The Anglican Pirate

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

It commemorates a significant event in our Anglican History.  It is a 57 foot high Celtic cross –  Drake’s Cross – erected in 1894 by Church of England, marking the landing of Sir Francis Drake in 1579 and what happened there.  

Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) was a key figure in the court of Elizabeth the First and a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Above all he was a seafarer and a privateer.  His contemporaries would applaud him for his leadership in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, his circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580, and his cheeky acts of unquestionable piracy against Spanish and Portuguese ports and ships along the coasts of Africa and the Americas, all done in the name of his sovereign.

By any standard his circumnavigation of the globe from 1577 to 1580 was remarkable. Under the orders of Queen Elizabeth the First,  Drake was chosen for the task.  His orders were so secret that we still don’t know exactly what they were. They were top secret.  Some things were obvious. He had to discover the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. This necessitated crossing the Atlantic and traveling down the coast of south America, then negotiating the Magellan Strait into the Pacific.  From there he would have to find an entrance to a possible passage through the West Indies and back to Europe. In an era where communication could take years and depended upon letters and word of mouth, and maps were scarce at best, it would be akin to flying to the Moon without a link to NAASA. 

Beyond this fairy-tale goal of adventure, other goals emerged.  It was clear that Drake and his fleet of five war ships would plunder their way down the Atlantic coast of South America, cross into the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan, and continue the pattern of piracy against Spanish flotillas and ports in the Pacific.  Why target those European neighbours in particular? 

Tensions between England and Spain could not have been higher. Pope Pius V had declared Elizabeth to be a heretic, a pretender, and a “servant of crime,” needing to be overthrown.  The Spanish court had taken up the challenge to dethrone England`s Protestant sovereign and Spanish spies were everywhere.  Drake’s voyage was England’s response to the Catholic threat. And he would become so successful at harassing the Spanish, that  his enemies would nick name Drake El Draque – “The Dragon” – and the King of Spain would place a 20,000 ducat bounty on him, dead or alive. That’s about $7 million Canadian.   Even beyond those goals there was the hope that an English settlement could be established that would preach the Gospel to the New World Natives and equip them to take a stand against their Spanish Catholic oppressors.

Drake was uniquely equipped to carry out all of these goals. He came from the coastal county of Devon. The Drakes and their cousins, the Hawkins, were legendary seafarers with a long history of piracy against the Spanish.  And Drake hated Catholics.

Drake’s father Edmund, had been a cloth seller in Devon. He was a tough man who could hold his own in a bar brawl. He converted to Protestant Anglicanism out of Catholicism under Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, and became a village vicar.  But Devon was rife with Catholic sympathizers. Edmund’s Protestantism, short temper, and the fact that he was married clergy and with a large family made the Drake family a target for violence. They left, and for a while lived on the south coast in the washed-up hull of a sailing ship.  These childhood experiences fueled young Drake’s passions.  He became master of his first ship at age twenty, and his anti-Catholic feelings defined his life.

The epic voyage left Plymouth on December 13, 1577 after a failed start in November.  The fleet had five ships with over 50 canon, a clear statement that this journey was more than exploratory.   They carried  164 men including seamen, archers, musicians, gentlemen adventurers, relatives from the Drake and Hawkins families, as well as the solidly Protestant Anglican chaplain and chronicler of the voyage, Reverend Francis Fletcher.  Drake’s ship was the Pelican, although its name would later be changed to the Golden Hind.  The voyage would last 2 years, 10 months, and 18 days, financed largely by raiding Spanish port towns and stealing cargo from Spanish ships. 

Not long into the voyage a treasure and a tragedy occurred. When Drake captured vessels, the first thing he did was seize the charts, astrolabes, and mariner’s compasses.  In January they captured the Santa Maria, and seized perhaps the most valuable treasure of the voyage – its captain, famed Portuguese navigator, Nuno da Silva. It was da Silva who would provide Drake with invaluable knowledge of the American coastlines. 

The tragedy was Thomas Doughty.  Doughty was a gentleman soldier and seaman in his own right.  Drake entrusted the Santa Maria to Doughty. Tensions arose.  Drake demoted him.  Relations deteriorated over a period of months.  Doughty bad-mouthed Drake’s leadership among the men, questioning the goals of the mission.  He even berated Drake publicly and took a swing at him. Doughty was charged with mutiny and treason. A jury found him guilty and sentenced to death.

Ever the good churchman, Drake made certain he and Doughty took Holy Communion together before Dougherty’s execution. Perhaps he believed it would give Doughty the opportunity to say his confession, receive absolution and be right with his Maker.  After the service, Drake arranged a small feast.  The men ate and drank together, even toasted to each other’s good health.  On July 2nd, 1578 Thomas Doughty publicly embraced Drake, prayed for the Queen and put his neck on the block and was beheaded. The execution of a gentleman seafarer left a spirit of dis-ease among the crew-members. Tensions surfaced between the working mariners and  the rest of the passengers. Matters weren’t  put to rest until August 11th.   

On August 11, 1578 at a communion service, the chaplain was about to preach, when Drake rose and stopped him. “I must preach this day myself,” he said, telling the men he had been upset by the grumbling.  He laid down an ultimatum. The gentlemen passengers could either work alongside the working mariners, or return to England.  All agreed to do their share, and Drake himself worked alongside them. The tone changed.  But stark terror was around the corner.

They came to the mouth of the treacherous Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America.  By this point Drake had three remaining ships.  He had them lower their topsail as a salute to Queen Elizabeth.  He announced that his ship, the Pelican, would be rechristened the Golden Hind.  After a church service, the Golden Hind, Marigold and Elizabeth entered the treacherous Strait of Magellan. Infamous for 20 foot waves and ice-bergs, Drake led his tiny fleet on the 300 plus miles in just 16 days. It had taken his Spanish predecessor, Magellan 37 days.  Then it happened.

The ships hit a terrifying gale on the Pacific side. The Elizabeth lost sight of Drake, turned back and returned to England and the Marigold was swallowed by the ocean. The Golden Hind was alone.  The storms pushed it southward and there Drake made a remarkable discovery – the land at the end of South America was a network of islands. Drake went ashore, most likely on the southern-most island – possibly Horn Island and in a moment of sacred silence lay face down on the ground, believing he had just reached the end of the world. Standing up he gazed across the open waters that would later be named after him, unaware that the continent of Antarctica lay beyond. On October 28, 1578 the winds calmed down, and the Golden Hind was able to make it way northward along the Pacific coastline of the Americas.

The Spanish never dreamed their enemy had rounded the Cape and entered the Pacific.  They were neither physically nor psychologically prepared for Drake’s seasoned attack capabilities. Drake’s years of piracy came to the fore.  The night-time raids on Spanish galleons and cargo ships filled the Hind with  tens of thousands of gold pesos, bars of silver, chests of jewels, wine, cloth, oriental porcelain, lumber, arms, artillery, and more importantly, navigational charts of the Pacific coast of both South and North America. The Hind’s firepower was unmatched as numerous challengers and port batteries discovered. He treated captive Spanish captains with respect, still he was a thorough Anglican Protestant reflecting a seething hostility to Catholicism, typical of his era, stripping Roman churches of anything of value, smashed crucifixes and statues and disdainfully using altar clothes to wipe his hands. 

The year 1579, Drake would make Anglican history.  It began with a personal best. In early March he did what he did best, seized a Spanish galleon off the coast of Ecuador. Nick-named the Cacafuego (“fishshitter”) it fell for a pirate’s common ruse.  Drake passed the Hind off as a merchant ship, came alongside, then opened fire with a barrage of  canon, musket and crossbow fire. It surrendered.  Drake wined and dined the captain and crew, gave each a gift,  then took their ship.  It was loaded with 80lb gold, 13 chests of pieces of eight, 26 tons of silver, jewels and pearls. It was an exquisite act of piracy.  But the most historical event was yet to come.

The late spring, early summer weather was unseasonably cold.  The ropes were coated with ice. Heading northward was slow going.  The Hind was war-weary, sea-worn, and its crew needed rest. On June 21st  it dropped anchor at what chaplain Fletcher called a “convenient and fit harbour,” probably in today’s San Francisco Bay.

A couple days afterward, probably on June 23rd or 24th the crew met to worship. Fletcher led the service using the Prayer Book.  Drake was recorded as saying: “Let us all, with one consent, both high and low, magnify and praise our most gracious and merciful God for his infinite and unspeakable goodness toward us. By God’s faith hath we endured such great storms and such hardships as we have seen in these uncharted seas. To be delivered here of His safekeeping, I protest we are not worthy of such mercy.”

It is widely believed this was the first Protestant service on North American soil, and most certainly the first Book of Common Prayer service on our shores. The Church of England erected “Drake’s Cross,” or more correctly, “The Prayer Book Cross” in San Francisco Bay Park on January 1, 1894 to commemorate this event.

Repaired, and caulked, the Golden Hind left Drake’s Bay a month later July 23. The men had feasted on mussels and sea lions that month.  They continued across the Pacific to the East Indies, Indonesia and home. Drake returned from his voyage around the world with the little Golden Hind on Sept. 26, 1580, “very richly fraught with gold, silver, pearls and precious stones.”  His diaries and journals were kept secret. He was knighted on board the Golden Hind, and when the Spanish Armada attempted to attack England’s shores in 1588, Drake left a game of lawn bowls to take the lead in Spain’s defeat.  Still his piracy never ceased. 

In his final years he was attacking Spanish ports and flotillas in the name of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth and the Protestant God he served.  He became fatally ill with dysentery during an attack on Puerto Rico.  He asked to be dressed in full battle armour, and died January 1579.  He was 54. His lead casket was slipped overboard and two captured ships were sunk at the site. The lead casket remains the unfound treasure for scuba divers.

A full-size replica of the Golden Hind was launched in 1973, and set out to circumnavigate the globe. On her maiden voyage she sailed into San Francisco Bay on May 8, 1975 under the shadow of Drake’s Cross.

 

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