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Francis Drake, the Scourge of Spain.


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Francis Drake had a kinsman at Plymouth who had been the first Englishman to sail to the Brazils - William Hawkins, father of John, a rich merchant and shipowner. Drake's father, Edmund, had been a sailor in his youth, and was settled near Tavistock when Francis was a child; he was a strong "Reformation man," and his preaching had made him enemies, so that he had to fly and take shelter in an old ship at Chatham, where his friends obtained for him the post of Reader of Prayers to the Royal Navy. Thus little Francis drank in at a very early age the sights and sounds of the sea, while his mind was nursed on denunciations of Rome and hatred of religious tyranny. A man with twelve children must plant them out early, and Francis was apprenticed as a boy to the skipper of a small craft that traded to Holland. As a boy he thus was brought into contact with Flemings flying from persecution, and the horrors of the Inquisition were his daily subject of talk. The rough usage of those days built him up into a sturdy, thick-set, rollicking youngster; he must have shown a rare spirit even then, for his master liked him so well that at his death he left Francis the vessel on which he served.

In 1564 Spain closed her ports to the English, so Drake sold his ship and entered the service of his kinsmen, John and William Hawkins.

John had just returned from his first slaving voyage, and was being lionised in London on account of the enormous profits of his expedition.

Francis Drake sailed to Biscay under William, and at St. Sebastian met some Plymouth sailors who had just emerged half-dead from the dungeons of the Inquisition. Thus little by little the "Scourge of the Spanish Main" was being moulded by sights and sounds of cruelty to fight against Philip.

Then he sailed under Fenner to the West Indies and saw some sharp conflicts, was treacherously attacked, and came home empty-handed.

Again, in 1567, he sailed as pilot under John Hawkins to Guinea, took a prize, The Grace of God, and was made its captain.

It is very strange how history repeats itself, for Las Casas, the apostle to the Indians, was even then urging the employment of negroes to take the place of the Indians in South America, who died too quickly in their forced service: just as the Chinese were recently brought over to the Rand to save the lives of the Kaffirs. So John Hawkins had good authority for his kidnapping of African slaves, and may have thought he was doing good, not evil.

How the voyage prospered has been told in an earlier chapter.

But it sent home Hawkins and Drake in a temper that boded ill for Philip, if ever opportunity should make a great revenge a possibility.

Drake no sooner arrived at Plymouth than he was bidden by William Hawkins to ride post-haste to London to inform the Council of his ill-treatment. It was another argument in favour of war with Spain.

Drake took service in the Queen's Navy, and sailed under Sir William Winter to Rochelle, to convoy English merchantmen to the Baltic.

That summer he came home on leave and married Mary Newman, who was living at St. Bordeaux, close to Plymouth.

But his domestic happiness was soon broken off by his being ordered to sail with the Dragon and the Swan to the Spanish Indies. He was only to use his senses and find out where Spain was most vulnerable.

In the following year Drake sailed again with the Swan only; he made a few prizes, and treated his captives so humanely and generously that his name was at first not a word of terror, but associated with kindness.

However, he had come home with such a poor opinion of Spanish prowess that he conceived the idea of sailing to the Gulf of Darien and seizing the treasure-house and all its spoils.

On May 24, 1572, Drake sailed out of Plymouth Sound on board the Pasha, of 70 tons, with his brother John in command of the Swan, of 25 tons. His brother Joseph was there too, and John Oxenham and other volunteers; the crews numbered but seventy-three in all, and the project was to seize the port of Nombre de Dios, and carry off the gold and silver bars.

On July 12th he arrived at a tiny land-locked bay, where he had formerly been, and had concealed his stores - Port Pheasant, as he had styled it.

On landing they found a warning inscribed on a plate of lead and fastened to a huge tree: "Captain Drake, if you fortune to come into the port, make haste away, for the Spaniards have betrayed this place and taken away all that you left. - Your loving friend, John Garrett."

But Drake had intended to set up three pinnaces here, which he had brought over in pieces; so he cleared and entrenched a spot in the wood and set to work with his carpenters. As they laboured and hammered and sang, suddenly a little squadron sailed in, a ship, a caravel, and a shallop.

They were getting ready to defend themselves, when a hearty English "hail" rang out, "Who are you?" "Captain James Ranse, with Sir Edward Horsey's fleet."

"What! old Ned Horsey, the pirate! Come along and have a drink, sir!"

The frank, blue-eyed Drake laughed heartily and clapped on the back some of the newcomers, who had served under him the year before.

The upshot was that these thirty-eight men agreed to join Drake in his mad project; for there was a magnetic power in this born leader of men, as in all great leaders; they could not help believing in him and loving him for his very rashness and devilry - Drake, the Robin Hood of the ocean.

When the pinnaces were put together they stole along the coast, Seized and questioned some negroes whom they found, and heard that all the country from Panama to Nombre de Dios was held by a savage, black people, a mixed race of African escaped slaves intermarried with Indian women, and forming a tribe of splendid giants, formidable to their late masters, the Spaniards, and terribly cruel. But, owing to their recent outrages, the people of Nombre de Dios had sent to Panama for help, and Drake's surprise did not look feasible.

However, with seventy-three men armed, some of them with bows and arrows and gear for holding blazing tow, Drake crept along near the shore in the dark.

As they landed under the shore battery they heard the city waking to a panic, for they dreaded an attack of the half-breeds: first came a confused murmur, then women's shrieks, then shouts of command and the tuck of drums. Drake and his men rushed up the main street, meeting at the Plaza a splutter of gun-shots and then a long roar of musketry. In the midst of the fray John Drake and Oxenham broke in upon the Spaniards' flank, who turned and fled, pursued by flaming pikes and arrows. On entering the governor's house Drake saw a great pile of silver bars shining from floor to ceiling - a pile seventy feet in length.

"Not one bar to be touched, lads," shouted Drake, "till the fighting be done."

As they hurried back to the streets a tropical storm burst on them, and they had to take cover in a long shed. As they tried to repair the damage done to matchlock and bowstring, Drake marked the signs of fatigue and fear, and shouted: "Lads, I have brought you to the mouth of the treasure-house of the world. Blame nobody but yourselves if ye go away empty."

As Drake stepped forward to lead the way to the treasury door, he suddenly rolled over speechless in the sand. As they stooped to lift him, they noted a pool of blood, and a wound in his leg which he had hidden for some time. They carried him to the pinnace and rowed back to the ships, the sun just rising to see Drake's great failure, which had so nearly succeeded.

Next day a Spanish general rode round to the bay where Drake's ships lay, and asked if this was indeed the chivalrous "El Draque" who never drowned his prisoners?

"Yes," laughed Drake, "but go tell your governor that before I depart, if God lend me life and leave, I mean to reap some of your harvest which you get out of the earth, and send into Spain to trouble all the world."

In ten days' time Drake swooped down upon Cartagena, cut out a rich ship, and carried it in triumph out to sea; then the Spaniards lost sight of him and his. But Drake was only hiding in a pretty little bay, resting his men and feeding them with game and fish and fruit. A negro friend, Diego, put him in communication with the Maroons, as the mixed race was called, and they showed him how to seize the treasure as it was borne on mules across the isthmus. They had to wait till the dry season, so Drake kept his men cheery and well by games and daring cutting out of vessels; yet withal he displayed much caution and far-sighted skill in all he did, so that there were no laments, no thought of mutiny or discontent.

In December his brother John was killed while attacking a Spanish frigate full of musketeers: it caused Drake and many others great sorrow, for he had been a brave and trusty comrade.

In January 1573 a fever came and struck down half the company: Joseph Drake expired in his brother's arms, and soon after the Maroon scouts ran up to tell the English that the Spanish fleet had come for the treasure.

Only eighteen men were fit to go upon Drake's new adventure, and these with thirty Maroons plunged into the forest track. The Maroons were splendid scouts and hunters, and insisted on carrying all the burdens. On the fourth day they had reached the summit of the range, where stood up a giant of the forest; into this Drake climbed and saw before him the golden Pacific, behind him rolled the silver Atlantic. With strange feelings of wonder, piety, and ambition the great sea-rover gazed upon the unknown waters of the west, and prayed the Almighty to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea.

Then he climbed down and told the men of his prayer; thereat John Oxenham vowed a great vow, "Unless the captain doth beat me from his company, I will follow him, by God's grace so I will!"

He knew not how his prayer was to be in part heard, but instead of coming home with hands full of gold, he was to be taken and executed at Lima.

Meanwhile Drake's party went on, and lay in ambush a league outside the gates of Panama. A spy brought word that two large mule-trains laden with silver were in the market-place, making ready to start; while with them was to ride the treasurer of Lima, with eight mule-loads of gold and one of jewels.

They pulled their shirts over their clothes as for a night-attack, and lay in two companies some fifty yards apart.

What a momentous hour that was, as they waited for the tinkle of the mule-bells in the long grass! they had been bidden to lie quiet if any traveller came riding towards Panama. One such did come, and one fool, half-drunk, fired at him, sending him at a gallop to tell his friends that El Draque had sprung up again.

The astute treasurer bided in the city and sent on the silver only.

So when the tinkle grew loud and Drake stood up and blew his whistle, and the men sprang upon the mules and ripped open the bags - only silver was found. Soon they heard the tramp of armed men coming from Panama; there was no time to lose, they must abandon the loot and escape - that miserable drunkard had spoilt all. They made for Venta Cruz, and charged like madmen into the little town.

There was a hospital there, full of sick ladies and young mothers; these poor creatures believed they would all be burnt to death, and screamed aloud for mercy.

"Have I not ordered that no woman shall be touched?" said Drake.

"Yea, sir, but they will not believe it is true."

Then the dreaded rover, El Draque himself, entered the great ward of the hospital, and spoke words of comfort to the ladies; and when they saw the kind and merry light in his frank blue eyes, they were quite content.

Drake and his men were away before the soldiers came from Panama. Whither he went they knew not; but in the next fortnight two or three Spanish frigates reported having been boarded by a polite pirate, who insisted on relieving them of most of their gold. A panic set in, and the gold ships were afraid to stir.

On the last night of March, as the mule-trains, laden with silver and gold, were drawing near to Nombre de Dios, there was a sudden yell from the Maroons, "Yo Peho!" and a crashing of firearms. The mules knelt down, and Drake's men rifled the packs, and were away before the alarm could be given.

One day before this, a Huguenot privateer came across an English ship and begged for help. "Come on board and tell your story," signalled the English captain.

The Frenchman came and told a tale which startled all who understood. It was just the latest news from Paris - nothing else but the St. Bartholomew massacre!

"Just God!" cried Francis Drake, "may I do something to crush this tyranny!"

There and then the Huguenot and the sea rover made a compact to work together. The Frenchmen were with Drake when he made his attack on the mule-train, and helped to carry the silver bars to the river-mouth, where the pinnaces were to meet them. Drenched by a rain-storm they looked for the pinnaces; but, instead, saw seven Spanish vessels rowing towards Nombre de Dios. What was the good of their staggering under a weight of treasure if they had no means of carrying it home. They sat down and looked at one another in blank despair.

But Francis Drake alone was laughing - positively laughing - though his fate was apparently sealed; torture and a hideous prison, and a shameful death.

The Frenchmen gazed upon him with open-mouthed wonder. Who was this short, well-set seaman, with broad chest and long brown hair, with full beard tapering, brown to russet, with full blue eyes and fair complexion, that he should exercise so strange an influence over his men?

For already, when Drake came to them, and in a few cheery words heartened them, they smiled the smile of hope, and were ready to do his bidding.

"Now, boys, cheer up! See ye not how God hath sent a heavy storm to help us? What are those things drifting down with the current? are they not big trees sent to help us home, boys? Come, let us make a raft; we will reach our ships long before the lazy Spaniards have made up their minds how to catch us. This is no time to fear, but rather to haste, and prevent that which is feared. The raft, boys, the raft! quick! to stay the tree-trunks."

In a very short time they had caught and harnessed the drifting trunks - one Englishman and two Frenchmen joined Drake upon the raft. They had a biscuit-bag for a sail arid a slender tree for a rudder, and as they pushed off into the stream, Drake waved his hat and shouted cheerily:

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