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On This Day: Francis Drake Sets Out to Circumnavigate the World

Last updated: February 24, 2023

On Dec. 13, 1577, Francis Drake, with Queen Elizabeth’s blessing, left England on an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Drake became the second man, after Ferdinand Magellan, to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.

Drake Becomes First Englishman to Circumnavigate the World

Englishman Francis Drake began his sailing career in the 1560s as a member of a slave-trading fleet. In 1568, Spanish ships attacked one of the English ships; Drake developed an intense hatred of the Spanish and devoted much of his career to gaining revenge against them.

In 1577, Queen Elizabeth I chose Drake, who by this time was a rich and well-known pirate, to explore the Pacific coast of the Americas. “Nothing could have suited Drake better,” explains Encyclopedia Britannica. “He had official approval to benefit himself and the queen, as well as to cause the maximum damage to the Spaniards.”

Drake departed Plymouth, England, on Dec. 13 aboard the Pelican, one of five ships in his fleet, which also included the Elizabeth and three smaller ships: the Marigold, Swan and Benedict.

Drake’s fleet reached Port Julian in present-day Argentina in June 1578. It was here, the some port where Ferdinand Magellan had executed mutineers during his 1520 circumnavigation trip, that Drake decided to assert his authority by accusing officer Thomas Doughty, a friend of his, of leading a plot against him. Doughty was tried, convicted and beheaded.

After spending the Southern winter at Port Julian, Drake led his fleet through the Strait of Magellan, but only Drake’s Pelican, now renamed the Golden Hind, made it to the Pacific. Drake had abandoned two of the smaller supply ships at Port Julian. The Marigold was lost in a storm, while the Elizabeth became separated from Drake and sailed back to England.

Drake sailed up the coast of South America, attacking Spanish colonies and plundering their riches. “In the Pacific, the Spaniards were physically and psychologically unprepared to resist attack; those shores had been exclusively in their hands for two generations, during which time they had spent little on defense,” wrote Hans P. Kraus in “Sir Francis Drake: a Pictorial Biography.” “They were thrown into confusion and Drake seized immense treasure without much resistance.”

Famous Explorers

He sailed up to North America and later claimed to have reached present-day Vancouver Island while searching for the Northwest Passage back to the Atlantic. He then sailed back southward to anchor in present-day Northern California, naming it “New Albion.”

He left there in July 1579 to sail west toward Asia, stopping at the Philippines to trade for spices. From there he sailed south and struck a reef, but he managed to save the ship and continue to Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, which he cleared in July 1580. He returned to Plymouth with just over half of his original 100-man crew on Sep. 26, becoming the first man to ever circumnavigate the world and return home.

Drake arrived with riches estimated at £600,000, according to The Golden Hind museum. Elizabeth I received the bulk of the profits, which allowed her to pay off the country’s debt within a year. Drake was received as a hero and knighted for his work.

Reference: Drake Collection; Firsthand Account

The Library of Congress’ Kraus Collection of Sir Francis Drake features artifacts and documents related to Drake and his travels. The materials were given to the library by Austrian collector Hans P. Kraus, author of the 1970 biography “Sir Francis Drake; A Pictorial Biography.”

Fordham University’s Modern History Sourcebook provides an account written by Francis Petty, one of Drake’s gentlemen-at-arms.

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