In 1571 an anonymous merchant made his way through the tightly packed streets of Nombre de Dios, a town located on the Isthmus of Darien that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Panama and the Pacific Ocean. Even though great parts of South America, including Nombre de Dios, were under the control of the Spanish Crown, the merchant in question was no Spaniard. He was English to the bone, and his name was Francis Drake, explorer, seafarer, soldier and privateer.
Drake was on a reconnaissance mission to the Spanish town, which, even though it only consisted of some 200 houses, was a vital nerve center in the Spanish colonial empire. A few months of the year Nombre de Dios played host to the grand treasure galleons of the Tierra Firme fleet that came to carry the gold and silver mined high in the inland mountains of Central America home to Spain. In other words, Nombre de Dios was a storage town for the vast amounts of gold bars and silver ingots that the Spaniards brought to the coast on an almost monthly basis.
It was exactly this treasure that interested Drake. Before leaving Nombre de Dios, he secretly established contact with the
Cimaroons, a band of escaped slaves who had sought refuge in the jungle. Whereas the Cimaroons despised their former masters because of years of enslavement, Drake’s hatred for Spain was grounded both in religion (he was a Protestant, while the Spaniards were Catholic) and in prior clashes with the Spanish military — one of them in 1568, a surprise attack near San Juan de Ulua, Mexico, nearly cost Drake his life.
Drake returned to England, where he beseeched Queen Elizabeth I for a letter of marque — a royal commission that would allow him to plunder Spanish ships and ports in the New World. The relationship between England and Spain during the Tudor period was very complicated, and mutual hostilities frequently flared into conflict. For many English and Spanish privateers, the letter of marque was all that distinguished them from criminal pirates. They used the situation to gain riches, for both countries were eager to harass each other’s maritime commerce at any opportunity. Drake was granted his commission, making the queen herself a shareholder in the expedition.
Captain Drake weighed anchor and set sail from Portsmouth on May 24, 1572, with two ships, Pasco and Swan, and some 73 Englishmen as his crew. He fully intended to raid Nombre de Dios just before the treasure ships arrived, at the time when the Spanish king’s treasure house would be at its richest. Drake’s log described Pasco and Swan as weighing around 100 tons between them and “richly furnished with victuals and apparels for a whole year, and no less heedfully provided with all manner of ammunition, artillery, artificers’ stuff and tools.”
After an uneventful journey across the Atlantic, Drake landed on the small and uninhabited Isle of Pines in mid-June 1572. There, he revealed his plan of action to the crew and officers (among them, his brothers Joseph and John Drake). He had stowed three pinnaces in the storage rooms of his two ships, and these small canoelike, shallow-draft boats were now quickly brought out and made seaworthy. With these silent boats, Drake meant to slip into town quickly and unnoticed, hoping that a surprise attack might rout the Spanish militia.
After a few days’ rest the group of privateers set out in the moonlight armed with cutlasses, pistols, muskets and pikes. They beached their pinnaces around 3 a.m. and made their way undetected toward the harbor battery, which consisted of six guns. Having silenced the guards and secured the guns, Drake gave his final orders. He divided his men into two groups, one led by him and the other by his brother, John. John Drake’s group crept to the west end of the town where they attacked with roaring musket fire, flaming torches and ear-splitting trumpeting. The Spanish militiamen stumbled out of their barracks under the impression that they were being attacked by an entire army. John Drake and his men fired several volleys at the confused Spanish guards, and after a short-lived resistance the Spanish turned and ran from the fierce Englishmen.
The real goal of John Drake’s attack, however, was simply to create a diversion that would give his brother time to penetrate into the center of town. There, he and his men stormed the governor’s mansion, finding an enormous store of silver bars. Silver did not interest Francis Drake at that time, however — characteristically he had promised his men not just silver but gold, diamonds and pearls. So the band left the mansion and ran through the panic-stricken town toward the king’s treasure house.
It was at that point that things began to go wrong for the raiders. A group of Spanish soldiers opened fire, killing an English trumpeter and wounding Francis Drake in the thigh. The English privateer ran on, even though he was bleeding so profusely that blood filled his footprints in the sand, according to one of his companions. The group reached the treasure house, only to find the doors barred by a sturdy iron lock. Drake’s men were inclined to give up, but he urged them on with the words: “I have brought you to the treasure house of the world. If you leave without it you may henceforth blame nobody but yourself.”
That tirade motivated the Englishmen, who managed to break open the doors — only to find that the treasure house had been emptied six weeks beforehand. At that point Drake collapsed from loss of blood. Fearing a Spanish counterattack, the Englishmen gathered up their fallen leader and fled the scene, retreating into the thicket.
Francis Drake and his men sought refuge with the Cimaroons, the slaves who had fled from the Spaniards. Under their protection Drake regained his health and began to make plans. After being thwarted in his first plundering attempt, a lesser man than he might have given up and returned empty-handed. Instead Drake and his men raided the town of Vera Cruces and took up arms alongside Captain Guillaume le Testu, a French privateer operating in those waters with an 80-ton warship and about 70 men. During the fall of 1572, Drake camped some 50 miles east of Nombre de Dios, and his men built primitive houses that sheltered them during the rainy season. He raided a few Spanish settlements along the coast and led an expedition to plunder Spanish merchant ships that provided him with enough supplies to keep his men alive. When he returned to his base near Nombre de Dios in November, however, he learned that his brother John had been killed in an attempt to plunder a Spanish ship.
The bad luck didn’t stop there. Soon the poor living conditions and the wet season began to claim his men through yellow fever — including his other brother, Joseph, who died of the disease right after New Year’s Day 1573.
As soon as the wet season ended, Drake, still refusing to give up, led his men out of their camp and abandoned one of his ships, since there were not enough men left to crew it. He led his survivors through the marshy South American jungle until they reached Panama City. There, outside the city boundaries, they took shelter and waited. Drake knew that the treasure ships from Peru would arrive in Panama City and unload their precious cargo onto mule trains to be taken to other cities in the New World, where the loot would be placed aboard new galleons and shipped to Spain.
As he had in Nombre de Dios, Drake relied on the element of surprise for attacking the mule trains. He gave his men orders to take shelter along the road used by the mules and their drivers. When everything was ready, the English waited in ambush with cocked pistols and sharpened cutlasses.
The mule train came into view, and the Englishmen prepared themselves to jump out and frighten off or kill the mule drivers and the small escort. All those preparations were undone, however, when one of Drake’s men, who had been drinking, foolishly made a premature attack at the head of the column. That frightened off the rest of the mule train, which fled back into the protection of the city.
Having failed again, Drake, together with his Franco-English privateers and the Cimaroons, made his way back towards Nombre de Dios, where in April he learned that a train of some 190 mules was approaching the city loaded with silver from the Spanish mines inland. Drake and his allies surprised that train, drove away the 50 Spanish guards and found that every mule carried around 300 pounds of pure silver. Drake’s losses were insignificant compared to the treasure he could claim for England. Only one Cimaroon was killed, and Captain le Testu was wounded.
Drake decided that it was now time to return to Europe. The area was becoming dangerous, as the Spaniards had put a price on his head and a fleet was cruising up and down the coast looking for him. Escaping the fleet, he crossed the Atlantic loaded with silver and other riches. One of his crewmen wrote:
Within 23 days we passed from the Cape of Florida to the Isles of Scilly, and so arrived at Plymouth on Sunday about sermon time, August 9, 1573, at what time the news of our Captain’s return, brought unto his friends, did so speedily pass over all the church, and surpass their minds with desire to see him, that very few or none remained with the preacher, all hastening to see the evidence of God’s love and blessing towards our Gracious Queen and country, by the fruit of our Captain’s labour and success. Soli Deo Gloria.
Drake’s treasure amounted to some 15 tons of silver ingots and about 100,000 pounds sterling in silver coins. The coins alone would be worth more than $25 million today. Even though they did not receive the entire treasure themselves, Drake and his 30 surviving men were now extremely wealthy.
Although he and his crewmen netted a 20,000-pound sterling share of the loot, Captain le Testu was less fortunate than Drake. Opting to lie low with two of his men until he recovered from his wounds, he was found by the Spaniards, who killed him and displayed his head in Nombre de Dios.
Later in life Drake led several more raids on the Spanish colonies in the New World and circumnavigated the globe on his ship The Golden Hind. He also received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth for services rendered to his country.
Travelers’ tales and rumors claim that not all of Drake’s treasure made it back to England, that he hid a large part that he did not wish to share with the queen and the shareholders in his expedition. There is no proof of that story — only the myth that a fortune in silver coins, packed in several skin-bags or weighed-down barrels, lies somewhere on the bottom of Nombre de Dios Bay.