Singeing Spaniards

Francis Drake
July 12, 1996

In January 1596 an English fleet anchored a few miles off Porto Belo in Panama to lower a lead coffin into the Caribbean. With trumpet laments and cannons fired "accordinge to the custome of all sea Funerall obsequies", Sir Francis Drake was laid to rest.

In many biographies this would be the end of the story, but in Francis Drake: the Lives of a Hero, this is not the case, for the author looks both at what Drake did, and what others made of his reputation. John Cummins is a scholar of Spanish language, literature and history, and has some experience of research into early transoceanic voyagers, having produced a very clear and useful recent edition of the Journal of Christopher Columbus.

Born near Tavistock in Devon, probably in 1542, Francis Drake was the son of a Protestant preacher. He learned his seafaring craft in the English Channel, and was master of a small merchant ship by the age of about 20. In 1568 he was given command of one of the queen's ships, in a fleet that was later treacherously attacked by the Spanish at San Juan de Ulua in Mexico, an incident that gave him an abiding hatred of Spain. When coupled with his fiercely Protestant background, this hatred was to be one of the mainsprings of Drake's future actions.

Greed and ambition were other significant traits in Drake's character, as in the characters of many of his seafaring contemporaries, but he also excelled as a seaman and fighter.

By 1582 this combination of vices and virtues, and an element of luck, had made the preacher's son a knight, a national figure, the master of Buckland Abbey, a major landowner in the Plymouth area, and a major headache for the Spanish, whom he had often attacked and humiliated.

John Cummins's book is based on a wide reading of contemporary and more recent material, and the result is a very substantial account of Drake's life, ashore as well as afloat, with over 30 illustrations and maps.

It is not a definitive biography, however. Although Cummins quotes extensively from both manuscript and printed archival material, and uses it to good effect, some aspects are not treated as fully as they might have been. For example, Drake's account for arming ships against the Armada still survives, as does his personal account of expenses during the campaign. Both documents could have been used to throw further light on Drake's involvement in this episode, but neither seems to have been consulted. It is also a pity that neither Drake's beautifully illustrated Grant of Arms nor the National Maritime Museum's portrait of him are included in this work.

However, in the overall scope of the book, these are comparatively minor omissions. Cummins gives us a detailed and entertaining account of Drake's adventurous career, and breaks fascinating new ground in looking closely at the Spanish views of El Draque (some of his opponents saw him as worthy and honourable, and not just as a devil in human shape), and at his posthumous reputation.

Drake's story, or at least distorted highlights from it, later became especially popular at times of national danger, although the famous myth of Drake's Drum (that the beating of his drum in times of danger would summon Drake back to save England from its enemies), was a 19th-century invention embellished by Sir Henry Newbolt.

Cummins has written a major study of Drake and his times, which will be read with interest, illumination and enjoyment for many years to come.

Ian Friel was research co-ordinator for the National Maritime Museum's Armada exhibition and is now curator, Littlehampton Museum, West Sussex.

Francis Drake: The Lives of a Hero

Author - John Cummins
ISBN - 0 297 81566 0
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 348

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