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The Life, Death and Legacy of Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake

The Life, Death and Legacy of Sir Francis Drake c. 1540 – 28 January 1596

Francis Drake was an explorer, privateer and naval officer who famously circumnavigated the globe and assisted in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

He was daring and ruthless. He was also a slave trader.

Hawkins, Drake and the International Slave Trade

In 1562, Sir John Hawkins set sail from Plymouth to Sierra Leone where he captured 300 slaves.

His sale of human cargo to the Americas is considered the tipping point that turned the slave trade international.

It was side by side with his cousin, Hawkins, that Drake began his maritime career as a slaver, stealing men, women and children from native villages and Portuguese slave ships throughout the West Indies.

The Famous Voyage

Under the guise of a “voyage of discovery”, Drake struck out across the world, routinely capturing and plundering Spanish vessels in a series of raids commissioned by Elizabeth I.

Sir Francis Drake, From The Original Portrait Belonging To The Corporation, © The British Library

He became the first man to traverse the Strait of Magellan and returned to Plymouth in 1580 aboard the Golden Hinde with a loss of his four other ships.

He had become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and was made Mayor of Plymouth in 1581.

An arrogant game of bowls

Less than a decade later, Spain launched an invasion on England to return its crown to Roman rule.

As Vice Admiral of the fleet, Drake aided the defeat of the Armada.

It came, allegedly, after a famous game of bowls that Drake calmly – and rather arrogantly – finished on Plymouth Hoe before launching his counter-attack when the Armada was spotted in the English Channel.

More likely, Drake delayed due to adverse weather making it too dangerous to set sail at the time.

Drake’s Death

In January 1596, Drake contracted dysentery while in Spanish America. Dressed in his full suit of armour, he was buried at sea in a lead-lined coffin off the coast of Portobello.

Addressing the Legacy of Drake

Drake remains a local hero in the city of Plymouth, commemorated with a statue and lending his name to the likes of Drake Circus shopping centre and naval base, HMS Drake.

But controversy was mounting around the celebration of two men known for profiting from the sale of human lives.

In the summer of 2020, Plymouth City Council pledged to rename Sir John Hawkins Square and add a plaque to Drake’s statue on Plymouth Hoe offering further context on his role in the slave trade.

In November 2020, the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) launched a campaign to save 10 Armada Maps after the Culture Minister halted their export in July.

They are the first illustrations to depict the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The NMRN hope to be able to raise the £600,000 needed to procure the maps and put them on display for future generations.

Find out more about the NMRN's efforts to save the armada's maps.

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