"For I must have the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner" - Francis Drake's Circumnavigation

13 December 1577, Francis Drake set forth from Plymouth for his journey of discovery and privateering into the Pacific Ocean, becoming the second circumnavigator and the first commander of such an expedition who made it back home alive.
“For by the life of God, it doth even take my wits from me to think on it. Here is such controversy between the sailors and gentlemen, and such stomaching between the gentlemen and sailors, it doth make me mad to hear it. But, my masters, I must have it left. For I must have the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentleman. What! let us show ourselves to be of a company and let us not give occasion to the enemy to rejoice at our decay and overthrow. I would know him that would refuse to set his hand to a rope, but I know there is not any such here“ (Drake’s speech to his crew off of Puerto San Julian, Argentina, prior to entering the Strait of Magellan)

Russian artist Simon Kozhin’s impression of the “Golden Hind” and the “Elizabeth” entering the Strait of Magellan in 1578 (2007)

The first circumnavigation of the world was famously completed by Magellan’s men in 1522, the explorer himself had died en route in the Philippines, and a few Spaniards of García Jofre de Loaísa’s ill fated expedition of 1525 actually made the second one. During the second half of the 16th century, the Pacific Ocean was an undisputed Spanish domain, though, and the ambitious seafaring Protestant nations treaded warily for not to provoke mighty King Philip by sailing there and resorted to singeing the monarch’s beard with privateering in better known waters. However, the plans for a foray into the Mar del Sur, considered by the Spanish a mare clausum, a closed ocean, were already in Walsingham’s drawer and by recommendation of Walter Devereux, the Fairy Queen’s spymaster met with the illustrious privateer Francis Drake, a private consortium, Dudley among them and Admiral Clinton, was formed to finance an expedition and after a few weather-related setbacks, a fleet of two galleons and three rather cockleshell-sized vessels left Plymouth for the Strait of Magellan to explore largely unchartered waters and wreak havoc in Philip’s colonial backyard.

Drake, originally enough shown wearing a Spanish morion, views the treasure taken from a Spanish ship (1923)

In August of the following year, after a short ceremony, Drake’s fleet entered the strait and sailed promptly into a storm that lasted for 50 days, sunk one of his remaining three ships, forced his second galleon, the “Elizabeth” back home to England, brought him maybe or maybe not to Cape Horn and the Drake Passage, but on November 25th, when Drake’s remaining galleon “Golden Hind” cast anchor off Mocha on the Chile coast, it became clear that Chile did not lay northwest but north of the Strait of Magellan, that the latter was not just a channel but open seas between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean and that there was no Terra Australis, no south land, in the neighbourhood. And then Drake and his men began their privateering mission along the undefended west coast of Spanish South America. Drake’s greatest coup was certainly the capture of the “Nuestra Señora de la Concepción”, an unarmed treasure galleon that was for inexplicable reasons nicknamed “Cacafuego”, fireshitter. Drake acquired 80 pounds of gold and 14 chests full of silver from Potosi, worth half of England’s yearly fiscal revenue, and a Spanish ship boy had the cheek to mention to Drake that they now had to rename their ship into “Cacaplata”, silvershitter. Drake’s crew dined on that bon mot for the rest of their lives.

A map from 1595 illustrating Drake's circumnavigation

Almost three years after their departure, in September 1580, the “Golden Hind” entered Plymouth Sound and the first thing Drake asked the local fishermen was: “Is the Queen still alive?” A sensible thing to do, since an assumption of power by the Catholic Mary Stuart would have very probably meant the rope for him and his crew. It was a knighthood instead, while the Fairy Queen played for time and delayed decisions over possible compensations for Spanish merchants until war broke out in 1585. Drake was celebrated as the second circumnavigator, became a Protestant hero and a paragon of exploration, whether he had really wintered in California and dubbed it “Nova Albion” and discovered British Columbia or not. The immediate political results of Drake’s circumnavigation were an instant armament of Spanish ships and settlements against the English heretical pirates, the next one being Thomas Cavendish in 1586 and finally, when the Treaty of London was signed in 1604 and the shipping lines of the Spanish treasure fleets were secure again, at least on the paper, English privateering had done irreparable damage to the Spanish merchant marine and the most Catholic treasury, a major setback in empire building. The “Golden Hind”, in the meanwhile, had become the world’s first museum ship and was on exhibition in Deptford for the next hundred years, until she had almost completely rotted away and compelled the secretary of the Venetian ambassador to mention that her remains would look like the ribs and the head of a dead horse already in 1629. The last remains of the “Golden Hind” were removed in 1662.

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