Sir Francis Drake is Still Capable of Kicking Up a Fuss

Westward the corsair of England’s empire made his way, plundering Spain for Queen and country; now modern moralists are nibbling at his fame

Sir Francis Drake was an amazing fellow. The first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, he was also the first Englishman to sail the Pacific, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for his daring deeds. Standing only about 5 feet 5 inches tall, the "little captain general" was a very tiger for aggressive action. After a stunning defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Drake became one of the most famous men of his day. While he died at sea more than 400 years ago, he still lives as one of England's greatest heroes, in the company of Lord Nelson and Sir Winston Churchill.

Drake was a poor boy from Devon who lived in troubled times. A passionate Protestant, he came of age when the brand-new Reformation was still being threatened by the Catholic church. Later, Drake served under Queen Elizabeth I as she battled King Philip II's Catholic Spain. A common seaman, he rose to nautical, and then social and financial, heights in Elizabethan England by boldly attacking and plundering Spanish treasure ports in Panama, then sharing the profits with the English government.

In a remarkable feat of leadership and navigation he sailed his ship, the Golden Hind, clear around the world--something no captain had done since Ferdinand Magellan's ill-fated voyage in 1522. After capturing more Spanish treasure in the Pacific, Drake and his men stopped off to claim land for England near what later became San Francisco. Drake annexed the land and dubbed it "New Albion," in England's name.

So far, so good. But lately, as writer Simon Winchester makes clear, historians who take a dim view of empire and war have been busy trying to pull the rug out from under Drake's reputation. Criticizing him for greed and violence, they often judge Drake as though he lived in our times instead of viewing him in proper context: the robustious 16th century.

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