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A Day in History, Wednesday 28th January 1596

Sir Francis Drake - aside from whether he is perceived as a hero or a villain in the grand narrative of history - was a vital figure in Elizabethan naval offense. His leadership, bravado and skill in his expeditions to Nombre de Dios (1572), Cadiz (1587), and with his circumnavigation of the globe (1577-80) have provided him with a legendary prominence both at the time and historically. Writing in Spain in 1595, William Holliday declared ‘His name is feared here [more] than ever Talbot’s was in France.’(1) On 28th January 1596, Drake met his demise.

Sir Francis Drake, 1540-96 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1591 Repro ID BHC2662 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Sir Francis Drake in 1591

In 1595, a more active and aggressive English naval policy was being determined as necessary against the Spanish Empire. As Sir Walter Raleigh had proclaimed ‘it is his [Philip II’s] Indian gold that endangereth and disturbeth all the nations of Europe’.(2) England could not defeat a power such as the Spanish Empire without first striking at its economic resources. Drake would undoubtedly have been a patron of such a policy considering that he had been contemplating an expedition to Panama in the years prior to his death. In Panama, he believed he could establish a blockade designed to severe Philip II’s ability to access his vast wealth in the Indies. Endeavouring economic warfare was more feasible than England attempting to face the global power head on. As shown by Drake’s celebrated expedition to Cadiz in 1587, the destruction of Spain’s military could swiftly be rebuilt and strengthened due to Phillip II’s vast wealth. Despite the destruction of almost 40 vessels in the expedition in 1587, Drake reported that:

there was never heard of so great a [preparation] as the King of Spain hath & daily do[es make] ready for England out of the Straits and [divers] other places from whence he hath aid of [sundry] great princes.(3)

Drake consequently devised a plan to halt Spanish resources from the Indies by sacking and holding the area of Panama, in doing so restricting the export of Spanish bullion from the Americas.(4) Accompanied by Sir John Hawkins, and Sir Thomas Baskerville (as commander of 2500 troops) a fleet of 27 sail departed from England on 28 August 1595, with Drake flying his flag in the 550 ton Defiance. Yet, Queen Elizabeth’s orders dictated that the fleet was to proceed first to the coast of Spain, to encounter the developing Spanish force that was preparing to invade England; only when hostilities were resolved around the Iberian shore was the fleet permitted to cross the Atlantic.(5) Nevertheless despite a brief attempt to land at Las Palmas in September, by the 29 October Drake and Hawkins’s fleet had positioned anchor at Guadaloupe.

Instantly, Drake’s determination not only as a patriot but also as a privateer seeped through, for when a Spanish treasure frigate was sighted on the horizon of where they were anchored an opportunity for a quick profit arose in Drake’s mind. Yet, ambition was not enough to grant the English fleet success. The Spanish flotila had reached Porto Rico which was well defended through both fortification and naval defence (four vessels had even been sunk in order to block off the entrance to the port). With success therefore appearing improbable, which was soon assisted by the death of Sir John Hawkins on the 12th November 1595 - the English fleet soon abandoned any opportunity in Porto Rico and set sail to a destination Drake knew well: Nombre de Dios, Panama.
Drake claimed the land for his own, and the English troops under Baskerville rapidly attempted to expand and encompass the whole of Panama into English authority. Yet, soon after this had commenced the English forces were unexpectedly forced to retreat after encountering an unprecedented quantity of Spanish forces near Nombre de Dios. Just as with Porto Rico, Panama was far more reinforced than Drake had previously anticipated. Despite his reputation as El Draque he accepted that he was ‘ignorant of the Indies...and that he never thought any place could be so changed’.(6) Over the years the English privateers meddling in the Indies had taught Spain of the requirement to advance defence.

Nombre de Dios in 1672

Nombre de Dios in 1672

The English fleet fled Nombre de Dios. With this failure any immediate hopes to enforce an embargo on Spain in the Indies would have subsided. Unfortunately, (and to the Spaniards advantage) Drake encountered severe winds that forced him to anchor at Escudo de Veragua, an isolated small island near Panama. It was here that on 28th January 1596, the famous privateer was to meet his demise. Ironically, Drake’s death was not one that was an act of heroism: he did not die by the sword, musket or cannon but alike the majority of naval fatalities Drake died of disease – dysentery - and was buried at sea. In his honour two vessels from his own fleet were sunk alongside all his last taken prizes, near to his final resting place.(7)

The loss of both Drake and Hawkins was too much for the campaign to endure. The navy now under the directorship of Baskerville slowly fled home whilst experiencing hostilities on its path.

Drake’s final campaign had been a total failure; the concept of a naval blockade centred on Panama did not take place. As a counter-factual conception, if Drake had lived past this illness the strategic objective of a naval blockade in the Indies may very well have taken larger precedence in future naval planning. Both Hawkins and Drake combined had redeveloped the English navy, both strengthening and refining it, and concurrently assisting in the establishment of an English maritime culture. Drake’s death in 1596 was a major blow to English nautical ability. With this said, according to Sir Julian Corbett, the Elizabeth navy remained very much modelled upon Drake’s notions of naval mastery. The ‘new era of active hostilities’ including the campaign to Cadiz in June-July 1596 ‘had to look for its leaders to new men – the shadows and successors of the old. Much they achieved and much they might have achieved was let slip; yet all that was done was in the track that Drake had marked out and the spirit of the force was his spirit.’(8) The loss of Drake did not terminate any connections that he possessed with the navy; it remained a product modelled on his vision.

With Drake’s death, perceptions for a naval blockade restricting the Spanish Empire did not cease. In around 1603, a document was presented to Sir Robert Cecil which proposed an alliance with the Netherlands which would enable the maritime resources required to form that could feasibly enforce an economic blockade on Spain. Squadrons were to be divided

one to lie off the Rock [Cape Roca] to intercept all traders of Lisbon; the second at the South Cape, to stop all intercourse to San Lucar and Cadiz, and to and from the Indies; the third to the Islands [presumably the Azores], lest they should there stop and put their goods ashore.(9)

Through enforcing such a system it was believed that the navy ‘shall not only debar the Spaniards and Portuguese their own trade but all nations to them.’(10) Yet, without Drake the English navy lacked the leadership, confidence and fearsome reputation that he maintained on the Spanish realm. Although the most feasible method in obtaining at least a partial victory against the might of the Spanish Empire, was through this system of ideas; without El Draque it is unsurprising that it never obtained success. The navy under the young and zealous Earl of Essex desired glory and seems to have thought little about the strategic implications of policy.

Sir Francis Drake was admired by his nation, and was feared by his enemies, his death would have been a huge relief for Spain. Yet he was clearly respected by both sides, Don Alonso de Sotomayor, Governor of Panama on hearing of Drake’s demise provided the epitaph:

one of the most famous men of his profession that have existed in the world, very courteous and honourable with those who have surrendered, of great humanity and gentleness, virtues which must be praised even in an enemy.(11)

By Benjamin Redding a MARSCH student who is currently researching the influence that Henrician naval policy had upon the Elizabethan model, with the intention to expand this in the future into contrasting the naval expansion policies of England and France circa. 1500-1650.


(1) BL, Cotton MSS, Titus B. VIII, folio. 176.

(2)‘To the Reader: The Discovery of Guiana’ in The Works of Sir Walter Ralegh (Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 1829), p. 388.

(3)BL, Cotton MSS Otho E IX, folio. 169.

(4)For more on the origins of this expedition and its objectives see: J. S. Dean, Tropics Bound: Elizabeth’s Seadogs on the Spanish Main (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010), p. 151-3.

(5)PRO, SP 12/ 251, folio. 70.

(6)W. D. Cooley (ed.), Sir Francis Drake His Voyage, 1595, by Thomas Maynarde (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1849), p. 19.

(7)J. S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy; With a History of the Rise of England as a Maritime Power, Volume II (London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1912), p. 430.

(8)ibid, p. 438.

(9)‘A project how to make War upon Spain, written in the Queen’s Time, and presented to Sir Robert Cecyll, by her Majesty’s Appointment’ in M. Oppenheim (ed.) The Naval Tracts of Sir William Monson, Volume V (The Navy Records Society, 1914), p. 53.

(10)Ibid, p. 53-4.

(11)A. K. Jameson, ‘Some New Spanish Documents dealing with Drake’, The English Historical Review, 49 (1934), p. 29.

Further Reading

J. S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy; With a History of the Rise of England as a Maritime Power, Volume II (London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1912), p. 139-159.

J. S. Dean, Tropics Bound: Elizabeth’s Seadogs on the Spanish Main (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010), p. 151-3.