Saturday, March 1, 2014

Elizabeth and Drake -- Piracy on the High Seas
 
Francis Drake returned to England September 26, 1580, dropping anchor at Southampton after nearly a three year absence circling the globe. Disembarking, he asked if Queen Elizabeth were still alive.  He needed her protection.  Informed that she was alive and well, he might then have recalled their meeting prior to his departure December 14, 1577.  She had said: “‘So it is that I would be revenged on the King of Spain for divers injuries that I have received.’  Drake answered that the most effective way to do this would be to prey on Philip’s ships and settlements in the Indies, with which Elizabeth wholeheartedly agreed” (Weir 309). 
 
Preying on Spanish shipping and settlements he had, seizing 800,000 pounds worth of treasure.  Spain demanded that the entirety of it be returned, along with Drake’s head.  Instead, Elizabeth honored him.  Relating his adventures, he entertained her for six hours.  He gave her a crown set with five huge emeralds, which she would wear on New Years Day 1581.  She took 160,000 pounds of his booty.  Moored on the Thames River, the Golden Hind was exhibited to the public as a memorial of his service.  She would knight him aboard his ship April 5, 1581.  In Madrid King Philip was planning his military and naval conquest of England. 
 
What had transpired on the high seas previous to Drake’s triumphant return that had incited England and Spain to expect war?  
 
We must begin with the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed by Spain and Portugal in 1494 and, thereafter, sanctioned by the Pope.  Its purpose was to settle disputes between the two countries as to which area in the recently discovered New World each was entitled to claim ownership.  A horizontal line was agreed upon that divided the globe in half.  Spain received ownership of most of North and South America.  Portugal received Africa and what today is Brazil.  France, England, the Netherlands and lesser nations were forbidden to establish settlements there or engage in commerce. 
 
Two decades later the Spanish Caribbean and Portuguese Brazil were in need of substantial numbers of slaves.  Cash crops -- sugar and tobacco -- which had become highly valued in Europe, had to be cultivated. Having access to West Africa, the Portuguese began supplying the necessary labor: seizing Africans, transporting them across the Atlantic, selling them in Spain’s West Indies.  Covetous of the profit that they might acquire, enterprising foreign merchants became illegal slave traders. Rather quickly, Spain and Portugal made their activities too risky to be gainful.  Meanwhile, Spain had been extracting immense mineral wealth from the lands it had taken from the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca people. Its galleons were transporting back to Spain colossal fortunes in gold and silver.  Accordingly, French, Dutch, and English sea adventurers engaged in piracy, selecting poorly protected treasure ships to seize and weakly defended Caribbean depot settlements to plunder. 
 
England’s conflict with Spain and Portugal was exacerbated by the exploits of John Hawkins, born into a seafaring family and related to other daring seafarers out of Devonshire.  In 1562 and again in 1564, he sailed to the Guinea coast, robbed Portuguese slavers of their chattel, and sold his stolen cargo to agents of plantation owners in the West Indies.  Not until September 1569 was Hawkins made to suffer. 
  
He had left Plymouth Harbor in 1568 with a squadron of five ships both to plunder and to trade.  Nearly a year later (September 15, 1569) he anchored his ships in the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulúa to make repairs and resupply before sailing home.  While his men were reprovisioning his ships – Hawkins had made a truce with the port’s commander -- a Spanish escort fleet commanded by Don Francisco Luján arrived in the port.  Luján launched a swift attack that caused Hawkins to lose 4 ships, 500 men, and nearly all of the year’s ill-begotten loot.  Only two small ships (a sixth ship, a Portuguese caravel had been seized near the coast of Ghana and put to use) -- the Judith, commanded by a young Francis Drake, and the Minion, carrying Hawkins -- escaped.  These ships were dangerously overcrowded and vastly short of food supplies.  Hawkins abandoned 110 crewmen on what is now the coastline of Texas.  Most of the abandoned surrendered to Spanish authorities, “were burned at the stake or made galley slaves for life” (Miller 145).   Drake reached Plymouth January 20, 1569.  Hawkins’s Minion limped into a Cornwall harbor days afterward. 
 
“Along the quay, onlookers gasp at the sight of the grisly crew.  Pale, skeletal faces, bony hands clawing at proffered food.  Here they are: fifteen men, all that remain of John Hawkins’s squadron” (Miller 145).  From this time forward, English soldiers and sea-farers craved war.  Queen Elizabeth did not.  Fearing that Spain might declare war and her country was too weak to defend itself, Elizabeth ceased giving even marginal consent to slave smuggling and acts of piracy. 
 
The Netherlands had exploded in rebellion in 1568.  Seven states had declared themselves free.  There were riots.  “In Antwerp, a mob descended upon the Cathedral of the Virgin and desecrated more than seventy alters: smashing the organ with axes, trampling holy waters underfoot, toppling a giant crucifix by pulling it down with ropes and chopping it into bits” (Miller 146).  King Philip sent his top military commander, the Duke of Alva, to restore order.  Martial law was declared in Brussels.  Businesses were shut down. “Ports and exits from the country are sealed and the Inquisition swings into action.  February 16, 1568.  The entire population of the Netherlands is condemned to death.    Incapable of carrying out the full sentence, Alva creates a Council for Disturbances to determine who shall die” (Miller 146-147). 
 
In December Philip borrowed huge sums of money – 400,000 pounds -- from Genoese bankers to finance his suppression of the Dutch rebellion.  Vessels carrying the money, entering the English Channel, chased by French Huguenots, were forced to seek refuge in English ports.  News of the decimation of Hawkins’s fleet and loss of crew members had filtered into London.  Elizabeth deposited the borrowed sums in the mint at the Tower of London.  Retaliating, Alva seized English goods and imprisoned Englishmen throughout the Netherlands.  Elizabeth, in turn, impounded Spanish ships.  Spain, thereupon, imposed an embargo, forbidding oil, alum, sugar, spices or such other commodities to enter her country.  English merchants were arrested and given to the Inquisition.  Hatred between England and Spain was never more intense.  Philip, however, decided not to declare war.  “His priority was to bring his Dutch subjects to heel before entering into any overt hostility with England” (Weir 202). 
 
Privately financed English expeditionary fleets preyed on Spanish possessions throughout the Caribbean and Atlantic well into the 1570s.  While the Queen was engaged at keeping Philip at bay by contemplating marriage with the Duke of Alencon (France’s King Charles IX’s younger brother), Francis Drake embarked on an ambitious raid upon Spain’s silver deposits at Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Darien, Panama, in 1572.  “With the assistance of a local people known as the Cimarrones, the ‘wild ones,’ mostly slaves escaped from Spanish mines, Drake attacks.  Victory is complete; the loot incredible.  The ships, groaning with treasure, can carry home only a small portion.  In desperation, the men discard the silver, cramming the vessels only with gold” (Miller 151).  Drake arrived in Plymouth Harbor August 9, 1573.  Great celebration ensued.  “But beyond Plymouth, Drake received no accolades, for England and Spain are on the verge of a détente” (Miller 151). 
 
On April 12, 1576, Humphrey Gilbert, who had made his name in Ireland imposing English rule, published “A Discourse of a Discovery for a New Passage to Cataia.”  His publication was supported by influential London intellectuals: Walter Raleigh (Humphrey’s half-brother), the Richard Hakluyts, the historian William Camden, and Dr. John Dee (Elizabeth’s astrologer and England’s most versatile scientist).  Members of the scientific circle in and about London declared in writing their support of Gilbert’s idea that encompassed both colonization and the discovery of a passageway to China north of Spain’s sphere of control.  Martin Frobisher’s three voyages to Baffin Island 1576, 1577, and 1578 (See blog entries June 1, July 1, and August 1, 2013) resulted.
 
Encouraged by Dr. Dee, on November 6, 1577, Gilbert submitted to Elizabeth his “A Discourse How Her Majesty May Meet with and Annoy the King of Spain.”  The idea was to strike directly at Spain’s sea forces by direct attack or by the pretense of letters patent to North American lands.  He proposed a Bermudan base from which English ships could attack Spanish sea routes.  Bermuda was deemed too visible.  A hidden base on the North American coast was considered more sensible. 
 
On December 13, 1577, with Elizabeth’s blessing, Francis Drake with five ships and 164 men left Plymouth Harbor for the coast of Africa, the first leg of what would be his circumnavigation of the world. 
 
In 1578 Gilbert received from Elizabeth a six-year letters patent to sail to the New World to establish a colony.  He was instructed not to attack Spanish forces or ships.  Due mostly to sickness, poor provisioning, disobedience of crews, and bad weather, most of his ships failed to leave England.  One ship, commanded by Walter Raleigh, did leave and spent six months sailing off the coast of Africa pirating. 
 
In February 1580 Spain invaded Portugal.  That nation’s King Henry had died.  Its people had selected Henry’s nephew Don Antonio to succeed him.  The Duke of Alva conquered all of Portugal in 70 days.  Don Antonio fled to England to solicit Elizabeth’s support.  Drake returned in triumph September 26.  On April 4, 1581, Elizabeth dined with him on board the Golden Hind.  Publicly defying the King of Spain, she knighted her favorite sea adventurer.   She had brought with her the French commissioners yet negotiating her marriage to the Duke of Anjou (formerly the Duke of Alencon).  “When Drake escorted her around the ship, telling him that King Philip had demanded he be put to death, she produced a sword, joking that she would use it ‘to strike off his head,’ whilst teasingly wielding it in the air.  Because Elizabeth wished to emphasize to King Philip her defensive alliance with France, she turned to one of Anjou’s envoys, … and, handing over the sword, asked him to perform the dubbing ceremony.  Thus it was that the short, stocky adventurer [Drake] found himself kneeling on the deck before a Frenchman, while the Queen looked on, beaming approval” (Weir 336-337). 
 
Sources Cited: 
 
Miller, Lee. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001.  Print. 
 
Weir, Alison.  Elizabeth the Queen.  London: Vintage Books, 1998.  Print.