For some reason, I started to think about my eighth grade history teacher the other day. I think the train of thought went something like hearing the host of one of my favorite bygone radio shows mention that when he was a kid, he wanted to be a pirate, among many other things, when he grew up. I can relate to that, I had a strong lust to take up piracy in my early 20s. From that, I started to think about the golden age of piracy and exploration and then lamented that the world has become so much smaller since the times of those intrepid men who discovered for Western civilization new places.
I started to think of Francis Drake, who was one of those men, which led me to thinking about the man who first introduced me to the story of Drake, Mr. Hughes, my eighth-grade history teacher. He was one of those teachers who I remember fondly; he made quite an impression on me, not just for how he taught but some of the wacky things he said during class. Mr. Hughes said some things that teachers would not only get fired for saying these days, but probably prosecuted and, maybe, excommunicated. He took strange pride in recounting how his dating life was going to his young wards. I think most of us zoned out during those moments, though I found it kind of amusing.
Mr. Hughes’ teaching style was memorable, as well, which I can clearly make the case for because almost 30 years later, I can still remember his lesson on Francis Drake and how riveted to the story I was that he told about a man who was one of the first to lead a successful voyage to the western coast of south and north America.
I figured Drake would make a compelling subject for this column, so I started looking into his story and realized that he is far more important to history than I had ever realized, and the tales of his brave engagements with the Spanish and exploration have had stark ramifications for settlement in the Americas. They are probably starker than even Mr. Hughes realized when he gave a bunch of 13-year-olds a nutshell version of Drake’s daring plunder South America.
Drake had an unlikely rise to glory. He was the son of a commoner but by luck he became a sort of adopted son of his relatives, the Hawkins, who happened to be maritime merchants and privateers. Drake began sailing with his cousin, John Hawkins, and became involved in plundering merchant vessels and engaging in illegal slave trading off the west coast of Spain and in the West Indies. At the time, England and Spain were not copacetic, and while they weren’t at war, they considered each other’s ships at sea fair game for seizing.
Already not feeling too nice toward the Spanish as an Englishman, Drake became a lifelong anti-Spaniard when after attempting to repair ships of the Hawkins fleet in a port off the coast of Mexico in 1567 Spanish warships arrived and put the smack down on him and his fellow sailors. The Spanish captured, tortured and/or killed many of the Hawkins men. Drake and Hawkins escaped back to England and Drake swore a lifetime of revenge on the Spanish for what he had suffered. He would famously carry out that threat, and who doesn’t love a good revenge story?
A few years later, Queen Elizabeth I gave Drake a commission to set sail and plunder Spanish ships and land. Drake accepted gleefully and saw his chance to stick it to King Philip II. In 1572, he set off for the Americas with a plan to capture the town of Nombre De Dios, on the Isthmus of Panama, a strategic town because of its proximity to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. No Englishman had ever sailed in the Pacific yet at that point and Drake became determined to do it. The attack on Nombre De Dios was a failure, except that Drake attacked a mule train carrying silver — a lot of silver. Wounded in the attack but now rich, Drake escaped back to England only to find that Elizabeth and Phillip had reached a truce for the time being, however uncomfortable for both parties. A bummer for sure, but Drake’s lust for revenge wouldn’t have to be quelled long.
In 1577, Elizabeth summoned Drake to personally meet with her — a big deal considering his commoner pedigree. She gave him another commission, which set him loose on the Spanish again, this time with no holds barred. She wanted revenge, too, for indignities she had suffered because of King Phillip. Officially, the queen told Drake that his mission was to discover a passage between the Atlantic Pacific oceans which would set England up as a world-class trading and military superpower. But this was to be kept in the utmost secrecy for fear of the Spanish getting word.
He left with five ships and after some rough sailing and a little mutiny, he ended up on the west coast of South America with one ship and half as many crew as he set out with. This is when Drake became the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan and reach the Pacific. On the west coast of South America, Drake set loose hell on every Spanish port he found. With the lone ship of his fleet, he made his way north, plundering everything he could. The Spanish were caught totally unawares because they had no warships in that part of the world. At that point, Spain was the only country whose sailors had successfully reached the west coast of South America and certainly didn’t expect an Englishman mad with vengeance to make his way there.
Now, at this point in his history, Drake becomes a bit controversial and mysterious. The official history is that after making his way up the west coast of North America, he got as far as the 48th parallel before the cold forced him to turn south and he wound up in a small bay near San Francisco before giving up on an eastward pathway back to England. He turned west, sailed through the south Pacific, around the horn of Africa, eventually back to England.
But there are some historians who believe he actually sailed farther north, maybe up to the 53rd parallel before the cold forced him back. If that were the case, then the bay he eventually landed back in would not be near San Francisco, but more likely somewhere off the coast of Oregon. To add to the mystery, after Drake went around the whole world and got back to England, the queen confiscated all the papers related to his journey and forbade Drake to speak publicly of his mission.
After his return, Drake was knighted by the queen and later commissioned as a naval officer when open war broke out between England and Spain. When the Spanish Armada set off to invade England, Drake was vice admiral of the English navy and played a vital role in the famous battle that defeated Spain’s powerful navy in 1588. After all this glory, Drake returned to his roots and set off on a trading mission to the West Indies with his old cousin, John Hawkins. But while out on that journey Drake’s charmed life exhausted its nine lives and he died aboard his own ship of dysentery in 1596 and was buried at sea.
I didn’t know most of this story before researching it for this column and it is riveting. The Age of Exploration is for me a captivating part of history, partly because I wish there were still frontiers of that scope to chase and legends yet to be made of men like Drake. And I wonder what happened to Mr. Hughes since eighth grade. I hope he’s retired and found one nice woman out of the many he dated to settle down with.
Rama Sobhani's column appears every other Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com.