In Search of a Kingdom: Francis Drake, Elizabeth I, and the Perilous Birth of the British Empire
“Laurence Bergreen . . . has written a highly-detailed account of Francis Drake’s daring and eventful circumnavigation of the globe from 1577 to 1580—an achievement that brought badly needed treasure (that Drake pirated mostly from Spanish ships) to England and set her on a path to empire.”
Laurence Bergreen, the author of books on Magellan, Columbus, and Marco Polo, has written a highly detailed account of Francis Drake’s daring and eventful circumnavigation of the globe from 1577 to 1580—an achievement that brought badly needed treasure (that Drake pirated mostly from Spanish ships) to England and set her on a path to empire.
This was a perilous journey. Magellan lost his own life and most of his crew’s lives on the first circumnavigation of the globe. Ocean storms, dangerous passageways and channels, crude navigational aids, Spanish ships, diseases, and distrustful and violent indigenous peoples added to the peril. Bergreen writes about the miseries of life at sea, the potential for mutinies on such a long journey, the extreme cold near the southern tip of South America, and the sometime violent weather that plagued Drake’s voyage.
Drake’s journey had the blessing of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, but the queen kept that a secret so that Spain would not connect her to Drake’s piracy. But as Bergreen notes, Spain had spies within England who informed Spain’s King Phillip II that Drake’s piracy was England’s piracy.
Elizabeth I was challenging Spain’s dominion of the seas—she had a geopolitical as well as an economic motive. Drake’s motives were economic and personal—to steal Spanish treasures and enjoy the thrill of piracy at sea. As Bergreen notes, Drake was always more at home on a ship at sea than on land. He was the queen’s loyal subject but did not share in her quest for empire.
Bergreen describes in great detail the English ships that made the historic voyage. Drake’s ship—initially named Pelican and later changed to Golden Hind, “was made of the best timber available . . . flexible elm and sturdy oak.” The ship was a little more than 100 feet long, had good masts and double sails, and carried 18 pieces of artillery. And, importantly, writes Bergreen, it was a fast ship that “could easily outrun the Spanish vessels hunting for her.”
Drake’s journey began at Plymouth on November 15, 1577. The fleet traveled along the northwestern coast of Africa, then across the Atlantic to the eastern shore of South America, stopping at several coastal locations and encountering native peoples. Drake’s ships passed through the Strait of Magellan in August 1578, then hugged the eastern coast of South America, Central America, and North America up to modern-day Canada.
From the west coast of North America, the fleet sailed across the Pacific Ocean, a lengthy sea journey that took them to the island of Palau. They skirted the Philippines and headed for the South Sea. They reached Java then headed for the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of southern Africa and arrived there in June 1580. Three months later, they arrived back in England.
Drake brought with him gold, silver, gems, and other valuables worth a million and a half pounds that he pirated from Spanish ships along the way. He lost only 37 men (Bergreen notes that Magellan had lost more than 200 men). Drake got to keep some of what he pirated and became wealthy. Bergreen believes that had it not been for Drake’s piracy, Elizabeth may have been forced to marry a Catholic French prince, which would have compromised the British throne and changed the course of world history.
Bergreen opines that Drake’s voyage “demonstrated that England could rule the waves.” “An empire was there for the taking,” the author explains, “and the Spanish were vulnerable.” That seems a bit premature. It is more accurate to say, as Bergreen also does, that Drake’s voyage was the “cradle” of the British Empire. Elizabeth knighted Drake aboard the Golden Hind on April 4, 1581.
England and Spain were now on a collision course that involved both geopolitics and religion. In 1587, Drake attacked the Spanish port of Cadiz, where he conducted what Bergreen calls “a two-week long rampage,” which included raiding more Spanish ships. Meanwhile, Phillip II, with the Pope’s blessing, set in motion plans to invade England by gathering a vast armada across the English Channel.
The Spanish Armada of 1588 consisted of 132 ships, 8,766 crewman, more than 20,000 soldiers, and more than 2,000 rowers (all convicts). The Armada “was among the largest fleets ever assembled.” Although England’s smaller and faster ships (including those captained by Drake) created havoc among Spain’s Armada, weather and disease took a greater toll. “Frigid temperatures and storms,” writes Bergreen, “claimed more lives than combat with England.” The invasion was a miserable and costly failure for Spain.
Elizabeth rejoiced. And in a dramatic moment, the queen came to Tillbury on horseback, dressed as a warrior. She told her soldiers that she had the “heart and stomach of a king” and that she would take up arms herself and be their general should Spain invade her realm. Elizabeth pledged to “live and die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour, and my blood, even in the dust.” This was Elizabeth at her very best.
Drake thereafter continued his piracy of Spanish ships. He died at Portobelo Harbor in Panama in 1596. Elizabeth died eight years later. Together, the queen and her knight set England on a course to be a world power—ultimately to gain an empire over which the sun never set.