Did Francis Drake Bring Enslaved Africans to North America Decades Before Jamestown?

The English privateer arrived on the Carolina coast after sacking Spanish lands in the Caribbean, but who, if anyone, did he leave behind?

Sir Francis Drake Virginia
This early map of the newly settled colony of Virginia features a photo of Sir Francis Drake British Library / Granger, NYC

The disappearance of 115 Elizabethans on the coast of North Carolina in the 1580s is a well-known mystery. Even more enigmatic, however, is the fate of another group that may have vanished on Roanoke Island a year before the Lost Colonists attempted to found England’s first outpost in the Americas.

These unwitting settlers—a mix of enslaved North Africans, West Africans, and South Americans—may have arrived more than three decades before the first enslaved Africans are recorded appearing at Jamestown 399 years ago this month. Their strange story, as traced by renowned University of Liverpool historian David Beers Quinn over the course of his esteemed career, suggests that enslaved Africans were expected from the very start to play a key role in the English colonization of the Americas.

The tale begins with pirates in the Caribbean. In 1585, the English privateer Francis Drake assembled a fleet called the Great Expedition to loot and pillage Spanish colonial towns. Drake, the first captain to circumnavigate the globe, attacked the wealthy port of Cartagena on what is now the coast of Colombia. Wheat, silver and enslaved laborers were among the commodities that made the city a rich prize.

English warships confronted a forbidding stone fort bristling with cannons and fronted by war galleys rowed by enslaved Ottoman Turks and North African Muslims, or Moors. Stakes dipped in poison by indigenous allies of the Spanish protected the landward side.

Drake’s overwhelming force of veteran soldiers quickly routed the untested defenders. The invaders looted mansions and gold-bedecked churches before methodically burning portions of the city until the Spanish citizens agreed to pay a ransom to make them stop.

When the English finally departed in the spring of 1586, they took with them the cathedral’s massive bronze church along with “most of the slaves and many of the convicts from the galleys” and “some of the negroes belonging to private owners,” according to a Spanish report studied by Quinn. A Spaniard taken captive by the English and later released on Cuba told authorities there that Drake also took “300 Indians from Cartagena, mostly women” as well as “200 negroes, Turks and Moors, who do menial service.”

Sailing east, Drake’s convoy inexplicably missed Havana, the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean. But a persistent legend maintains that the ships crowded with people from three continents were struck by scurvy and dysentery until South American indigenous women went ashore on Cuba to obtain rum, limes, and mint to make a soothing remedy, today known as the mojito.

Drake then set sail for Roanoke Island, on the North Carolina coast, where some one hundred men had landed the previous year in an effort organized by his friend Sir Walter Raleigh. On the way, the fleet stopped at Florida’s St. Augustine, a city founded two decades prior by the Spanish to provide a refuge for shipwreck victims and to discourage other Europeans from settling the Southeast coast.

The outpost threatened the English colonization effort, so Drake set the place ablaze—but not before stripping the 250 houses of their locks and other valuable hardware that could be useful on Roanoke.

A Spanish dispatch from Havana based on intelligence provided by three Africans left behind in St. Augustine’s smoldering ruins said Drake “meant to leave all the negroes he had in a fort and settlement established [at Roanoke] by the English who went there a year ago. He intended to leave the 250 blacks and all his small craft there, and cross to England with only the larger vessels.”

According to New York University historian Karen Kupperman, “Drake thought he was going to find a flourishing colony, so he brought along some slave labor to help.” But when the fleet anchored off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he found the Roanoke settlers in dire straits. They were short on food, and had incurred the wrath of the Carolina Algonquian-speaking people by assassinating their leader, Wingina. Drake agreed to provide desperately needed supplies and reinforcements—and, presumably, slave labor.

But a sudden and ferocious storm of “thunder and rain, with hailstones as big as hens’ eggs,” according to one eyewitness, scattered his fleet. Once reassembled, the colonists begged instead to be taken home to England. Drake agreed, and the settlers boarded the ships and returned to England.

What happened to the scores or hundreds of Africans and South Americans, however, is a puzzle. Historians know that Elizabeth I repatriated about 100 Turks in an effort to curry favor with the Ottoman sultan, an enemy of her enemy, Spain, but only three West Africans are recorded to have arrived in England on the fleet—one then fled to Paris to find refuge with the Spanish ambassador.

Quinn, the dean of Roanoke scholars, wrote in his 1974 book England and the Discovery of America that “the only reasonable explanation is that a considerable number of Indians and Negroes were put ashore on the Carolina Outer Banks and equipped with the pots and pans, locks and bolts, boats and launches of Saint Augustine.”

Other historians, however, contend that the Africans and South Americans likely drowned in the storm or were sold on the route to England. “Why would Drake leave the equivalent of gold bullion on the Carolina coast?” Larry Tise, an East Carolina University historian, told Smithsonian.com. Enslaved laborers were valuable trade items at the time, but there was no market for them in Tudor England, and no record exists of deaths in the Outer Banks storm. The facts, Quinn conceded in a 1982 article on the mystery, “may now never be known.”

Scholars agree, however, that what is most striking about the incident is its obscurity. “The saddest part of the story and perhaps the most revealing is that no one bothered to say” what happened to these enslaved people, noted historian Edmund Morgan in his 1975 American Slavery, American Freedom.

Nor has their much subsequent interest in this other potential lost colony. A year after Drake’s fleet departed from Roanoke, 115 men, women, and children arrived in the second attempt to establish an English base in the New World. War with Spain severed their links to Europe, and their fate remains the stuff of legend. “People have been fixated on the 1587 colonists” rather than the vanished slaves, said Kupperman. “It’s obscure because, until the last 30 years, nobody cared about lost Africans and Indians.”

Quinn died in 2002, but Kupperman and Tise hope that future archival or archaeological finds could provide new insight into Drake’s passengers. The results could rewrite our understanding of the role of enslaved Africans in early English settlements, long presumed to have first arrived first at Jamestown in 1619 to cultivate tobacco.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.