a tiger, and the cut of a man that is born to command. Broad-browed, with steel-blue eyes and close-cropped auburn hair and beard, he was all kindliness of countenance to friends, but a very 'Dragon' to his Spanish foes.

As Drake's men reached the Plaza, his trumpeter blew one blast of defiance and then fell dead. Drake returned the Spanish volley and charged immediately, the drummer beating furiously, pikes levelled, and swords brandished. The Spaniards did not wait for him to close; for Oxenham's party, fire-pikes blazing, were taking them in flank. Out went the Spaniards through the Panama gate, with screaming townsfolk scurrying before them. Bang went the gate, now under English guard, as Drake made for the Governor's house. There lay a pile of silver bars such as his men had never dreamt of: in all, about four hundred tons of silver ready for the homeward fleet--enough not only to fill but sink the "Pascha", "Swan", and pinnaces. But silver was then no more to Drake than it was once to Solomon. What he wanted were the diamonds and pearls and gold, which were stored, he learned, in the King's Treasure House beside the bay.

A terrific storm now burst. The fire-pikes and arquebuses had to be taken under cover. The wall of the King's Treasure House defied all efforts to breach it. And the Spaniards who had been shut into the town, discovering how few the English were, reformed for attack. Some of Drake's men began to lose heart. But in a moment he stepped to the front and ordered Oxenham to go round and smash in the Treasure House gate while he held the Plaza himself. Just as the men stepped off, however, he reeled aside and fell. He had fainted from loss of blood caused by a wound he had managed to conceal. There was no holding the men now. They gave him a cordial, after which he bound up his leg, for he was a first-rate surgeon, and repeated his orders as before. But there were a good many wounded; and, with Drake no longer able to lead, the rest all begged to go back. So back to their boats they went, and over to the Bastimentos or Victualling Islands, which contained the gardens and poultry runs of the Nombre de Dios citizens.

Here they were visited, under a flag of truce, by the Spanish officer commanding the reinforcement just sent across from Panama. He was all politeness, airs, and graces, while trying to ferret out the secret of their real strength. Drake, however, was not to be outdone either in diplomacy or war; and a delightful little comedy of prying and veiling courtesies was played out, to the great amusement of the English sea-dogs. Finally, when the time agreed upon was up, the Spanish officer departed, pouring forth a stream of high-flown compliments, which Drake, who was a Spanish scholar, answered with the like. Waving each other a ceremonious adieu the two leaders were left no wiser than before.

Nombre de Dios, now strongly reinforced and on its guard, was not an easy nut to crack. But Panama? Panama meant a risky march inland and a still riskier return by the regular treasure trail. But with the help of the Maroons, who knew the furtive byways to a foot, the thing might yet be done. Ranse thought the game not worth the candle and retired from the partnership, much to Drake's delight.

A good preliminary stroke was made by raiding Cartagena. Here Drake found a frigate deserted by its crew, who had gone ashore to see fair play in a duel fought about a seaman's mistress. The old man left in charge confessed that a Seville ship was round the point. Drake cut her out at once, in spite of being fired at from the shore. Next, in came two more Spanish sail to warn Cartagena that 'Captain Drake has been at Nombre de Dios and taken it, and if a blest bullet hadn't hit him in the leg he would have sacked it too.'

Cartagena, however, was up in arms already; so Drake put all his prisoners ashore unhurt and retired to reconsider his position, leaving Diego, a negro fugitive from Nombre de Dios, to muster the Maroons for a raid overland to Panama. Then Drake, who sank the "Swan" and burnt his prizes because he had only men enough for the "Pascha" and the pinnaces, disappeared into a new secret harbor. But his troubles were only beginning; for word came that the Maroons said that nothing could be done inland till the rains were over, five months hence. This meant a long wait; however, what with making supply depots and picking up prizes here and there, the wet time might pass off well enough.

One day Oxenham's crew nearly mutinied over the shortness of provisions. 'Have ye not as much as I,' Drake called to them, 'and has God's Providence ever failed us yet?' Within an hour a Spanish vessel hove in sight, making such very heavy weather of it that boarding her was out of the question. But 'We spent not two hours in attendance till it pleased God to send us a reasonable calm, so that we might use our guns and approach her at pleasure. We found her laden with victuals, which we received as sent of God's great mercy.' Then 'Yellow Jack' broke out, and the men began to fall sick and die. The company consisted of seventy-three men; and twenty-eight of these perished of the fever, among them the surgeon himself and Drake's own brother.

But on the 3d of February, 1573, Drake was ready for the dash on Panama. Leaving behind about twenty-five men to guard the base, he began the overland march with a company of fifty, all told, of whom thirty-one were picked Maroons. The fourth day out Drake climbed a forest giant on the top of the Divide, saw the Atlantic behind him and the Pacific far in front, and vowed that if he lived he would sail an English ship over the great South Sea. Two days more and the party left the protecting forest for the rolling pampas where the risk of being seen increased at every step. Another day's march and Panama was sighted as they topped the crest of one of the bigger waves of ground. A clever Maroon went ahead to spy out the situation and returned to say that two "recuas" would leave at dusk, one coming from Venta Cruz, fifteen miles northwest of Panama, carrying silver and supplies, and the other from Panama, loaded with jewels and gold. Then a Spanish sentry was caught asleep by the advanced party of Maroons, who smelt him out by the match of his fire-lock. In his gratitude for being protected from the Maroons, this man confirmed the previous information.

The excitement now was most intense; for the crowning triumph of a two-years' great adventure was at last within striking distance of the English crew. Drake drew them up in proper order; and every man took off his shirt and put it on again outside his coat, so that each would recognize the others in the night attack. Then they lay listening for the mule-bells, till presently the warning tinkle let them know that "recuas" were approaching from both Venta Cruz and Panama. The first, or silver train from Venta Cruz, was to pass in silence; only the second, or gold train from Panama, was to be attacked. Unluckily one of the Englishmen had been secretly taking pulls at his flask and had just become pot-valiant when a stray Spanish gentleman came riding up from Venta Cruz. The Englishman sprang to his feet, swayed about, was tripped up by Maroons and promptly sat upon. But the Spaniard saw his shirt, reined up, whipped round, and galloped back to Panama. This took place so silently at the extreme flank in towards Panama that it was not observed by Drake or any other Englishman. Presently what appeared to be the gold train came within range. Drake blew his whistle; and all set on with glee, only to find that the Panama "recua" they were attacking was a decoy sent on to spring the trap and that the gold and jewels had been stopped.

The Spaniards were up in arms. But Drake slipped away through the engulfing forest and came out on the Atlantic side, where he found his rear-guard intact and eager for further exploits. He was met by Captain Tetu, a Huguenot just out from France, with seventy men. Tetu gave Drake news of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and this drew the French and English Protestants together. They agreed to engage in further raiding of Spaniards, share and share alike by nationalities, though Drake had now only thirty-one men against Tetu's seventy. Nombre de Dios, they decided, was not vulnerable, as all the available Spanish forces were concentrated there for its defence, and so they planned to seize a Spanish train of gold and jewels just far enough inland to give them time to get away with the plunder before the garrison could reach them. Somewhere on the coast they established a base of operations and then marched overland to the Panama trail and lay in wait.

This time the marauders were successful. When the Spanish train of gold and jewels came opposite the ambush, Drake's whistle blew. The leading mules were stopped. The rest lay down, as mule-trains will. The guard was overpowered after killing a Maroon and wounding Captain Tetu. And when the garrison of Nombre de Dios arrived a few hours later the gold and jewels had all gone.

For a day and a night and another day Drake and his men pushed on, loaded with plunder, back to their rendezvous along the coast, leaving Tetu and two of his devoted Frenchmen to be rescued later. When they arrived, worn out, at the rendezvous, not a man was in sight. Drake built a raft out of unhewn tree trunks and, setting up a biscuit bag as a sail, pushed out with two Frenchmen and one Englishman till he found his boats. The plunder was then divided up between the French and the English, while Oxenham headed a rescue party to bring Tetu to the coast. One Frenchman was found. But Tetu and the other had been caught by Spaniards.

The "Pascha" was given to the accumulated Spanish prisoners to sail away in. The pinnaces were kept till a suitable, smart-sailing Spanish craft was found, boarded, and captured to replace them; whereupon they were broken up and their metal given to the Maroons. Then, in two frigates, with ballast of silver and cargo of jewels and gold, the thirty survivors of the adventure set sail for home. 'Within 23 days we passed from the Cape of Florida to the Isles of Scilly, and so arrived at Plymouth on Sunday about sermon time, August 9, 1573, at what time the news of our Captain's return, brought unto his friends, did so speedily pass over all the church, and surpass their minds with desire to see him, that very few or none remained with the preacher, all hastening to see the evidence of God's love and blessing towards our Gracious Queen and country, by the fruit of our Captain's labour and success. "Soli Deo Gloria."'

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