- Historic Sites
The Elizabethans And America
“To push back the consciousness of American beginnings, beyond Jamestown, beyond the Pilgrims, to the highwater mark of the Elizabethan Age” -- Part One of a New Series.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
What we do know now is that to the Queen alone belonged the decision to set forth that voyage—against the wishes of her lord treasurer, Lord Burghley. That is the significance of Drake’s first question on coming into Plymouth Sound: “Is the Queen alive?” It would have been the worse for him if she had died in the interval. The voyage worked out far more successfully than anyone could have expected—except perhaps Drake himself, always a sanguine, confident man; but in some respects it worked out differently. I do not think we need take so seriously the loss of the draft for the voyage, for I suspect that a good deal of room was left for flexibility, in the English manner. And certainly several objectives came together in it.
The enterprise might very easily have been overthrown: that was the significance of Drake’s execution of Thomas Doughty for plotting mutiny. Doughty was Burghley’s man in the expedition, put there to hamper its operations; he might have succeeded had it not been for Drake’s determination, with the Queen’s backing. Drake sailed with her commission; nothing vexed him more than to be referred to as a pirate; he was the Queen of England’s officer, he insisted, and showed one of his Spanish prisoners off the coast of Peru his commission.
One purpose of the voyage stemmed from Richard Grenville’s project of a few years before for an expedition into the South Seas, to seek the southern continent they imagined to be there, Terra Australis. Grenville had pointed out, perhaps disingenuously, that it would merely pass by those countries already occupied by Christian princes. Anyhow, under the influence of a temporary lull in relations with Spain, the Queen countermanded his voyage. What she would not permit to Grenville as a private venture, she permitted three years later to Drake as a quasi-official one, with herself as the dominant partner.
Sir Christopher Hatton preferred Drake’s suit to her and procured him an audience. On emerging from the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific, Drake christened his ship, the Pelican, anew as the Golden Hind; it was Hatton’s crest. Drake afterward said that on parting the Queen addressed to him these words: “Drake! so it is that I would gladly be revenged on the King of Spain for divers injuries that I have received.” I see no reason to disbelieve this; it has the authentic ring. He added, “Her Majesty gave me special commandment that of all men my Lord Treasurer should not know it.” This sounds by no means improbable. In fact, what we know now from English and Spanish sources all hangs together.
There was indeed some secret between the Queen and Drake which has never transpired; some think it relates to the idea of a descent on the Isthmus of Darien and cutting the pipeline of Spanish treasure there. Likely enough: it was an idea that came to the fore in these years. In the preliminary discussions that were kept very secret—on the voyage out, no one knew where they were bound for—the objectives were greatly extended, and its destination was to be the Moluccas. There was included an idea of looking for the Pacific end of the Northwest Passage, the supposed Strait of Anian which should debouch somewhere about the coast of British Columbia.
From very early it had been resolved that “her Majesty be made privy to the truth of the voyage.” With all the implications of a first incursion into the Spanish preserve of the Pacific, and with the intention of reprisals against King Philip, it was decided that the voyage could not be left to a private syndicate. It became an official affair, sponsored by the Queen and the forward party in her council, Lord Burghley sitting back and absenting himself, well aware of what it boded. As such, its intentions could be kept secret—as to some extent they have remained.
The Queen contributed her ship, the Swallow, which represented her investment. Among other investors were Lord Admiral Lincoln and Sir William Winter of the Navy Board; Leicester, Walsingham, and Hatton; George Winter; Drake, whose investment represented his confidence in himself and was as much as £1,000; and John Hawkins, for £500: those two were still out to recoup themselves for what they had lost at San Juan. And so Drake left Plymouth Sound one December day in 1577, bound for the other side of the world.
His colleague John Winter in the Elizabeth was beaten back in the Strait of Magellan and forced by his crew to turn home again. While there he did take possession of Tierra del Fuego in the name of Queen Elizabeth; I leave that consideration to the international lawyers in the dispute that is still maintained over the Falkland Islands. Drake was left to go forward on his own. He made a feint to the west to look out for the coast of Terra Australis; then went up the coast of South America, off which he captured the treasure ship Cacafuego, then sailed north to California, where he landed and took possession in the name of the Queen.