Author(s): Samuel Bawlf
With Sir Francis Drake in command, a fleet of five small ships left Plymouth in December 1577. By the time the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean only one remained, the Golden Hinde. The adventures of Drake as he devastated Spanish treasure ships, charted unknown lands and became the first captain safely to circumnavigate the globe make this one of most amazing of all human adventures. But beyond telling a great story for a new generation Bawlf suggests more - that Drake had secret orders which he fulfilled and which make him--200 years before Cook--one of the greatest explorers the world has ever known.
In the second week of August, 1568, a fleet of eight seaworn ships sailed through the Yucat?n Channel, bound for the Straits of Florida and thence home to England. Aboard his flagship, the Jesus of Lubeck, their captain-general, John Hawkins, was satisfied with the results of their voyage. As in his previous expeditions, he had had to contend with King Philip's injunction against his Spanish colonies trading with foreigners. However, Hawkins had assembled a sufficiently imposing force to overcome the reluctance of Philip's officials at several ports, and he had man-aged to sell most of his goods.The principal ships in Hawkins's fleet were the two old men-of-war that Queen Elizabeth had loaned to the venture in consideration for her share of the profits. At 700 tons?the vessel?s "burden," or carrying capacity?the Jesus was one of England's largest ships, but she was nearly thirty years old and had been condemned by the Queen?s navy as too costly to maintain; and the Minion, 350 tons, was in hardly better condition. Nevertheless, they provided the heavy armament that Hawkins needed to back up his demands. With four smaller ships as escorts, and a company of 408 men and boys, he had sailed from Plymouth in October 1567. On the coast of Africa he had added a French privateer and a captured Portuguese caravel to his fleet before setting sail across the Atlantic.After stopping at the islands of Dominica and Margarita, they had followed the coast of South America westward into the Caribbean. At most of their ports of call virtually the same scene had played out: Indeed it had become a practiced charade on both sides. Upon arriving, Hawkins requested permission to trade with the colonists, but the local Spanish governor replied that no one could do so without a license for the purpose, duly issued from Seville. Hawkins then landed a party of armed men and threatened the town, and after secret negotiations to fix his share of the proceeds, the governor capitulated and the trading began.The goods Hawkins sold included English cloth and manufactures, but principally were Negro slaves. The Spanish colonies were clamoring for slave labor, and Hawkins was determined to seize the opportunity for profit regardless of the commodity. On this voyage he had brought 450 men, women, and children from the coast of West Africa. Most had survived the eight-week crossing, and he had obtained good prices for them. With 29,743 gold pesos plus quantities of silver and pearls in hand, he was anxious to sail clear of the Caribbean before the season of great storms set in.Serving as a captain under Hawkins was Francis Drake. In his mid-twenties, Drake had already spent half his life in the seagoing profession. When he reached the age of twelve or thirteen his father had arranged for him to apprentice under the old captain of a small bark* plying the coastal trade between England, France, and the Low Countries, or Netherlands, and Drake had learned to read current, wind, and tide, and to handle a ship in all weather on those treacherous coasts. Then at age twenty he had gone into the service of his wealthy ship-owning kin, the Hawkins brothers of Plymouth, and this was his third voyage to the Caribbean in their employ. His skill in directing men, and the alacrity with which he performed his duties, had marked him for advancement, and on the present voyage John Hawkins had given him command of the fifty-ton bark Judith when they departed Africa.On August 12 Hawkins's fleet rounded the western cape of Cuba into the Strait of Florida. At eight o'clock in the morning, as they did every day, the crew of each ship assembled around their mainmast for the daily religious service. Removing their caps and kneeling on the deck, they recited the Psalms, the Lord's Prayer, and the new Creed in English, and then one of the ship's officers delivered the sermon. On the Judith it probably was Drake himself who did so, for like his father he had become a fervent preacher of the Protestant faith. After the service the men began to reduce sail, as the wind had stiffened noticeably. Normally, they would have gathered again for the evening service, but as the day wore on the velocity of the wind grew steadily, and by late afternoon they were engulfed in a violent storm.As the tempest grew in intensity, Hawkins signaled his ships to turn and run before the wind. Soon afterward the bark William and John disappeared from sight. Through the night and the next day Hawkins and his crew were driven northward until they found themselves off the west coast of Florida. In the pounding seas the Jesus's seams began to open up, so much so that when men were sent below to plug the leaks they found fish swimming in her ballast. Hawkins searched in vain for a sheltered anchorage. After four days the wind subsided, but the calm lasted for only a day: No sooner had Hawkins begun to assess the damage to his ships than another powerful storm struck, this time from the northeast. Over the next four days they were driven continually to the southwest, and when this storm finally abated they were far into the Gulf of Mexico, where no English ship had been before.Sighting the southern coast of the gulf, they followed it westward, but again there was no sheltered anchorage. Then they intercepted a Spanish vessel whose captain informed Hawkins that the only refuge on the entire coast was the harbor of San Juan de Ul?a. Located 15 miles from Vera Cruz and 200 miles from Mexico City, San Juan de Ul?a was no less than the principal port of Mexico.For a year prior to Hawkins?s departure from England, the Spanish ambassador had demanded assurances from Queen Elizabeth that Hawkins would not be permitted to return to the Caribbean. As if to enforce this, when Hawkins was fitting out the expedition at Plymouth, seven Spanish warships had sailed boldly into the harbor and had only turned away when he loosed his cannons on them. England and Spain were not at war, but there was considerable tension over Hawkins?s efforts to break King Philip's trade embargo, and he fully understood the danger of taking his battered ships into San Juan de Ul?a.However great the risk, Hawkins resolved that there was no alternative. His ships were in need of repair, the Jesus urgently so, and there was no possibility of his getting his company and profits home unless they replenished their water and provisions. On September 16, more than a month after their ordeal began, they entered the harbor of San Juan de Ul?a. As soon as they had anchored, Hawkins landed a party of men to commandeer the cannons guarding the entrance to the harbor. Then he dispatched a letter to the governor of Vera Cruz, assuring him that he had come in peace, would pay the current price for water, provisions, and the materials needed for repairs to his ships, and that as soon as these repairs were completed he would be gone.The next morning, however, thirteen Spanish ships appeared on the horizon. A merchant fleet from Seville escorted by two warships, it was carrying the newly appointed Viceroy of New Spain, Don Martin Enriquez. Hawkins was faced with a terrible dilemma. His cannons and those on the quay were sufficient to deny the Spaniards access to their own harbor, but doing so would surely have been an act of war. However, if he let them in and they then resorted to treachery, he risked his men being overwhelmed at close quarters.After three days of negotiations, Enriquez agreed to allow Hawkins to make his repairs and depart without harm, and Hawkins allowed the Spanish fleet into the already crowded harbor. The English ships were lined up side by side from one end of the quay and the Spaniards from the other, with little space remaining between the two fleets, and for the next three days they exchanged courtesies. However, Enriquez had secretly ordered soldiers brought down from Vera Cruz and preparations made for an assault on the English.On the morning of September 23, Hawkins saw that the Spaniards had placed a big merchantman in the gap between the fleets, adjacent to the Minion. They had cut new gunports in her side, and large numbers of men from the other Spanish ships were massing aboard her. Alarmed, Hawkins sent the master of the Jesus, Robert Barrett, to complain to Enriquez aboard the Spanish flagship. Barrett returned with the Viceroy?s assurances that he would protect the Englishmen; but the offending activities continued, so Hawkins sent him back to Enriquez with a stronger protest. Realizing that the element of surprise was rapidly disappearing, Enriquez had Barrett placed in irons and gave the order for the attack to begin.Suddenly, a trumpet sounded, and the Spaniards poured over the side of the merchantman onto the Minion. Hawkins's men rushed to repulse them, but simultaneously hundreds of Spanish soldiers streamed onto the quay, slaughtering the English sailors there and turning its guns on Hawkins's ships. Hauling furiously on their stern moorings, his men pulled their ships away from the quay, and a fearful cannonade commenced at point-blank range.The battle raged all afternoon. After six hours of fighting, the Spanish fleet lay heavily damaged, its two warships sunk. Hawkins's ships were in scarcely better condition: Four were hopelessly mangled, and the foremast of the Jesus had been carried away by chain shot while five shots had passed through her mainmast. Only the Minion and Francis Drake's Judith were sufficiently intact to be sailed. To have any hope of seeing England again, they had to escape before they suffered any more damage. With a Spanish fire ship drifting toward them, Hawkins and the crew of the Jesus hastily transferred to the Minion and then Drake led the way out of the harbor. Sometime in the night, however, the two ships became separated.The next morning Hawkins faced an appalling scene. Clinging to the Minion for survival with scarcely any provisions for the long trip home, were 200 exhausted and in many cases wounded men. For two weeks they followed the coast, foraging as they might. Then 100 men volunteered to be put ashore so that the others would have a chance of reaching England.Aiming to reach the French Huguenot colony in Florida, about thirty of those left behind banded together and set off on the 1,500-mile walk around the Gulf of Mexico. Five months later they reached Florida but were unable to find the French colonists because they had been massacred by the Spaniards three years earlier. The sailors turned north, following Indian trails from one tribal territory to another, invariably being greeted hospitably. As more of them elected to remain with their native hosts, the party steadily diminished. A year after the battle of San Juan de Ul?a, however, three of them, having trekked some 3,000 miles, were picked up by a French ship on the coast of present-day New Brunswick and eventually returned to England.However, most of the men who were left in Mexico were rounded up by the Spanish and suffered hideous cruelties at the hands of the Inquisition. Robert Barrett and three others were taken to Seville to be burned at the stake as heretics. Others were hanged or died of the tortures inflicted on them. Those who were not put to death either rotted in prison or were sentenced to spend the remainder of their lives working the oars of Spanish galleys. Only the boys were spared, being sent to monasteries.Including the crew of the William and John, which had continued her voyage homeward after the storm, fewer than 100 of the men who had embarked on the expedition ever saw England again. Hawkins finally reached England four months after the battle. The voyage home was a horrendous ordeal. Reduced to eating boiled cowhides and vermin, the men on the Minion weakened and died by the dozen. Only fifteen survived the voyage. Francis Drake and what remained of the crew of the Judith had arrived at Plymouth just five days before. After listening to Drake's report, Hawkins's brother William had written to Secretary of State William Cecil and the Privy Council, informing them of the disaster, and dispatched Drake to London with the letters so that the council could hear a firsthand account of the affair.*A bark was a three-masted vessel that was square-rigged on her fore and main masts and had a triangular, or lateen, sail rigged fore and aft from her mizzen mast.
Samuel Bawlf has spent much of his adult life fascinated by maps, by Drake and by the labyrinthine waterways of the Pacific Northwest which he has frequently sailed. He lives in British Columbia.