English admiral, was born at Crowndale, near Tavistock, Devon, though the date of his birth is uncertain. Nor is anything known about his early years beyond the assumption that, after his father became a preacher at Chatham, he served his apprenticeship in the Thames coastal trade. Drake was a cousin of John Hawkins of Plymouth and after a voyage to the west coast of Africa with John Lovell in 1566 he had command of the 50-ton Judith on ' third slave-trading voyage in 1567. This voyage was not a financial success, only the ships commanded by Hawkins and Drake returning safely after the attack by the Spaniards at San Juan de Ulloa on the coast of Mexico. Having inherited strong Protestant convictions from his father, Drake thenceforward combined them with a passionate desire for revenge on the Spaniards for what he regarded as their treachery on this occasion.
The next few years were spent in privateering raids on the Spanish Main, of which many romantic stories are told, particularly about his attack on Nombre de Dios in 1572, his interception of the mule trains transporting silver across the Isthmus of , and his first sight of the Pacific, when he prayed that he might be the first 'to sail an English ship in those seas'.
His opportunity came in 1577 when he was engaged by a syndicate by Elizabeth to make the first circumnavigation of the world by an Englishman. Many details of his famous voyage are obscure because they were suppressed at the time for reasons of state, since much of the voyage was to be through seas claimed exclusively by Spain. We do not know if any official commission was ever issued, or if Drake himself kept a log. One declared object of the voyage was to discover the legendary continent of Terra Australis Incognita, another to return through the North-West Passage, but these were undoubtedly put out to disguise the real object, which was plunder. In the event it became an exceedingly successful privateering expedition. It not only paid 47 Pounds for every 1 Pound invested but also put England on the map as a rising sea power.
Drake sailed from Plymouth on 13 December 1577 in command of the 100-ton Pelican (renamed Golden Hinde in the Pacific), with four smaller ships and about 160 men. Since he lacked charts, a Portuguese pilot was kidnapped and later put on shore when they reached the Pacific. At Plymouth, in a mixed crew of experienced seamen and gentlemen of the court who had attached themselves to the expedition as representatives of the Royal syndicate, Drake had also signed on two of his closest friends, the brothers Thomas and John Doughty. The whole undertaking had been planned in great secrecy between Elizabeth and her syndicate and Drake to keep it unknown to Spain. Thomas Doughty, to whom Drake had explained the true nature of the voyage in confidence, revealed the secret to Lord Burleigh, the Lord Treasurer of England. Burleigh was aghast at the effect of such a voyage on English relations with Spain, already exacerbated by Drake's previous voyages. He did all in his power to prevent the expedition taking place, and apparently persuaded Doughty to disrupt it should it succeed in getting away.
Almost as soon as the ships had cleared the Channel, Doughty began making trouble and inciting the crew to mutiny. After a long and difficult passage, during which Drake accused Doughty of being a sorcerer and creating contrary winds and storms, the expedition reached Port St. Julian, close to the entrance of the Magellan Straits. It was at this spot that Ferdinand Magellan had quelled a mutiny in his circumnavigation. The remains of the gallows on which he had hanged his mutineers were found by Drake and his men. With the fate of the whole expedition hanging in the balance, Drake realized that it was time to strike at the discord that was bedevilling his ships. He had Thomas Doughty arrested, convened a "court of law" complete with a jury of twelve men, and charged Doughty with treason and mutiny. He was acquitted on the charge of treason but found guilty on that of mutiny, and on the following day beheaded.
The next four weeks were spent in Port St. Julian refitting the ships for the adventure into the Pacific, but the execution of Doughty had not succeeded in removing the discord between the professional crews and the gentlemen of the court. Drake was forced to act again if the expedition was to succeed. At the end of the month he mustered the entire expedition and made it the occasion of a remarkable speech to the men, one of the best known of any ever made at sea. After reminding the men of the desperate nature of their voyage into unknown waters and of the recent mutinous troubles, he continued: "For by the life of God, it doth even take my wits from me to think on it. Here is such controversy between the sailors and gentlemen, and such stomaching between the gentlemen and sailors, it doth make me mad to hear it. But, my masters, I must have it left. For I must have the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentleman. What! let us show ourselves to be of a company and let us not give occasion to the enemy to rejoice at our decay and overthrow. I would know him that would refuse to set his hand to a rope, but I know there is not any such here . . .".
Having sailed through the Straits of Magellan, he was driven south by a storm to about latitude 57 S. thus proving that Tierra del Fuego was an island and not part of the great southern continent or Terra Australis Incognita as it was becoming known. The smaller ships had already left him, and during the storm he was separated from his only remaining consort, the Elizabeth commanded by William Wynter, who decided to return home when he could find no trace of Drake and the Golden Hinde. The Golden Hinde thus entered the South Seas alone, but as the Spanish settlements were unguarded, Drake made several successful raids up the coast of South America. He sacked towns and plundered shipping, his richest prize being the treasure ship Cacafuego taken off Lima.
He continued north as far as latitude 48 N. where he turned south again to land a New Albion, near San Francisco. From there he sailed across the Pacific to the Moluccas, where he took six tons of cloves and, for disciplinary reasons, dismissed his preacher, Francis Fletcher, who wrote the best account of the voyage. He returned to Plymouth on 26 September 1580, anxiously inquiring if the queen were still alive to protect him against Spanish charges of piracy. His treasure, estimated at half a million pounds in Elizabethan currency, was taken by land to the Tower of London while he sailed the Golden Hinde round to Deptford. There the queen knighted him, though she handed the sword to a courtier for the actual accolade.
With his share of the plunder Drake purchased Buckland Abbey, near Plymouth, which is today the Drake family museum. His ship was laid up in dry-dock as a memorial, but the only surviving timbers are a chair in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and a table in the Middle Temple Hall,London.
In 1585 he was given the command of an amphibious expedition, which was the first act of open war with Spain. On this 'descent of the Indies' he proved himself a master of combined operations, sacking Santo Domingo, Cartagena, Saint Augustine in Florida, and then taking off the first Virginian colonist at Roanoke. He returned to England to hear news of the preparations for the Spanish Armada, some ships of which he proceeded to destroy at Cadiz in April 1587 in the operation known as 'the singeing of the King of Spain's beard'. Soon afterwards he captured his greatest prize, the Portuguese carrack San Felipe laden with goods from the East Indies valued at 114,000 pounds.
When the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588 Drake was appointed vice admiral of the English fleet at Plymouth under Lord Howard of Effingham. There, on Plymouth Hoe, the first news of the Armada's appearance off the Lizard was received on 19 July (29 July new style) when, it is said, a game of bowls was being played. Drake is reputed to have remarked, "There's time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too." Assuming the tides were wrong for leaving the harbor, this is exactly the type of statement he would have made. This statement, however, did not appear in a written history until 1736, so its authenticity is somewhat dubious.
His part in the campaign, in command of the Revenge, was that of leader of the fleet during the first night of the weeklong chase up the Channel, when he took the opportunity to capture the galleon Rosario, which he sent into Dartmouth. He may well have suggested the fireship attack at Calais, and he certainly took the leading part in the gun battle off Gravelines on 29 July. He continued the chase north until 2 August when he returned with the fleet to the Thames.
In 1589 it was decided to destroy the remnants of the Armada on the north coast of Spain. Drake was in command of the ships and Sir John Norreys in command of the troops, which landed at Corunna and Lisbon. They failed to achieve anything and disease soon decimated their numbers. Elizabeth was so displeased at this failure that Drake was not employed again for five years, during which time he became mayor of Plymouth and represented the city in Parliament.
In 1595 he and Hawkins were sent in command of another descent on the Indies>, but this time the Spanish settlements were so well fortified that nothing was achieved. An attempt on Puerto Rico failed, Hawkins dying of dysentery off the island before the attack. Nombre de Dios and other places on the mainland were sacked, but no treasure was found and Drake himself fell victim of yellow fever. On 28 January 1596 he died off Puerto Bello and was buried at sea.
Drake's fame became legendary in his day. Though he spent comparatively few years in the service of the state, he was founder of the British naval tradition because of the heroic quality of his exploits. He was the first captain to take his own ship round the world, and he was the greatest privateer of all time. In appearance he as short, stocky, and red-haired. Essentially a man of action, he was a brilliant tactician both at sea and on land, but was less successful as an administrator. He may have been ruthless, ambitious, and boastful, but he was generous, cheerful, and an ideal leader of men.