Sir Francis Drake was an English explorer who is most famous for his circumnavigation of the earth which made him the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe in a single expedition. He paved the way for future exploration and conquests of the British Empire and is one of the most renowned sea captains in the history of his nation. Drake also played a role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and served as mayor of Plymouth and a Member of Parliament. Know more about the career of Sir Francis Drake through his 10 major accomplishments and achievements.

 

#1 He famously captured the treasure vessel Cacafuego

Francis Drake was a privateer, basically a pirate authorized by the government to plunder foreign vessels. As a privateer, he was successful in capturing numerous Spanish vessels. His most famous capture was the Spanish ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, nicknamed Cacafuego (“fireshitter”). He carried out the loot in March 1579. Cacafuego’s crew was taken completely by surprise as non-Spanish ships were not expected to be found in the Pacific. They surrendered without much resistance. Cacafuego’s treasure consisted of 36 kg of gold, 13 chests of coins and jewels, and 26 tons of silver. It took six days to unload.

Capture of the Cacafuego by Francis Drake
Depiction of the capture of the Cacafuego by Francis Drake

 

#2 Francis Drake is considered the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean

Francis Drake's first sight of the Pacific Ocean
Depiction of Francis Drake’s first sight of the Pacific Ocean

On 24 May 1572, Francis Drake embarked on his first major expedition with aim to capture the important Spanish port of Nombre de Dios in Panama. He commanded a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha and the Swan. It was during this expedition, in 1573, that Francis Drake climbed a high tree in the mountains of Panama to become the first Englishman to see the Pacific Ocean, which was barred to all but Spanish ships.

#3 He was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe

In 1577, Queen Elizabeth I chose Francis Drake as leader of an expedition to explore and raid the Pacific coast of the Americas. Drake began his journey on 13th December 1577 from Plymouth, Devon. He set sail abroad the ship Pelican, along with four other small ships and a crew of 168 men. However, only Pelican, renamed Golden Hind mid-voyage, was able to complete the expedition. It returned to Plymouth with 59 men on September 26, 1580 after circumnavigating the earth, making Francis Drake the first Englishman to accomplish the feat.

Map of Francis Drake's circumnavigation
Map showing the route of Francis Drake’s circumnavigation between 1577 and 1580

 

#4 He made one of the earliest English territorial claims in the New World

During his circumnavigation of the globe, Francis Drake landed on the western coast of North America and claimed the area for the Queen of England, naming it New Albion. New Albion was one of the earliest English territorial claims in the New World. From the 17th century, Drake’s landing site had been identified as Drakes Bay on the coast of northern California in the United States. In 2012, Drakes Bay was recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Several societies celebrate and research Drake’s landing in California including the Sir Francis Drake Society and the Drake Navigators Guild.

Painting of Golden Hind
Drake’s ship Golden Hind – Painting by Paul Garnett

 

#5 Sir Francis Drake was knighted abroad Golden Hind in 1581

For completing the second circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition, Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth aboard his famous vessel Golden Hind on 4th April 1581. The first known circumnavigation of Earth was the 1519 – 1522 Magellan-Elcano expedition which was led initially by Ferdinand Magellan and then by Juan Sebastián Elcano. Sir Francis was thus the first commander to lead an entire circumnavigation.

Sir Francis Drake knighted by Queen Elizabeth I
Bronze relief of Sir Francis Drake being knighted by Queen Elizabeth I

 

#6 He served as mayor of Plymouth and as a Member of Parliament

In 1581 and 1582, Sir Francis Drake served as the mayor of Plymouth, a city on the south coast of Devon, England. In 1584 and 1585, he served as a Member of the House of Commons representing Bossiney, a village in north Cornwall, England. In 1593, he represented Plymouth in the House of Commons. As mayor of Plymouth, Drake organized a water supply for Plymouth that served the city for around 300 years.

Portrait of Sir Francis Drake
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake

 

#7 He captured several cities during his 1585–86 raids on the Spanish New World

Francis Drake's Great Expedition book
Cover of a book on Francis Drake’s Great Expedition

In 1585, during the Anglo-Spanish War, Francis Drake was ordered by Queen Elizabeth I to lead an expedition to attack the Spanish colonies. He was put in command of twenty one ships with 1,800 soldiers. Drake’s fleet captured Santiago in November 1585; won the Battle of Santo Domingo to capture the city in January 1586; won the Battle of Cartagena de Indias to capture the city in February; and raided the fort of St. Augustine in July on the return leg of the voyage. This expedition is known as Francis Drake’s Great Expedition though it is not considered to be highly successful by many historians.

 

#8 He delayed the Spanish Armada by a year through a pre-emptive strike

By 1586, King Philip II of Spain began preparing for an invasion of England through a massive fleet, famous as the Spanish Armada. The following year, Sir Francis Drake launched a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish mainland at the port of Cadiz. He caught the Spanish by surprise destroying 37 ships and several thousand tons of supplies. Drake later mockingly referred to the incident as “singeing the king of Spain’s beard”. His Cadiz pre-emptive strike delayed the Spanish invasion by a year.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake
Bronze statue of Sir Francis Drake in Tavistock, Devon

 

#9 He was Vice-Admiral of the English fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada

Sir Francis Drake was the Vice-Admiral of the English fleet during the 1588 attack of the Spanish Armada, a massive fleet consisting of around 130 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers. He was responsible for capturing supplies of much needed gunpowder from Spanish ships and was involved in the decisive Battle of Gravelines leading to the retreat of the Spanish fleet. The following year Drake was one of the leaders of a similar campaign against Spain, known as the “Counter-Armada of 1589”, but it was also unsuccessful.

The Battle of Gravelines
A Depiction of The Battle of Gravelines

 

#10 Sir Francis Drake paved the way for further British exploration

Sir Francis Drake was the most renowned seaman of the Elizabethan Age. His voyages, especially his circumnavigation of the earth, increased British interest in the Pacific Ocean. This would later lead to many trading ventures of Britain in the Far East. Drake’s voyages also widened the knowledge base of the British about various areas in the world paving the way for further exploration and conquests. Though his exploits made him an infamous pirate in Spain, Sir Francis Drake was a national hero who inspired numerous legends, and works in popular culture.

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