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Book Review: Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate (by Harry Kelsey) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate, by Harry Kelsey, is published by Yale University Press, P.O. Box 209040, New Haven, CT 06520, $35, hardcover, 1998.

The title of Harry Kelsey's biography of Francis Drake aroused my curiosity:

Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Priate. Pirate? Wasn't Drake a naval hero of the likes of Nelson, a man of courage and daring? Well, not exactly, it seems. According to Kelsey, Drake was a rogue, and anything he did to advance the military causes of England were coincidental to his eager pursuit of plunder.

Born into a family of modest means, Drake was sent to live with his relatives, the better-off Hawkins family, to become educated and learn the life of a seafarer, merchant, and pirate. He quickly saw just how lucrative it could be to attack a ship or a town, plunder it, then demand a ransom as the price of leaving. He learned his lessons well and soon became adept at piracy. Whether or not a town paid the ransom, he frequently torched it before setting sail. His attacks on ships were usually more lucrative still. Over his career on the high seas, he captured, damaged, or burned so many ships, it is amazing that any were left afloat. Especially in the early years, slaves were often part of his booty.

England and Spain were at odds throughout Drake's maritime career. His attacks on Spanish ships and ports earned him infamy in that country and imparted lustre to his reputation in England. None other than Queen Elizabeth herself took a liking to the rascal, no doubt due to his making generous gifts to her from the spoils he brought back in the holds of his ships. Although he wasn't the first to go around the world, his circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-1580 gained him his knighthood. The Queen sent him on a number of missions against the Spanish, but her aims tended to be peripheral to his: using her funds and ships to line his own pockets.

Drake was a gifted sailor and pirate, but he could not share command, let alone get along with his partners or fellow officers. As a method of control, he fostered distrust among them. Early in his trip around the world, he went so far as to trump up a charge of mutiny against one of his partners, a former friend. Sowing fear in any who didn't go along with him, he succeeded in trying the hapless fellow in an impromptu "court" and having him beheaded. Drake planted distrust among the crew, too, and seemed to lose great portions of his men in battles, though quite a few fell to disease as well. On his last voyage, in 1594, Queen Elizabeth sent him to capture Panama. Unable to enlist a sufficient crew (I wonder why), he was permitted to impress–literally kidnap into service–all the men he needed. Nonetheless, Drake failed to capture Panama. He died of disease on the way home and was buried at sea.

Kelsey carefully dismantles Drake's reputation as a fine, deeply religious man who figured prominently in the founding of the English navy. Throughout the book he discusses the sources of the Drake legend and finds fault with many. The casual reader can be excused for skimming over these parts, assured by their presence that Kelsey's perception of the facts is well-founded, while serious students of history will revel in the minutiae.

Judy Sopronyi

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