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Collection Sir Francis Drake (Kraus Collection)

The Famous Voyage: The Circumnavigation of the World 1577-1580

Drake was noted in his life for one daring feat after another; his greatest was his circumnavigation of the earth, the first after Magellan's. He sailed from Plymouth on Dec. 13, 1577. The squadron consisted of five vessels, the two larger ships being the Pelican, Drake's own ship, renamed Golden Hind on the voyage, on August 20, 1578; and the Elizabeth, commanded by John Winter. Three smaller vessels were the Marigold, Swan, and Benedict. Only one ship, the Golden Hind, made the complete voyage, returning on Sept. 26, 1580, "very richly fraught with gold, silver, pearls and precious stones" (Stow, Annales , p. 807).

The expedition was financed as a joint venture, the investors being such high officials as Privy Councilors Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Sir Francis Walsingham; the Earl of Lincoln, Lord High Admiral of England; also, Sir Christopher Hatton; Sir William Winter, Surveyor and Master of Ordnance of the Navy; and John Hawkins, Drake's former commander. Queen Elizabeth herself may have been an investor, though this is not quite certain; what is certain is that she appropriated the lion's share of the proceeds of the voyage. Drake himself participated to the tune of £1000, a good sum for that time.

These joint venture companies, partnerships, or associations were a common method of organizing and financing commercial voyages, military expeditions, and colonizing activities, from the Middle Ages onwards. They are explained by J. H. Parry ( The Age of Reconnaissance , pp. 49-50) as "Partnerships for conducting commercial enterprises...usually not corporations but rather ad hoc devices for uniting a number of capitalists...or a number of partners...or active participants in an enterprise...All these types of associations under various names--commenda, societas, compagnia, and so forth--were employed in seaborne trade". Parry mentions also "associations of individuals formed to undertake particular enterprises--military expeditions for example--on behalf of the State". The examples cited by Parry are Italian, but he remarks that "the Dutch and English were to emerge as the Italians' aptest pupils in this respect". For another example of such a company or partnership, see the financial papers of the Drake-Norris expedition of 1589 (pp. 162-164).

The little fleet proceeded to the Cape Verde Islands, where, on January 30, 1578, the Portuguese pilot Nunho da Silva was captured (see his narrative, pp. 106-109). Thence they sailed across the Atlantic to the coasts of South America near the River Plate, and went southwards to Port St. Julian, where Magellan had anchored 58 years previously; they arrived there on June 18, 1578.

The Doughty affair was a crisis in Drake's life; on its outcome depended the success of the circumnavigation, and hence, probably, the defeat of the Invincible Armada. The tragedy was this: Thomas Doughty (d. 1578), a friend of Drake, and one well acquainted with many prominent Englishmen, was an officer on Drake's circumnavigation voyage. He was accused by Drake of treachery and incitement to mutiny. He was put on trial at Port St. Julian, where Magellan had suppressed a conspiracy of some of his high ranking officers, including Captain Juan de Cartagena, and hanged some of them. Doughty was found guilty and given the choice of being abandoned on that desolate coast; of being returned to England for retrial; or of execution on the spot. He chose death, which was by beheading in accordance with his gentlemanly status.

Before the execution he and Drake dined together as old friends, and both received communion from Chaplain Fletcher. After embracing Drake and praying for the Queen and the realm, Doughty quietly put his neck on the block and received the stroke of the sword.

The mystery lies in the question as to what Doughty's role really was. Who were his principals in England, if any? Was he a secret agent planted by Lord Burghley to prevent Drake from plundering Spanish ships and ports in America, so that war with Spain could be avoided? Were personal motives involved? It is known that Doughty had intrigued to cause ill-feeling between the Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favorite, and Walter Devereux, the first Earl of Essex.

The execution of Thomas Doughty from pp. 32-33 of The World Encompassed , 1628, never mentioning the name of the unhappy officer. [42]. [Page 32 | Page 33]

Drake's action was judged very differently by different contemporaries. The accounts in The World Encompassed , and by Hakluyt, defend Drake; but other authorities, like Camden, virtually accuse him of murdering Doughty, either from jealousy of his superior abilities, or at the behest of Leicester. As Drake's conduct was never officially questioned, it must be assumed that the justice and legality of Doughty's execution were admitted.

About a month after Doughty's execution another crisis arose; in its solution Drake showed himself at his best. The long wintering in Port St. Julian before attempting the passage of the Strait of Magellan had had a demoralizing effect. There was quarreling and hatred between the gentlemen and mariners, and the long cold winter nights had made the situation even worse. Drake had to act to prevent a mutiny. At a religious service Drake preached the sermon in place of Fletcher. In this famous discourse he laid down new rules of conduct: sailors and gentlemen, he declared, were to work together as equals, apart from those who were officers. From this time on, everyone was subject to Drake's sole command, and it can now be seen that the success of the voyage hinged on this. According to J. A. Williamson, the leading authority on Tudor naval history, "that day saw the beginning of a new tradition in English leadership" ( The Age of Drake , p. 181). Drake's speech was reported by a witness, John Cooke (Harl. ms. 540). See p. 72 for Hakluyt's report of the Port St. Julian episode.

On August 20, 1578, the ships began to traverse the Strait of Magellan, passing through in 16 days. Violent storms were encountered after they entered the Pacific; the last of the three small boats was lost and the Elizabeth , under the command of John Winter, became separated from Drake, repassed the Strait, and returned to England, arriving there on June 2, 1579. From that time on Drake was entirely alone, with no reserve vessel to fall back on. In the storms, Drake was driven to the south of Tierra del Fuego, and he came to the correct conclusion that the Terra Australis , a hypothetical southern continent, did not reach to that area, as had been supposed. A few contemporary maps were altered to remove the error, but most of them continued to show it until Cape Horn was rounded by Le Maire and Schouten a few years later.

In the Pacific, the Spaniards were physically and psychologically unprepared to resist attack; those shores had been exclusively in their hands for two generations, during which time they had spent little on defense. They were thrown into confusion and Drake seized immense treasure without much resistance.

Drake sailed slowly along the coast of Chile, raiding the harbor of Valparaiso and seizing stores and gold there. On February 15, 1579, he arrived at Callao, the harbor of Lima, the Peruvian capital. This portion of the Spanish Empire was almost defenseless and the arrival of Drake caused panic and consternation. Here he obtained news of a treasure ship which had sailed 12 days previously for Panama. Drake set out in hot pursuit and overtook the ship on March 1. It was the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción , variously nicknamed the Cacafuego or Cacaplata . Her captain did not expect an enemy in those waters and mistook the Golden Hind for a friendly Spanish vessel. To his great dismay, he soon was Drake's prisoner; his ship proved to be Drake's richest plunder.

The next episode of the circumnavigation was the discovery of the coast of Upper California, which was named New Albion. "Albion" was the classical name for England, so called from the white ("alba") cliffs of Dover. After stopping at Huatulco in Central America for two days, Drake sailed northwards, perhaps as far as Vancouver Island, probably searching for the elusive Northwest Passage. If so, he quickly gave up the quest and went south again to the vicinity of San Francisco Bay, where he remained for over a month (June-July, 1579), overhauling his ship and making friendly contact with the Indians.

On July 23, 1579, the Golden Hind began her voyage across the Pacific; on October 16, Drake sighted land in the Philippines, and on Nov. 3 arrived at Ternate in the East Indies. Here he made a trade treaty with the Sultan, and bought a cargo of cloves. On January 9, 1580, the Golden Hind struck a reef, but fortunately was able to slip off the next day, and to sail onward, first to Java, then across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back to Plymouth (Sept. 26, 1580). In order not to antagonize King Philip, there was no public celebration of Drake's return. The enormous treasure he brought back was put under safeguard in Plymouth. Drake quietly informed the Queen and the investors of the amount of profit which had been earned by the voyage--this has been stated to be 4600 percent (£47 for each £1 invested). On April 4, 1581, Elizabeth had Drake knighted, on the occasion of a visit to the Golden Hind . (See his coat of arms, reproduced in the upper right corner of the Hondius portrait, frontispiece). He certainly deserved this honor. According to the economist J. M. Keynes, the English foreign debt was paid off from the Queen's share of the proceeds, and there was enough left over (£42,000) for her to capitalize a new venture, the Levant Company, a firm which played an important part in the development of British foreign trade (see Keynes, Treatise on Money ).

The Hakluyt narrative was translated into several languages, but the best of these versions was the one in French. Below are the title and beginning of the California narrative from the third edition; it had previously appeared in 1613 and 1627.

Eight years before the Hakluyt account appeared, in January, 1581, the writer Nicholas Breton celebrated Drake's return with a little book, containing "a reioysing of his happy aduentures," written in euphuistic prose. For many years the title of this work had been known from an entry in the Stationers' Register, but the author's name had not been mentioned there, and there could be only conjecture about its possible contents.

The present copy appears to be unique; we reproduce only the title page.

The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake , 1628, is the first detailed account of the "famous voyage"; it adds very much to the Hakluyt report. It is a compilation from several sources, the most important of which is the journal of Francis Fletcher, the chaplain on board the Golden Hind . Fletcher was not very friendly to Drake--he had been severely disciplined by him ("excommunicated") while the voyagers were in the East Indies. His account has been heavily edited in places, especially in the passages concerning Drake's execution of his friend Thomas Doughty. Part of Fletcher's version is still extant (BM Sloane ms. 61).

Gerard Mercator's Speculation About Drake's Circumnavigation

How difficult it was to keep Drake's famous voyage secret is shown by a letter [2a] written only ten weeks after his arrival at Plymouth by the outstanding map-maker Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) to the equally great cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598). Ortelius was also a brilliant publisher of maps, many of which Drake probably used during his voyage. Mercator's grandson Michael (1565/1570-1614) was, nine years later, to produce the great Silver Map of the circumnavigation [57]; and Gerard here mentions his youngest son, Rumold Mercator (1546/8-1599).

Gerard Mercator had himself urged on the English geographer Dr. John Dee the feasibility of voyaging from England to the Pacific by a North East Passage, as far back as 1577, when Drake had left England. His letter is based upon the fact that his idea had been taken up in the instructions given to Arthur Pett, to whom Mercator here refers. Pett sailed in an expedition sent out by the English Muscovy Company to discover the North East Passage in June 1580. The voyage is extensively documented in the 1589 edition of Hakluyt [27], who had belatedly approached Gerard Mercator through Rumold with further questions about the expedition.

When he answered Hakluyt in July, Mercator forecast that off Siberia Pett would be obstructed by polar ice; eventually, Pett returned to England for that very reason late in December 1580. However, contrary to Mercator's theory, he had done nothing to help Drake, who arrived back in England first. Also, Drake, of course, returned by the obvious route around the Cape of Good Hope, and not by the North East Passage; and his treasure was indeed the result of plunder, not of the new discovery that Mercator imagined. This letter shows that the true story of Drake's voyage was a matter of lively concern to contemporary cartographers, and that rumors were circulated which concealed the truth from these scholars on the continent of Europe. Perhaps Mercator was a little annoyed to find the English so eager for his advice on Pett's voyage, while unwilling to tell him anything about Drake's.

Drake's own journal, with its narrative and paintings, was immediately placed by him in the hands of the Queen, who seems to have lost it irretrievably. The long silence from then until Hakluyt published his "Famous Voyage" account was hardly broken except by Breton, with his poem [17]. Drake was bidden to keep silence about his voyage because of the diplomatic danger if his armed intrusion into King Philip's dominions were admitted. He swore his men to secrecy--the only means by which they could hope to keep their booty. The late date at which any reliable, let alone detailed, account of Drake's circumnavigation became public reflects the early dearth of information, from which even professional geographers suffered.

This significant letter may be considered one of the crowning pieces of this collection on Sir Francis Drake. Though acquired only at a late stage, it cannot be ignored and so has been inserted here specially.

Translation of the Relevant Parts of Mercator's Letter in Latin

Gerard Mercator's autograph letter to Abraham Ortelius, 1580, relating to Drake's famous voyage. [2a].

Greetings to Master Ortelius, the best of friends.

Your letter afforded me great pleasure, first because you have obtained what you have wanted for a long time about China, secondly because of the dispatch about the new English voyage, on which you had previously sent me a report through Rumold [Mercator]. I am persuaded that there can be no reason for so carefully concealing the course followed during this voyage, nor for putting out differing accounts of the route taken and the areas visited, other than that they must have found very wealthy regions never yet discovered by Europeans, not even by those who have sailed the Ocean on the Indies voyages. That huge treasure in silver and precious stones which they pretend they secured through plunder is, in any case, an argument for me to suspect this, and then again, there is what I am now to set down: that in April this year I was informed from England that the merchants who trade with the Muscovites [i.e., the Russia Company] and have a post to trade with them on the gulf of the Amalchian or Northern sea [i.e., Archangel, on the White Sea] had decided last May to send out secretly a certain very experienced mariner, Arthur Pitt [sic; otherwise Pett or Pet] by name, and to give him orders to survey all the coasts of northern Asia, even beyond the promontory of Tabin, in a fast ship furnished with all the victuals necessary for two years. For this reason I suspect, rather, that he was sent out to search for the fleet [i.e., Drake's] which, by passing through the Strait of Magellan, reached Peru, the Moluccas and Java on its return thence, and to escort it home.

Moreover, in any case, I think that that fleet cannot have returned by any route except one via the north and west of Asia, for that strait which encloses the northern parts of America to within only a few degrees on a great circle westward from Greenland, which Frobisher explored, is obstructed by many rocks. So it does not seem likely that Drake would have tried it, especially if he came back from Asia so loaded down with treasure. For his return westwards would be much shorter--indeed, [the route] has for some time since been known to be [only] about half [the distance]--if he were in  fact to come back by the island of Vaigatz and Nova Zemlya, and thence reach England. This voyage by Arthur [Pett] was reported to me in confidence, so keep secret the fact that you know anything about it. However, in the meantime, you might well fish for the truth of the matter among all your friends; for if one meets with many and inquires of them, they cannot all lie so splendidly that the truth will not out [this observation is a conscious echo of Horace, Odes, 3: 11,35]...[The following 17½ lines are here omitted]

Farewell, most distinguished and beloved of men: from Duisburg, 12 December 1580

Ever yours  Gerard Mercator.


To Master Abraham Ortelius, Cosmographer Royal, a man most distinguished in scholarship and humanity, at Antwerp.

Drake's contemporaries correctly assessed his "famous voyage" as one of the great feats of the age, and reports of it appeared in various European languages. In 1596 the publisher De Bry of Frankfurt included a somewhat abridged version of the Hakluyt narrative in Part VIII of his famous collection of voyages, in Latin, and in 1599 it appeared in German. In both editions a fine engraved map on the title shows the track of the voyage as a dotted line. These are later derivatives of the Whitehall map of Drake's voyage, not now extant (for an account of which see the van Sype map, pp. 102-103).

Another German version of Drake's voyage is in Part VI of the series of voyages published by Levinus Hulsius. We reproduce here, from the 1626 edition, the title, text relating to New Albion (California) and the engraving of the battle with the ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción , the rich treasure ship taken by Drake. The engraving wrongly depicts one ship as the Caca Fogo and the other as Caca Plata ; in fact both these names (meaning "emit gunfire" and "emit silver") were nicknames jokingly designating the Spanish ship. Note also that H. R. Wagner ( Sir Francis Drake's Voyage, p. 117) wrongly identifies this engraving as from De Bry.

One of the two geographical discoveries of the first importance in the Drake circumnavigation was that of the insular nature of Tierra del Fuego (the other being his discovery of Upper California). This is depicted on a map of two sheets, present in this collection both folded in the Hulsius Part VI, and separately, on unfolded sheets, in original size with untrimmed edges. Very few maps have survived from this period in such fine condition. The map shows, below the meridian number 300 the "Francisci Draco Ins[ulae]." They are generally not so designated, as the largest of the three islands had been named after Queen Elizabeth, and it is her name which is usually found there. It is clear that Hulsius failed to appreciate the significance of Drake's discovery, as his map continues to show Tierra del Fuego as a quasi-continental land mass, its shores petering out vaguely southwards in the margins of the map. It is not at all certain what islands Drake reached southwards of the Magellan Strait. H. R. Wagner considered them to be Henderson, Morton, and Sanderson Islands. It seems certain that he did not reach Cape Horn.

A Spanish account of the Drake voyage is in Argensola's Conquistas de las Islas Malucas , 1609, pp. 105-108. The discovery of New Albion (Upper California) is mentioned on p. 106, Argensola evidently considering it to be an island. English names are in the phonetic spellings encountered in Spanish sources, Drake being Draque; Hawkins, Aquines; Plymouth, Plemua; Thomas Doughty, Tomas Auter (!).

A briefer Spanish account of the voyage is in Cabrera de Cordova'sFilipe Segundo , 1619, p. 1071. Evidently the author did not wish to elaborate on this embarrassing affair in his laudatory biography of King Philip.

An Italian version of the circumnavigation is in Giuseppe Rosaccio'sDiscorso...della Terra , (c. 1610). Reproduced below is the text describing the voyage (C2 verso) and, on the next page, the planisphere map.

Thomas Blundeville, a contemporary of Drake, describes the circumnavigation and how the routes of Drake and Cavendish (the third circumnavigator) were marked on the terrestrial globe constructed by Emery Molyneux in 1592. From Blundeville's work ( Thomas Blundeville His Exercises, 1613) we reproduce the section title on Drake and part of his narrative.

One of the greatest cartographic treasures of the Elizabethan era is a map bearing the legend "Carte veuee et corige par le dict sieur Drack" ("A map seen and corrected by the aforesaid Sir Drake"). This is the Nicola van Sype engraved map of the circumnavigation, entitled "La Herdike Enterprinse Faict Par Le Signeur Draeck D'Avoir Cirquit Toute La Terre". Mr. F. P. Sprent, late Superintendent of the Map Room of the British Museum, remarked of this map: "There is good reason for believing this to be the earliest of the maps which show Drake's route round the world". Mr. Sprent believed the map may have appeared as early as 1581.

The van Sype map is clearly derived from the Whitehall map which was presented to Queen Elizabeth, according to Samuel Purchas, Hakluyt's successor as the leading English naval historian. The donor must have been Drake himself. An inscription quoted by Purchas is present (in French) on the van Sype map, and the English arms, crown and garter are in the place on the map (Elizabeth Island, near Cape Horn) stated by Purchas ( Purchas His Pilgrimes , III, iii, p. 461, reproduced below).

It should be noted that the medallion portrait on the map mentions Drake's age as 42 years. No other engraved portrait is known which carries so early an age; both the Hondius portrait (frontispiece) and others all give his age as 43. A portrait miniature by Hilliard of Drake at age 42 is known (see Hind, Engraving in England, I, 159).

Another indication of early dating for this map is the absence of any mention of Virginia, which was named in 1584.

Another such early map is found on a silver medal, commemorating Drake's circumnavigation, the famous Silver Map. Only one of the few surviving examples (see above) mentions in a cartouche the date 1589 and Mercator's name. None of the other copies bears either the date or the engraver's name. It had been previously known, through a statement recorded by Samuel Purchas, that Michael Mercator, grandson of Gerard Mercator, was the cartographer and engraver.

Purchas also records that this Silver Map is directly derived from the Whitehall map previously mentioned, and it is thus closely related to the van Sype map, as is clear, furthermore, from a comparison of the geographical features.

The known examples of the Silver Map vary considerably in weight, from a low of 260 grains (one of the British Museum copies) to a high of 424 grains. The present one, 383 grains, is the third heaviest recorded; it is certainly unsurpassed in its close to pristine condition, with every detail sharp and clear. The second example of the Silver Map in this collection (without Mercator's name, or the date, see next page) is the second heaviest known, weighing 410 grains.

The passage relating to the Silver Map in Purchas his Pilgrimes, 1625. [40].

An important event of Drake's circumnavigation was the capture of Nunho da Silva, a Portuguese merchant and pilot, who was able to pilot Drake across the South Atlantic and along the coast of Brazil. Silva was captured by Drake on January 30, 1578, with his little merchant ship off Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands. His vessel was confiscated by Drake, and his own services were commandeered. He remained with the circumnavigators until April 13, 1579, when he was released at Huatulco in Central America.

Silva had been seen on board the Golden Hind by several Spanish prisoners of Drake who had been previously released, and who had reported that he seemed to be a member of Drake's crew. He was, therefore, strictly questioned by the Mexican civil authorities, and the Inquisition also intervened, to discover whether he had willingly attended any of the Protestant religious services which were held on board every day. Silva therefore had to make a full statement to the Inquisition also.

The narrative reproduced on the following pages gives the beginning of Silva's statement to the Viceroy of Mexico, made on May 20, 1579. It covers events of the voyage from the Cape Verde Islands to the Strait of Magellan. Note that the "cosario yngles" ("English pirate") of the caption title is supplemented by a marginal note, "Llama se Francisco Drac este cossario" ("The pirate is named Francis Drake").

In his statement to the Inquisition, which is somewhat fuller than the present one, Silva refers to color drawings which Drake was making of the localities he visited; he says (trans.): "He is an adept at painting and has with him a boy, a relative of his [his cousin, John Drake] who is a great painter. When they both shut themselves up in his cabin they were always painting". From other captives of Drake who made depositions, we know that he was fond of music, and that he had on board trumpets and violins ("they brought four viols, and made lamentations and sang together"--trans.).