Chronicles of America 

The Death of Sir Francis Drake

Drake in disfavor after 1589 seems a contradiction that nothing can explain. It can, however, be quite easily explained, though never explained away. He had simply failed to make the Lisbon Expedition pay--a heinous offence in days when the navy was as much a revenue department as the customs or excise. He had also failed to take Lisbon itself. The reasons why mattered nothing either to the disappointed government or to the general public.

But, six years later, in 1595, when Drake was fifty and Hawkins sixty-three, England called on them both to strike another blow at Spain. Elizabeth was helping Henry IV of France against the League of French and Spanish Catholics. Henry, astute as he was gallant, had found Paris 'worth a mass' and, to Elizabeth's dismay, had gone straight over to the Church of Rome with terms of toleration for the Huguenots. The war against the Holy League, however, had not yet ended. The effect of Henry's conversion was to make a more united France against the encroaching power of Spain. And every eye in England was soon turned on Drake and Hawkins for a stroke at Spanish power beyond the sea.

Drake and Hawkins formed a most unhappy combination, made worse by the fact that Hawkins, now old beyond his years, soured by misfortune, and staled for the sea by long spells of office work, was put in as a check on Drake, in whom Elizabeth had lost her former confidence. Sir Thomas Baskerville was to command the troops. Here, at least, no better choice could have possibly been made. Baskerville had fought with rare distinction in the Brest campaign and before that in the Netherlands.

There was the usual hesitation about letting the fleet go far from home. The 'purely defensive' school was still strong; Elizabeth in certain moods belonged to it; and an incident which took place about this time seemed to give weight to the arguments of the defensivists. A small Spanish force, obliged to find water and provisions in a hurry, put into Mousehole in Cornwall and, finding no opposition, burnt several villages down to the ground. The moment these Spaniards heard that Drake and Hawkins were at Plymouth they decamped. But this ridiculous raid threw the country into doubt or consternation. Elizabeth was as brave as a lion for herself. But she never grasped the meaning of naval strategy, and she was supersensitive to any strong general opinion, however false. Drake and Hawkins, with Baskerville's troops (all in transports) and many supply vessels for the West India voyage, were ordered to cruise about Ireland and Spain looking for enemies. The admirals at once pointed out that this was the work of the Channel Fleet, not that of a joint expedition bound for America. Then, just as the Queen was penning an angry reply, she received a letter from Drake, saying that the chief Spanish treasure ship from Mexico had been seen in Porto Rico little better than a wreck, and that there was time to take her if they could only sail at once. The expedition was on the usual joint-stock lines and Elizabeth was the principal shareholder. She swallowed the bait whole; and sent sailing orders down to Plymouth by return.

And so, on the 28th of August, 1595, twenty-five hundred men in twenty-seven vessels sailed out, bound for New Spain. Surprise was essential; for New Spain, taught by repeated experience, was well armed; and twenty-five hundred men were less formidable now than five hundred twenty years before. Arrived at the Canaries, Las Palmas was found too strong to carry by immediate assault; and Drake had no time to attack it in form. He was two months late already; so he determined to push on to the West Indies.

When Drake reached Porto Rico, he found the Spanish in a measure forewarned and forearmed. Though he astonished the garrison by standing boldly into the harbor and dropping anchor close to a masked battery, the real surprise was now against him. The Spanish gunners got the range to an inch, brought down the flagship's mizzen, knocked Drake's chair from under him, killed two senior officers beside him, and wounded many more. In the meantime Hawkins, worn out by his exertions, had died. This reception, added to the previous failures and the astonishing strength of Porto Rico, produced a most depressing effect. Drake weighed anchor and went out. He was soon back in a new place, cleverly shielded from the Spanish guns by a couple of islands. After some more manoeuvres he attacked the Spanish fleet with fire-balls and by boarding. When a burning frigate lit up the whole wild scene, the Spanish gunners and musketeers poured into the English ships such a concentrated fire that Drake was compelled to retreat. He next tried the daring plan of running straight into the harbor, where there might still be a chance. But the Spaniards sank four of their own valuable vessels in the harbor mouth--guns, stores, and all--just in the nick of time, and thus completely barred the way.

Foiled again, Drake dashed for the mainland, seized La Hacha, burnt it, ravaged the surrounding country, and got away with a successful haul of treasure; then he seized Santa Marta and Nombre de Dios, both of which were found nearly empty. The whole of New Spain was taking the alarm--"The Dragon's back again!" Meanwhile a fleet of more than twice Drake's strength was coming out from Spain to attack him in the rear. Nor was this all, for Baskerville and his soldiers, who had landed at Nombre de Dios and started overland, were in full retreat along the road from Panama, having found an impregnable Spanish position on the way. It was a sad beginning for 1596, the centennial year of England's first connection with America.

'Since our return from Panama he never carried mirth nor joy in his face,' wrote one of Baskerville's officers who was constantly near Drake. A council of war was called and Drake, making the best of it, asked which they would have, Truxillo, the port of Honduras, or the 'golden towns' round about Lake Nicaragua. 'Both,' answered Baskerville, 'one after the other.' So the course was laid for San Juan on the Nicaragua coast. A head wind forced Drake to anchor under the island of Veragua, a hundred and twenty-five miles west of Nombre de Dios Bay and right in the deadliest part of that fever-stricken coast. The men began to sicken and die off. Drake complained at table that the place had changed for the worse. His earlier memories of New Spain were of a land like a 'pleasant and delicious arbour' very different from the 'vast and desert wilderness' he felt all round him now. The wind held foul. More and more men lay dead or dying. At last Drake himself, the man of iron constitution and steel nerves, fell ill and had to keep his cabin. Then reports were handed in to say the stores were running low and that there would soon be too few hands to man the ships. On this he gave the order to weigh and 'take the wind as God had sent it.'

So they stood out from that pestilential Mosquito Gulf and came to anchor in the fine harbor of Puerto Bello, which the Spaniards had chosen to replace the one at Nombre de Dios, twenty miles east. Here, in the night of the 27th of January, Drake suddenly sprang out of his berth, dressed himself, and raved of battles, fleets, Armadas, Plymouth Hoe, and plots against his own command. The frenzy passed away. He fell exhausted, and was lifted back to bed again. Then 'like a Christian, he yielded up his spirit quietly.'

His funeral rites befitted his renown. The great new Spanish fort of Puerto Bello was given to the flames, as were nearly all the Spanish prizes, and even two of his own English ships; for there were now no sailors left to man them. Thus, amid the thunder of the guns whose voice he knew so well, and surrounded by consuming pyres afloat and on the shore, his body was committed to the deep, while muffled drums rolled out their last salute and trumpets wailed his requiem.

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