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Greatest British Explorers: Sir Francis Drake

Greatest British Explorers: Sir Francis Drake

2 February 2022

At the Army Cadets Force, we live for adventure and exploration – in fact ‘Adventurous Training’ is an integral part of the ACF experience. Because these attributes are so ingrained in who we are, we’ve decided to take a look at the lives of some of the most famous British explorers of all time. To begin, we’ve jumped back in time 450 years, to one of the most well-known adventurers in history: Sir Francis Drake.

Drake is among the most famous Britons of all time for many reasons: his talent as a sea captain, his daring nature as a privateer, the controversy surrounding his legacy, and the endless rumours of buried treasure hoards. What solidifies him as one of the greatest British explorers, however, is his circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition; the second time any human being had successfully completed such a challenge.

Let’s take a closer look at the life of one of the most famous (and infamous) explorers in history.


Drake’s circumnavigation of the world took place in 1577, during what has since been dubbed the Age of Discovery when many European nations set out to explore the world. At the time, the Spanish navy was the wealthiest and most powerful on the seas, and they had established colonies over much of the globe, including the Americas. The English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, was more than a little envious.

Unable to win an all-out war, the Queen secretly approached private British ship captains, known as privateers, to request their assistance. While the English navy couldn’t be seen to be attacking Spanish ships, pirates could, and without any threat of war breaking out. This is how Drake – renowned sea captain and long-time nemesis of the Spanish – came to find himself with five ships under his command, setting out from Plymouth on the 13th of December 1577. His mission, ostensibly, was to explore the world… while causing as much damage to the Spanish navy as physically possible, naturally.


With five ships and 164 men under his command, Drake set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean, heading towards South America. It was a tough voyage, lasting 63 days, and due to a mixture of disease and battering storms, by the time they reached the coast of Brazil, he’d lost enough men to force him to abandon two ships – not exactly a flying start.

Annoyed but undeterred, in June 1578, Drake reached Puerto San Julian, in what is now Argentina, and decided to wait for the winter storms to pass. Ironically, without realising, Drake had chosen the same spot where the world’s first circumnavigation, led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, had rested, 58 years before.

Drake’s soldiers even found the grisly remains of some of Magellan’s men, executed for an attempted mutiny. Not one to be outdone, it was around this time that Drake accused his fellow adventurer and rival, Thomas Doughty, of witchcraft, and had him summarily beheaded in the same spot.


When the worst of the winter had passed, Drake’s three remaining ships continued south and crossed the Magellan Strait in sixteen days. At this point, possibly to counteract the low morale that had been brewing aboard due to all the storms, disease and head-chopping, he changed the name of his flagship, the Pelican, to the now-famous Golden Hind.

In September, Drake and his crew were the first English people ever to lay eyes on the Pacific Ocean. If they felt any sense of wonder at the scene, it didn’t last long; they were immediately battered by 52 days of hurricanes and storms.

The three remaining ships were scattered. One ship, named the Marigold, was sunk with all hands. Another, the Elizabeth, understandably thought ‘to hell with this’ and sailed back home. The Golden Hind was forced south to Cape Horn, where Drake discovered the open sea route around the southern tip of America. Today known as Drake Passage, anybody sailing it can expect some of the roughest waters on the planet.

In November, the winds finally eased, and Drake sailed north, up the west coast of South America. Weary from being hurled about by the ocean for months, the Golden Hind and her crew stopped off at Mocha Island for supplies, hoping to barter with the native people. However, the locals thought Drake’s men were part of the Spanish navy… which they passionately hated. This misunderstanding led to a bit of a scuffle, in which a lot of Drake’s sailors were pierced by a lot of arrows.


The crew escaped the locals of Mocha Island and continued their journey north, up the coast. Finally, after a year and a half of misfortune and chaos, they hit the jackpot. The Spanish settlers on America’s west coast hadn’t dreamt of an attack from the Pacific, as the English hadn’t yet got anywhere near it. Drake’s ship was able to take town after town by surprise, in one of the most successful sprees of plundering of all time.

The Golden Hind raided Valparaiso and Arica, in modern-day Chile, where they took wine, gold, and 40 bars of silver. Then they robbed every Spanish ship in the harbour of El Callao, Peru. Finally, they chased the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion to the coast of Ecuador. When they boarded the ship, they found a haul of 36 kilos of gold, 26 tons of silver, 13 chests of silver coins, jewels, and a golden crucifix, altogether worth around £45,000,000 in today’s money.


In April 1579, Drake continued up the coast of what is now the USA and Canada, going as far as modern-day Vancouver in his search for the ‘Northwest Passage’ back to the Atlantic. Cold weather forced them to turn back before finding it, and the Golden Hind sailed back down to California, which Drake titled New Albion.

While there, the Native Miwok people welcomed Drake and his men and gave them supplies. The English assumed it was because they were thought of as gods, however, modern historians believe that, due to their pale skin, the Miwok believed Drake and his men to be the spirits of their dead ancestors.


After five weeks repairing Golden Hind, Drake decided it would be impossible to return home the same way they’d come; after pillaging every settlement they’d come across, it was safe to assume their return to the area wouldn’t be welcomed. Instead, Drake opted to sail west, across the Pacific Ocean.

On the 23rd July of 1579, the Golden Hind set sail once again. This time, their ocean crossing took a total of 68 days. Finally, they reached Palau, then the Philippines – the point at which Ferdinand Magellan was speared into an early grave during his world-straddling voyage.

After a brief stint trapped in a coral reef and a two-week stopover in Java, Drake sailed across the Indian Ocean, homeward bound. The Golden Hind rounded South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in June 1580. And, finally, on the 26th September that year, the expedition’s 59 surviving crew reached Plymouth.


Drake’s expedition may have been the second to make it around the world, but Drake himself was the first captain to survive the whole voyage. Despite all the storms and general havoc of the three-year odyssey, it was considered a fantastically successful trip. Investors in the outing, including Queen Elizabeth I, made returns of 4600% on their investment. In honour of his services, Drake was knighted aboard the Golden Hind, moored at Deptford in London.

The ship was kept there for a hundred years, as a reminder of the great journey. It eventually crumbled away due to rot, however, if you head to the South Bank of the Thames, close to London Bridge, you can visit a replica of the famous vessel.

Despite areas of controversy elsewhere in Sir Francis Drake’s life, his circumnavigation of the globe and his dauntless spirit have immortalised his name among the greatest British explorers and adventurers. The Latin motto on his crest, Sic Parvis Magna, should speak to every young Army Cadet: “Greatness, from small beginnings.”

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