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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
Several times Mendoza demanded another audience. At last the Queen granted him one on February 20, going out of her way to be gracious by descending from her dais and coming forward six paces to meet him, Mendoza reported to Philip, she was “so much alarmed about the fleet, no doubt accused by her own evil conscience.” Before he could say a word she asked whether he had come as a herald to declare war upon her. Mendoza replied that it was she apparently who was going to war with all the world. Elizabeth returned that she “would never make war upon your Majesty unless you began it first.” She pointed out that he already had a war with the Moslems on his hands in the Mediterranean, besides the rebellion of his subjects in the Netherlands to deal with. She had done her best for the tranquillity of the Netherlands and to prevent France from getting a footing there.
Mendoza complained of the plundering of Spanish ships, especially on the American treasure route. The Queen immediately seized on this to ask if there was news of any such ships returned. Mendoza was only able to inform her No—but he was sure they were being dealt with as they deserved by being sent to the bottom. The Queen kept him in conversation for three hours, trying to get out of him the extent of Philip’s preparations, their purpose and direction. Mendoza was satisfied that he had increased her alarm by saying that he could guess the purpose of so great an enterprise: “This frightened her more than before and she was very amiable.” Mendoza was a simple sort of man, who believed in frightening women. He never understood that here was one who the more amiable was the more dangerous and was not to be frightened.
Mendoza had his spies in the west country ports waiting for Drake’s return, and one day in September Drake was suddenly there with his cargo of treasure intact. His return presented a very awkward problem for the government; but the spontaneous reaction in the country to his astonishing exploit, the pride in his achievement, his nationwide popularity, and behind all this the support of the Queen, settled the matter. She received him in high favor, saw him much alone, walked with him often in the palace garden, always noticed him in public. It was expected that she would knight him when she went down to Deptford to visit the Golden Hind. And so she did, contriving to lose a purple garter in the proceedings to heighten good spirits, and handing the French ambassador the sword by way of associating France a little in the event.
The popular idea is that Drake got all the treasure. On the contrary, the bullion all came to the Queen, who put it safely in the Tower: she used it judiciously to keep resistance to Philip going in the Netherlands, so that he could never concentrate all his resources against England. She graciously accepted Drake’s gifts of jewels, and allowed him £10,000 reward, out of half a million, for his eminent services. She decreed that the other shareholders should receive as much again as they had invested: a good 100 per cent.
Out of this juncture, the protests and discussions it provoked, there came a classic statement of the English government’s position in regard to America—in which no doubt the sage intellect of Burghley had a powerful share. William Camden had access to the official papers and reports it thus:
The Spaniards have brought these evils on themselves by their injustice towards the English, whom, contra ius gentium, they have excluded from commerce with the West Indies [that is, America]. The Queen does not acknowledge that her subjects and those of other nations may be excluded from the Indies on the claim that these have been donated to the King of Spain by the Pope, whose authority to invest the King of Spain with the New World she does not recognize … This donation of what does not belong to the donor and this imaginary right of property ought not to prevent other princes from carrying on commerce in those regions or establishing colonies there in places not inhabited by the Spaniards. Prescription without possession is not valid. Moreover all are at liberty to navigate that vast ocean [the Pacific], since the use of the sea and air are common to all. No nation or private person can have a right to the ocean, for neither the course of nature nor public usage permits any occupation of it.
These words are the most succinct statement of the English position for which the struggle was now engaged.
(A second installment, dealing with the Virginia colony, will appear in June.)