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An English Pirate Steals Silver for Queen Elizabeth I: August 9, 1573

This text comes from our book, From Sea to Shining Sea.

It was a warm, muggy night. Guided by the lights of the town, the men quietly sailed their boats into shore. They had come to this little Spanish town on the coast of Panama to rob it. They were pirates, hungry for Spanish silver and gold.

They found bars of silver in this town, called Nombre de Dios (“Name of God”), but they were unable to take much of it. The attack had gone off well, but their leader, Francis Drake, had been shot by one of the few Spanish men who defended the town. Fearful that the Spanish might gather and attack them in turn, the pirates withdrew from the town.

Though Francis Drake had fainted from loss of much blood, he soon recovered. He began making more raids on Spanish settlements on the Panama and South American coast—the region called the Spanish Main. Black slaves who had run away from their Spanish masters joined the pirates, as did French “privateers.” The jungles of this region made it easy for them to hide. From the cover of the

jungle, Drake and his men one day were able to ambush the mule train bringing silver from the mines to Nombre de Dios. Defeating the Spanish guard, Drake and his men seized much silver. On August 9, 1573, they sailed into Plymouth harbor in England, very rich men indeed.

Queen Elizabeth I confers knighthood on Francis Drake
Queen Elizabeth I confers knighthood on Francis Drake

Pirate though he was, Francis Drake did not have to hide what he had done from Queen Elizabeth, for she had sent him to the New World to steal Spanish silver. Drake was a privateer. Elizabeth was so pleased with Drake for bringing so much silver back home that she commissioned him to set sail on another and greater voyage. Drake, said the queen, was to try to sail all the way around the world.

Of course, the queen wanted Drake to raid Spanish settlements and attack Spanish ships on his trip. In his ship, the Golden Hind, and with a small fleet of four ships, Drake set sail in December 1577 for the coast of South America. Four months later, Drake reached the coast of Brazil. From Brazil he sailed south along the South American coast until he reached the Straits of Magellan between the tip of South America and Antarctica. So harsh was the weather in the straits that it took 16 days for Drake to pass them and round the tip of the continent.

Sailing northward along the west coast of South America, Drake attacked Spanish ships and pillaged Spanish settlements. Though he did not harm the people living in these settlements, he did steal their wealth—especially their gold and silver. Being a Protestant, Drake had no respect for Catholic churches but stole their sacred vessels (which were made of gold) and smashed their sacred pictures and crucifixes. It was for this reason that the Spanish called him el Draco, “the Dragon.”

Drake’s voyage took him as far north as the coast of California. Somewhere along this coast he came ashore and claimed the land for Queen Elizabeth. From this region, which he named “New Albion,” Drake sailed along the coast to the Olympic Peninsula in what is now the state of Washington. From there he crossed the wide Pacific, passed through the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed up the coast of Africa. Finally, on September 26, 1580, Drake arrived in Portsmouth harbor. The queen was so pleased with Drake that she came to Portsmouth to meet him. On board his ship, the Golden Hind, Queen Elizabeth knighted her “dragon.” He was, from then on, known as Sir Francis Drake.

In the coming years, Sir Francis would continue to serve his queen. When war finally broke out between Spain and England, Drake led a fleet to the West Indies, where he captured the Spanish towns of Cartagena on the coast of Colombia, San Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, and Saint Augustine in Florida. Drake finally met his own death in 1596 on another expedition against the Spanish in the West Indies. Placing his body in a lead coffin, his men cast it into the waters near Nombre de Dios.

If You Love Me...

Thomas Tallis composed liturgical music for King Henry VIII; Henry’s son, Edward VI; Henry’s daughter (by Catherine of Aragon), Queen Mary; and Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn. Despite Henry’s schism, and the Protestant establishment under Edward VI and Elizabeth, Tallis remained Catholic until his death in 1585, writing music both for Catholic and Anglican worship. This piece, “If You Love Me,” is an example of an anthem he composed for the English-language Anglican service.

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