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The Voyage of the Golden Hind

All through the sixteenth century the South Seas were regarded as a mysterious wonder world, whence Spain drew unlimited wealth of gold and silver bullion, of pearls and precious stones. Spain had declared the Pacific 'a closed sea ' to the rest of the world. But in 1567 it happened that Sir John Hawkins, an English mariner, was cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, when a terrific squall, as he said, drove his ships landward to Vera Cruz, and he sent a messenger to the Spanish viceroy there asking permission to dock and repair his battered vessels. Now on one of the English ships was a young officer, not yet twenty-five years of age, named Francis Drake. Twelve Spanish merchantmen rigged as frigates lay in the harbor, and Drake observed that cargo of small bulk but ponderous weight, and evidently precious, was being stowed in their capacious holds. Was this the gold and silver bullion that was enriching Spain beyond men's dreams? Whence did it come? Could English privateers intercept it on the high seas?

Perhaps the English adventurers evinced too great interest in that precious cargo; Łor though the Spanish governor had granted them permission to repair their ships, the English had barely dismantled when Spanish fireships came drifting down on their moorings. A cannon shot knocked a mug of beer from Hawkins's hand, and head over heels he fell into the sea, while a thousand Spaniards began sabring the English crew ashore. Some friendly hand threw out a rope to Hawkins, who was clad in complete armor. In the dark, unseen by the enemy, he pulled himself up the side of a smaller ship, and, cutting hawsers, scudded for the open sea. There escaped, also, of Hawkins's fleet another small ship, which was commanded by Francis Drake; and after much suffering both vessels reached England.

One can imagine the effect on young Drake of the treacherous act and of the glimpse of that cargo of gold and silver treasure. The English captains had but asked a night's lodging from a power supposed to be friendly.
They had been met by a pirate raid. Good! Young Francis Drake eagerly took up Spain's challenge; he would meet the raid with counter raid. Three years later he was cruising the Spanish Main, capturing and plundering ships and forts and towns. In 1572 he led his men across the Isthmus of Panama, and intercepted and captured a Spanish convoy of treasure coming overland. Near the south side of the isthmus he climbed a tree and had his first glimpse of the Pacific. It set his blood on the leap. On bended knee he prayed aloud to the Almighty to be permitted to sail the first English ship on that 'faire sea.' And, having recrossed the isthmus and loaded his ships with plunder, he bore away for England and reached Plymouth in August 1573.

The raid on Panama had brought Drake enormous wealth. At his own cost he built three frigates and two sloops to explore the South Seas, his purpose being to enter the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan, which no Englishman had yet ventured to pass. These ships he equipped as if for royal tournament. Players of the violin and the harp discoursed music at each meal. Rarest wines filled the lockers. Drake, clad in rich velvet, dined on plates of pure gold served by ten young noblemen, who never sat or donned hat in his presence; and on his own ship, the Pelican, afterwards called the Golden Hind, he had a hundred picked marines, men eager for battle and skilful in wielding the cutlass. His men loved him as a dauntless leader; they feared him, too, with a fear that commanded obedience on the instant.

Queen Elizabeth was in a quandary how to treat her gallant buccaneer and rover of the high seas. England and Spain were at peace, and she could not give Drake an open royal commission to raid the commerce of a friendly power; but she did present him with a magnificent sword, to signify that she would have no objection if he should cut his way through the portals leading to the 'closed sea.' The fleet set sail in December 1577, and steered by the west coast of Morocco and the Cape Verde Islands. The coast of Brazil was reached in April. Two of the ships were abandoned near the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, after having been stripped of provisions. In August the remaining three ships entered the tempestuous seas around Cape Horn. Drake drove before the gales with sails closereefed and hatches battened, and came out with only one of his three ships left, the first English keel to cleave the waters of the Pacific. In honor of the feat Drake renamed his ship the Golden Hind. Perhaps there was jocose irony in the suggestion of gold and speed. Certain it is, the crew of the Golden Hind were well content with the possession of both gold and speed before advancing far up the west coast of South America.

Quite by chance, which seems always to favor the daring, somewhere off the coast of Chile Drake picked up an Indian fisherman. The natives of South America, for the best of reasons, hated their Spanish masters, who enslaved them, treated them brutally, and forced them to work in the pearl fisheries and the mines. Drake persuaded the Indian to pilot his ship into the harbor of Valparaiso. Never dreaming that any foreign vessel had entered the Pacific, Spanish treasure ships lay rocking to the tide in fancied security, and actually dipped colors to Drake. Drake laughed, waved his plumed hat back in salute, dealt out wine to give courage to 'his merrie boys,' and sailed straight amid the anchored treasure ships. Barely had the Golden Hind taken a position in the midst of the enemy's fleet, when, selecting one of the staunchest vessels of the enemy, Drake had grappling irons thrown out, clamping his ship to her victim. In a trice the English sailors were on the Spanish deck with swords out and the rallyingcry of 'God and St George! Down with Spanish dogs!' Dumbfounded and unarmed, down the hatches, over the bulwarks into the sea, reeled the surprised Spaniards. Drake clapped hatches down upon those trapped inside, and turned his cannon on the rest of the unguarded Spanish fleet. Literally, not a drop of blood was shed. The treasure ships were looted of their cargoes and sent drifting out to sea.

All the other harbors of the Pacific were raided and looted in similar summary fashion; and, somewhere seaward from Lima, Drake learned of a treasure ship bearing untold riches, the Glory of the South Seas, the huge caravel in which the Spaniards sent home to Spain the yearly tribute of bullion. The Golden Hind, with her sails spread to the wind, sought for the Glory like a harrier for its quarry. One crew of Spaniards on a small ship that was scuttled saved their throats by telling Drake that the great ship was only two days ahead, and loaded to the waterline with wealth untold. Drake crowded sail, had muskets and swords furbished and thirty cannon loaded, and called on his crew to quit themselves like men. And when the wind went down he ordered small boats out to tow the Golden Hind. For five days the hunt lasted, never slackening by day or by night; and when, at three in the afternoon of a day in March, Drake's brother shouted from the crosstrees, 'Sail ho!' every man aboard went mad with impatience to crowd on the last inch of canvas and overtake the rich prize. The Englishmen saw that the Spanish ship was so heavily laden that she was making but slow progress; and so unconscious was the Spanish captain of danger, that when he discerned a ship approaching he actually lowered canvas and awaited what he thought might be fresh orders from the viceroy. The Golden Hind sped on till she was almost alongside the Spaniard; then Drake let go full blast all thirty cannon, as fast as he could shift and veer for the cannoneers to take aim. Yards, sails, masts fell shattered and torn from the splendid Spanish ship. The English clapped their grappling hooks to her sides, and naked swords did the rest. To save their lives, the Spanish crew, after a feeble resistance, surrendered, and bullion to the value in modern money of almost a million dollars fell into the hands of the men of the Golden Hind.

Drake's vessel was now loaded deep with treasure, and preparations were made to sail homeward, but her commander realized that it would be dangerous to attempt to return to England by way of the Spanish Main with a ship so heavily laden that she must sail slowly. It was then that legends of a Northeast Passage came into his mind. He would sail northward in search of the strait that was supposed to lead through the continent to the Atlantic - the mythical strait of Anian. As the world knows, there was no such passage; but how far north did Drake sail seeking it? Some accounts say as far as Oregon; others, as far as the northern coast of California; but, at all events, as he advanced farther north he found that the coast sheered farther and farther west. So he gave over his attempt to find the strait of the legends, and turned back and anchored in 'a faire and good bay,' which is now known as Drake's Bay, a short distance north of San Francisco; and, naming the region New Albion, he claimed it for Queen Elizabeth. In July 1579 he weighed anchor and steered southwest.

He reached the Molucca Islands in November, and arrived at Java in March. In June he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and then beat his way up the Atlantic to England. In September 1580 the Golden Hind entered the harbor of Plymouth. How Drake became the lion of the hour when he reached England, after having circumnavigated the globe, need not be told. Ballads were recited in his honor. Queen Elizabeth dined in state on the Golden Hind, and, after the dinner, with the sword which she had given him when he set out, she conferred on Drake the honor of knighthood, as the seal of his country's acclaim.

Drake's conclusions regarding the supposed passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic were correct, though for two hundred years they were rejected by geographers. His words are worth setting down: ' The Asian and American continents, if they be not fully joined, yet seem they to come very near, from whose high and snow covered mountains, the north and northwest winds send abroad their frozen nimphes to the infecting of the whole air, hence comes it that in the middest of their summer, the snow hardly departeth from these hills at all; hence come those thicke mists and most stinking fogges, for these reasons we coniecture that either there is no passage at all through these Northerne coasts, which is most likely, or if there be, that it is unnavigable.'


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast, A Chronicle Of Sea Rovers And Fur Hunters, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto. Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915

 

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