February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
On February 11, in the middle of a trek across the Isthmus of Panama, Francis Drake stopped to climb a tall tree. Near its top he stepped out onto a spacious platform. Behind him, to the north, the British pirateexplorer-admiral could glimpse the Caribbean Sea, where he had spent the previous half-year plundering Spanish ships and towns. Ahead of him was the South Sea, also known as the Pacific Ocean, which no Englishman had ever seen before. Drake was so overwhelmed at the sight that he immediately dropped to his knees and prayed that he might someday navigate that mighty sea.
Drake had not come to Panama for sightseeing. On his first visit to the Spanish Main, as part of a slave-trading voyage in 1568, Drake had watched the Spaniards slaughter hundreds of his fellow sailors at San Juan de Ulúa Harbor near Veracruz, Mexico. Ever since, Drake had felt a deep hatred for Spain and all its institutions, including the Catholic Church. He plotted his revenge carefully, making quiet reconnaissance voyages along the Central American coast in 1570 and 1571. The next year he set off with two ships and seventy-three men to collect plunder and wreak havoc on the Spanish.
Following his looting and burning spree, which included many audacious coastal raids, Drake decided to make one big final haul by waylaying a Spanish treasure train. These trains consisted of hundreds of mules hauling South American gold and silver across the isthmus to be loaded onto ships bound for the mother country. He found natural allies in the Cimaroons, escaped African slaves and their descendants who lived in the forest. (They had built the platform from which Drake viewed the Pacific.) Though precious metals were of little use to them, the Cimaroons despised the Spanish and were happy to give Drake a hand. Further help came from a band of Huguenot (French Protestant) pirates whom Drake had encountered. They hated all Catholics, especially since fifty thousand Huguenots had been massacred in France the previous year.
After Drake had seen the Pacific, he and his allies robbed an enormous treasure train, losing only two men in the process. Drake then casually captured a frigate and sailed it back to England, arriving home in August. Five years later Drake got his wish to explore the Pacific Ocean. He sailed as far north as California (and perhaps farther) on his way to a circumnavigation of the world. Along the way he continued sacking and robbing Spanish ships and settlements, from mainland Spain to the Cape Verde Islands, Santo Domingo, and Florida. In 1588 he capped his career by serving as a vice admiral in the English fleet that defeated the Armada, send- ing Spain into a long, slow decline and ensuring the success of England’s future American colonies.