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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Some five years after striking out on his own as a privateer in the Caribbean Sea, Francis Drake received the commission which would make him famous: Queen Elizabeth I hired him to become the first Englishman to sail around the world. On December 13, 1577, he set sail from Plymouth with a five-ship flotilla on the dangerous path that killed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan 50 years earlier.
Drake began his life on the high seas in his early twenties, traveling as part of the crew for Sir John Hawkins. Helping his cousin take advantage of the African slave trade in the Caribbean, Drake gained an appreciation for the particulars of being a solid captain, negotiating heavy seas and maintaining morale. When the group was captured in the port of San Juan de Ulua (modern Veracruaz, Mexico), he made an enemy for life: the Spanish Navy.
Considered a pirate by his captors, Drake found a way to break free and managed to return to England with Hawkins. Determined to inflict punishment on the Spanish, he made a couple of trips back to the West Indies before planning an assault on the Isthmus of Panama for 1572. Arriving during the hot summer months, Drake hunted for Spanish cargo ships filled with gold and silver bound for Europe. Over the course of a year, he managed to capture just one large cache, a 20-ton shipment of precious metals so big Drake and his partner, Guillaume Le Testu, were forced to bury the treasure.
When he made it back to England in August 1573, stories of his courage in the face of Spanish opposition and ability to come home with vast stores of treasure made him seem almost larger than life. Before long, word reached him of a secret mission for the Queen in 1577. Having heard of Drake’s exploits, Elizabeth sought to employ the brave captain for raids on the Spanish colonies along the Pacific Coast of South America. Always eager to exact revenge on his nemesis, Drake gathered a crew and set sail on November 15th. The weather would not cooperate, forcing the crew to turn toward Falmouth before slipping back to the east for repairs in Plymouth just days after leaving.
With a month’s worth of work and better seas, Drake’s ship, Pelican, left Plymouth with four others trailing on December 13, 1577. The 164-man crew would sail toward Africa first, then cross the Atlantic bound for present-day Argentina. Along the way, dozens of men died, forcing Drake to periodically scuttle a boat due to a lack of able-bodied sailors to tend to it. When the expedition made it to the port of San Julian, only half of the ships remained.
As the ships headed west into the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first British voyage to do so, challenging seas sank one ship and forced another to limp back to England. Only the Pelican, renamed the Golden Hind, would continue up the coast of South America for more attacks and greater wealth. Sailing in search of a way to slip back into the Atlantic Ocean, Drake began chasing Spanish treasure boats across the Pacific in July 1579 -- a profitable enterprise.
Bouncing around the islands of the South Pacific and through the trade centers of Asia, India and Africa, Drake returned to Plymouth on September 26, 1580 with just 59 men under his command. Pleased with the return on her investment -- the royal share amounted to more than the Crown generated the rest of the year -- Elizabeth knighted Drake on April 4, 1581.
Also On This Day:
1466 - Renaissance sculptor Donatello dies in Florence, Italy
1642 - Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman reaches Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania)
1809 - Dr. Ephraim McDowell performs the first ovarian surgery, removing a 22-pound tumor from Jane Todd Crawford in Green County, Kentucky
1949 - The Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, votes to move the capital to Jerusalem
2003 - Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is captured near his hometown of Tikrit