Sir Francis Drake: Pirate, Slave Trader, Discoverer Of The World

By | September 22, 2020

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Portrait of Sir Francis Drake (Tavistock, 1540-Panama, 1596), English privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician, 1583, painting from an engraving by Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612), oil on panel. London, National Portrait Gallery. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

On September 26, 1580, after three long years at sea, Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. You probably learned about Drake, who was knighted by the Queen of England for his heroism and bravery, and his adventures at sea and in battle with the Spanish Armada in school, but what's the real story behind this not-pirate?

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Drake's father apprenticed him to a merchant sailor. (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

The Sailor's Apprentice

Francis Drake's exact date of birth is unrecorded, but it was likely around 1540. We do know that he was the oldest child born to Edmund Drake and his wife, Mary Wyllwave. The Drakes, their 12 sons, and an unrecorded number of daughters lived on the vast estate of the Second Earl of Bedford and worked the land as tenant farmers.

When Drake was a young teen, his father arranged for him an apprenticeship with a merchant sailor. He turned out to be a natural on the high seas, and soon enough, distant relatives from the Hawkins privateering family reached out to form an alliance. Privateers were basically pirates, but they were sanctioned by the crown and paid it a percentage of their spoils, so it was a technically legal (if not entirely ethical) enterprise. Drake showed no reservations, though, joining his cousins in loitering in the French shipping lanes and plundering merchant ships.

Drake didn't have a lot of reservations in general. By the early 1560s, he was given command of his own ship, so he took it to Africa to kidnap some locals to be sold as slaves in the Spanish colonies of the New World. This was super illegal under Spanish law, so Drake spent some time on the run from their government and claimed it left him with a burning hatred for Spain. It kind of seems like he brought that on himself, but whatever.