Spanish Main

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 →

Got Vacation?

SUMMER BREEZES

Someone asked me recently if pirates ever took vacations back when they sailed the Spanish Main. “It must have been nice; all that gold to spend in Port Royal on rum and wenches, and going out plundering when you felt like it.”

While it seems like an idyllic life, the harsh glare of truth tells a far different story. Many pirates had their favorite places to operate. Like the pirates of today, some chose the Indian Ocean. Others the Caribbean or the Mediterranean.  The fact is staying in port in a half dazed state for incredible lengths of time wasn’t really an option.

For one thing, the call of the sea was never far from their ears. Nor was the news of ships laden with treasure. Eventually, the long arm of the law grew closer and closer forcing them to look for new hideouts and strongholds. Add to that many pirates planned their year around the seasons.

Quite a few pirates followed the sun, so to speak, leaving the beautiful blue-green waters of the Caribbean for points north. They’re adventures might stretch all the way to New Foundland before returning south much like a cowboy following the rodeo circuit.

Perhaps you heard of this sailor quite at home in the Caribbean. His name was Blackbeard, and he held Charleston ransom for a treasure chest of medicine. Farther north, he had his cozy connections with the governor of North Carolina who gave him refuge in the bays of his coast after raiding ships off Virginia. He became such a pain in the neck to Alexander Spotswood, governor of Virginia, that it prompted him to send Lieutenant Maynard to resolve the situation once and for all. The end result was Blackbeard’s head jutting from the bowsprit when Maynard sailed into what is now known as Blackbeard‘s Point at Hampton, Virginia.

So if you’re a pirate still working on your Arrrrrrgh or someone with a pirate heart working a nine-to-five job, remember life wasn’t all rum and cokes for the Men of the Sea. This summer whether you’re sailing to the Caribbean or trekking to your backyard, tip one back for those daring and grimy pirates of the Caribbean. Just be careful not to spill your drink for, as Benjamin Franklin said: “A little thirst is a dangerous thing.”