Sir Francis Drake: Sailor, Soldier, Strategist

The Golden Hinde from an old drawing. Nothing remains of the ship today except for one or two pieces of furniture.

The Golden Hinde from an old drawing. Nothing remains of the ship today except for one or two pieces of furniture.

A rather strange burial took place at sea over four hundred years ago. On January 29, 1596, A group of English sailors committed the body of Sir Francis Drake to the deep in a remote corner of the world. At his own request, he was buried in the armor he received when knighted by Queen Elizabeth. To this day, archeologists and divers have been unable to locate his remains and his sleep continues undisturbed somewhere off the coast of Portobello, Panama.

Drake is a fascinating figure who has captured the imagination of everyone from paupers to queens. For those who loved him, he possessed no flaws. For the Spanish of his time, he was known as El Dragon, a devil to be captured and beheaded.

Drake first sailed with the Hawkins family, relatives with whom he demonstrated an exceptional ability to fight, navigate, and lead. But one battle in the Caribbean changed John Hawkins’ opinion of his cousin. In the confusion of battle, they got separated, and Drake sailed away. Hawkins later claimed Drake abandoned him out of cowardice. Reports from eyewitnesses and Drake’s own reputation for bravery seem to discount this claim. Nevertheless, Hawkins cherished a particular animosity for Drake the rest of his life.

As a sailor, soldier, and strategist, Drake was unparalleled. Hired to bring back as much gold as possible from the Spanish Main, he adapted fighting and raiding techniques to the situation much like Special Forces teams today.  One of his targets were mule trains loaded with gold and silver headed to Nombre de Dios. The town was buried in a remote jungle far from his plundering ships, but his men adapted to the trek through snake and mosquito infested forests.

Though his initial efforts were unsuccessful, Drake would not be deterred. A chance meeting at sea with French pirate Guillaume le Testu was the stroke of luck he needed. Testu shared with Drake a hatred of Spain and a love for gold. With another raid by Drake farthest from their mind, the Spaniards were unprepared when privateer and pirate struck.

Drake carried off so much gold and silver, his men had to bury part of the booty. This no doubt help to popularize the belief that pirates buried their treasure. Unfortunately, le Testu was captured by the Spanish and beheaded, and the buried treasure reclaimed by the Spanish.   Continue reading →

The Heart of Captain Kidd

From fishing boats to schooners, mariners on the sea always have to face the possibility of pirate attacks.

From fishing boats to schooners, mariners have always had to face the possibility of pirate attacks.


…. Next to Blackbeard, Captain Kidd probably has one of the most notorious reputations as a pirate. He’s been perceived as vicious, bloodthirsty, conniving, dishonest, and treacherous. Hey, wait a minute! That could describe most of those folks posing as politicians in Washington, D.C. But I’ll save that for another time.

….The fact is, Captain William Kidd, when judged by the standards of the day, was hardly any of those things. When conjuring up visions of diabolical pirates, I’m afraid Kidd would likely come in at the bottom of the list.

…. Consider the following. How many pirates received a commission from the king himself to hunt pirates and attack ships from countries at war with England? Commissions like these were generally called letters of marque.

…. Before he set one foot on a ship, Kidd’s venture was more business than swashbuckling adventure. He had entered into a business pact with Lord Bellomont, Robert Livingston, and several other influential men of England who helped bankroll his efforts. The expectation, of course, was that Kidd would bring home lucrative treasure for their troubles.

…. The general rule of thumb for pirates and privateers can best be summed up in four words: “No prey, no pay.” Nobody was getting anything if ships weren’t  caught.

…. With these salient points in mind, grab your passport and your cutlass because we’re about to sail into history:

…. The year was 1697 and the men who crewed ships in those days were a hearty, anxious, hungry lot. Hungry for adventure, hungry for fairness, hungry for freedom, but mostly hungry for money.

…. A share of the spoils was a prime motivator to risk life and limb on the high seas where if a cannonball didn’t get you, a terrible storm likely would. And the crew well understood the difference between pirate ships, those with a letter of marquis, and enemy and neutral vessels. Practically no one gave a damn. Money was money.

…. But a captain like Kidd knew the fine line between attacking vessels of foreign flags on your legal list and those that were off limits. Walking that fine line with your crew was more hazardous than walking the proverbial gangplank.

…. When Kidd’s first months at sea produced no pirates and no ill-gotten goods, his crew grew restless, then angry, then downright hostile. Any ship began to look good.  Still, Kidd went out of his way to stay within the bounds of the law much to the ire of his men. Eventually, neutral ships and those belonging to allies of the king induced cannon fever in the crew. One night his gunner, William Moore, got into it with Kidd because he refused to attack a Dutch ship. Moore goaded him so badly before his men that Kidd flew into a rage and, picking up a lead bucket, slammed it over his head, an action he no doubt immediately regretted. The gunner died the next day.

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