For more than four centuries, Sir Francis Drake has been world-famous for his feats as a master mariner – the captain who “singed the King of Spain’s beard” with his daredevil attack on the fleet at Cadiz, and who led the British Navy to victory against the Spanish Armada in 1588.
But Drake’s exploits in his earlier years, though less well known, are even more remarkable. Born into a poor, obscure family, he worked his way rapidly up in the maritime world to his first captaincy. Before long, he was the most successful of all English pirates, admired by his countrymen, hated and feared by the Spanish.
Queen Elizabeth and her ministers saw the potential in this rough-mannered but enterprising young man, and gave him their blessing for the first British venture into the Pacific Ocean. This success of this voyage, which lasted for three years, exceeded their wildest hopes. Not only did Drake come home with a vast treasure of captured gold, silver and jewels; he became the first man ever to circumnavigate the globe in a single mission, and bring most of his crew home alive and well. Soon after his triumphant return, Elizabeth knighted this newly rich adventurer, and gave her blessing to his acts of pillage. It was a gesture that made war with Spain inevitable. And Drake’s part in the coming war changed the course of world history.