A Conversation with Laurence Bergreen, author of In Search Of A Kingdom

Q: For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Sir Francis Drake, why do we remember him today? What were his major achievements?

LB: Drake, who was born about 1540, rose from humble beginnings in Devon, England to become a daring and astonishingly successful pirate, secretly backed by Elizabeth I and powerful members of her court. He preyed on Spanish gold and gems, handing over most of the proceeds to England while setting aside some for himself. He acquired a mystique among the superstitious Spanish, who called him El Draque (the Dragon) who could strike at will. But there was more to Drake than piracy. He was the first captain to successfully navigate the globe (his predecessor, Ferdinand Magellan died in the attempt), and in the process he became one of the chief architects of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. His circumnavigation laid the basis for the rise of the British Empire. Until that time, Spain ruled the waves. He was able to accomplish these feats because of his close relationship to Elizabeth I, his extraordinary daring, and his undeniable skill as a navigator. With his red beard and cheerful demeanor, he was a happy warrior in pursuit of gold and glory.

Q: Your account of Drake is unique in that you argue that his partnership with Queen Elizabeth I was crucial to the birth of the British Empire, and thus to the course of British and world history. Why do you think this aspect of his legacy has been overlooked?

LB: Many captains vied for Elizabeth’s favor, but only Drake was capable of pulling off several astonishing and lucrative feats of derring-do, which Elizabeth appreciated. He was boastful, but he backed up his boasts with deeds. It is possible that Drake himself as a pirate did not realize or acknowledge the full implications of his voyages. Lost in the excitement over his gold fever, for example, was the scope of his accomplishment and its implications for the beleaguered English economy, which as a result evolved from being a poor, isolated island nation to a center of global commerce. If not for Drake’s lucrative piracy, England would have languished and very possibly been invaded and annexed by its larger and more powerful rival, Spain.

Q: What kind of relationship did Drake have with Queen Elizabeth I, who secretly backed his voyage around the world and invested her own money in it? How did that relationship start?

LB: Elizabeth was initially mistrustful of Drake and even had him jailed briefly after one of his early voyages. She could be very fractious. Later, she became one of the secret backers of his circumnavigation – secret because she did not want to confront her more powerful rival Spain, which laid claim to much of the world. Drake fronted for her, he gave her cover. She repaid his efforts generously. After he returned from the circumnavigation, she knighted him and arranged for him to take possession of a castle, Buckland Abbey, formerly the home of Cistercian monks, where he lived to the end of his days with his second wife. Drake and Elizabeth eventually established a good rapport, and his access to her at all hours became the envy of the entrenched aristocracy, who tended to view him as a rude parvenu. It would be stretching a point to say they were intimate. Elizabeth, who never married, tended to draw her partners from the ranks of more established figures, but they were kindred spirits in the pursuit of a robust empire.

Q: What do you think will most surprise readers about Drake and Queen Elizabeth I?

LB: That they had a dynamic, symbiotic relationship. Drake gave her the wealth she and England desperately needed, and she gave him the fortune and status he craved.

Q: What part did Drake play in the slave trade in the early years of his career? Why did he later come to despise slavery? How has that history affected his reputation and legacy?

LB: Drake started out as a commercial captain, and later served his better-known (at the time) uncle John Hawkins, who was a founder of the English slave trade. Drake accompanied Hawkins on slave voyages, basically stealing them from Spain. It was a miserable affair. In the process he acquired a revulsion against the horrors of trafficking in humans and a lasting hatred of Spain, who had masterminded the cruelty. Drake devoted his later career to stealing gold and silver from Spain, partly for revenge and partly out of devotion to England. He left his mark wherever he went, earning a reputation not for violence and cruelty but for gallantry. Remarkably, his friendly relations with two groups of indigenous people, the Cimarron of Central America and the Miwok of North America, led to invitations to lead these people. That was quite extraordinary, and it happened not once but twice. He considered the offers – he could have had his own kingdom – but in both cases he refused, choosing to remain loyal to England and Elizabeth. That was one thing about Drake, he remained loyal to his sovereign.

Q: How much treasure did Drake seize on his circumnavigation? How important was it to Elizabeth and England?

LB: Tons. Literally. Drake seized enough gold, silver, and gems from Spanish settlements in Central and South America to fund England for years, and to set himself up as one of the wealthiest men in England. Drake’s haul was crucial to the survival of Elizabeth’s throne, and she appreciated it. He was the ultimate marauder.

Q: Where did Drake and his ships land along the coast of North America, and what did they find there?

LB: Drake explored much of the West Coast, sailing north along the coast of California, dodging and occasionally raiding Spanish settlements sheltering gold until he reached a harbor north of San Francisco. He claimed the territory, which he called Nova Albion, for Queen Elizabeth I. Calling the land “Nova Albion,” Drake remained on the California coast for a month to repair his ships. During that interlude, he came across the Miwok tribe, who knew nothing of the Spanish, admired Drake, and wanted him and his men to stay. Drake became acquainted with the Miwok way of life, and treated them with respect, especially according to the rough standards of the day. Drake has been accused recently of being a “white supremacist.” That description suited other explorers, but it was not an entirely apt one for Drake, who by this time had repudiated slavery and exhibited sympathy and appreciation for the indigenous people he encountered. He did not aim to conquer or subjugate indigenous inhabitants, only to frustrate the Spanish. In addition to Spanish gold, he searched misguidedly for the legendary northwest passage, supposedly a shortcut to the East, and when he couldn’t find it, he headed out into the Pacific.

Q: What role did Drake play in the defeat of the Spanish Armada? Why was this such a crucial event in the history of England, Europe, and the world?

LB: Drake was one of the leading combatants, but not the only one. As a precursor, he pillaged the harbor of Cadiz and later returned with the huge English fleet to engage the more sophisticated but less nimble ships of the Spanish navy. This battle became more complicated than anyone anticipated when the Spanish ships, unable to conquer England, fled north around Scotland and were caught up in devastating storms. Many Spanish sailors drowned or were washed up on the Irish coast in their doomed effort to return to Spain. Drake managed to escape this carnage; in fact, he broke off from the battle to plunder treasure for himself, always the pirate. Despite his foibles, Drake, along with his English colleagues, dealt a decisive blow to Spanish prestige. It would not be the only conflict between these two countries. They would engage repeatedly, with one or another side winning. Nevertheless, the initial battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588 proved to be the turning point, marking the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire’s global dominance and England’s ascendance and mastery of the seas. Drake played a crucial role in bringing that about that historic transformation.

Q: How and where did Drake die? Has his body ever been found?

LB: Drake died of dysentery on January 27, 1596, in Portobelo Harbor, Panama. He had continued to fight the predatory Spanish until the end of his life, ending his naval career with a failed attempt to capture San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dysentery was a common, wretched, and often fatal affliction for sailors in that era. When he realized he was dying, he asked to be dressed in a full suit of armor, and he was buried at sea in a lead coffin. Although the general location of his watery grave is known, his body has never been found.

Q: What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you find anything that surprised you?

LB: I retraced Drake’s route through the Strait of Magellan in South America, comparing his observations to the terrain as I experienced it. (It was almost identical.) I did more research in London aboard a replica of Golden Hind, his ship, and at the Tower of London. I combed British archives in the Public Record Office for correspondence and eye-witness accounts. I checked his route with scientists at NASA. And I scoured libraries in the USA for more documents relating to Drake. Both the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and Houghton Library at Harvard, where I was on a library visiting committee at the time, proved helpful. I also came across a number of documents in Spanish about Drake – the Spanish were great record keepers – and translated them into English to get the Spanish side of the story. This was particularly helpful when dealing with a diplomat-spy like Mendoza, who wrote extensively about Drake to King Philip. Besides the fact that Drake accomplished as much as he did, I was surprised by the compassion he exhibited toward many of the peoples he encountered, who in turn admired him. He was even gallant with the Spanish captains and crew whom he swiftly captured, robbed, and freed, although he hated the Spanish. He was not a conquistador, he was a pirate, and a talented one at that.

Q: What kind of experience do you want readers to have with this book? What do you hope they take away from it?

LB: I wrote this book because I found the story to be a great adventure, and the characters irresistible and charismatic. There’s something about sea stories that I find compelling, and a circumnavigation seems irresistible to me. So I hope readers will be both entertained and informed about life in the early, precarious years of the Elizabethan era, when everything was up for grabs, and destinies could have gone one way or another. I also want them to show how much the quirky personalities of Drake and Elizabeth affected the outcome of events.