Skip Navigation Links The Library of Congress >> Especially for Researchers >> Research Centers
Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room (Library of Congress)
  Home >> Digitized Rare Books >> Drake Biography

Sir Francis Drake: A Pictorial Biography by Hans P. Kraus


- The Actors
- The Unfortunate Voyage
- Drake's First Success
- The Famous Voyage
- The Spanish Defenses
- The Caribbean Raid
- The Cadiz Raid
- The "Invincible" Armada
- The Beginning of the End
- The Last Voyage

Catalogue of the Collection

The Last Voyage, 1595-1596

Drake's last campaign was an expedition commanded jointly by him and his old associate Sir John Hawkins, under whom his career had had such a spectacular beginning at San Juan de Ulúa, in 1567. Nearly thirty years later, they sailed from Plymouth on August 28, 1595. Their primary objective was a treasure ship which had suffered damage at sea, and which was in the harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, with 2,000,000 ducats aboard.

The attempt to surprise this ship failed, as San Juan was well fortified and well defended. Drake then went to Nombre de Dios, on the Panama isthmus, which he used as a base for an attack on Porto Bello and Panama, where the treasure from Peru was carried across the isthmus for shipment to Spain. This attack (Dec. 27-30, 1595) was also a failure. They returned to Nombre de Dios, then sailed again; but on January 28th, 1596, Drake died at sea off Porto Bello. He was buried in the waters of the Caribbean, the scene of many of his most daring exploits, the next day, in a lead coffin.

The document to the left displays one aspect of this last voyage. It again was a joint venture, and to raise money for his investment, Drake sold his 71-year lease of a house called "The Herbar" in the Dowgate ward of London. The document is the one which Drake received as his record of the transaction; it is signed by the purchaser, Alderman Paul Banninge.

The Herbar was a most interesting building. It had been a royal residence, under King Richard III (1483-1485), and for a time it had been occupied by King Philip II of Spain's diplomatic chargé d'affaires in London (c. 1571-1578). Drake's lease of the property dates from November 6, 1588, so that it is quite possible that he purchased it with his prize money from the capture of the Rosario during the Armada campaign of that year.

Document recording Drake's sale of the lease of his house The Herbar in London
Document recording Drake's sale of the lease of his house "The Herbar" in London, 1593, apparently to finance his last expedition. [11]

Caro de Torres' Relacion, 1620, relating the success of Sotomayor. [38]
Caro de Torres' Relacion , 1620, relating the success of Sotomayor. [38]

On the Spanish side, the defenses at Panama were commanded by Don Alonso de Sotomayor (1545-1610), a soldier of great experience, who was sent there by the Viceroy of Peru and made commander-in-chief ("Capitan General"). The English troops were under Sir Thomas Baskerville (d. 1597) ("Coronel Tomas" in the text). Their attempt to cross the isthmus was defeated, and soon after this Drake died.

A biography of Sotomayor by Francisco Caro de Torres (c. 1560-1630) relates this Spanish success in detail. The author includes a lengthy eulogy of Drake, praising his courtesy, his outstanding performance as a navigator, especially in his circumnavigation, and lauds his humane treatment of prisoners--the latter indeed an exception in the generally brutal condition of sixteenth century warfare.

The text and translation of Caro de Torres' eulogy are printed on these two pages.

Francis Drake was greatly disheartened by the ill success of this voyage, which had caused the deaths of two commanders [Hawkins and Clifford] and of so many gentlemen, so he went with his fleet to the Escudo of Veragua, along the coast to the westward. There he took counsel with his brother and with Colonel Thomas [Baskerville] and with such others as were left; he declared to them that he was determined not to return

Passage on the success of Sotomayor from Caro de Torres' 


, 1620, continued. [38]
Passage on the success of Sotomayor from Caro de Torres' Relacion , 1620, continued. [38]

to England without again attempting the expedition up the Chagres River in launches, for so much time had by now passed that the Spaniards would be unprepared for them, and if they could reach the way station at Cruces it would be simple to capture Panama because from there the route was an easy one. He thought that it was better to be defeated than to return to England, where he would be disgraced in the eyes of the Queen and her favorites, for they would hold him responsible for the failure of the voyage and forget his previous successes. Therefore, with great courage, he resolved to renew his attempt, in the course of which he was overtaken by a fever which killed him. This was when the fleet had arrived at the mouth of the Chagres River, which may be considered famous as the scene of the death of so great a sailor. Although he had not been brought up a soldier by profession, his Queen gave him appointments as commander-in-chief of her forces, and employed him in positions of trust and honor. In his profession as a seaman he was one of the most outstanding mariners the world has ever seen: in sailing around it only Magellan preceded him. Despite such celebrity he was courteous and kindly to his prisoners, and hospitable to them, as reported by Captain Ojeda. Don Francisco de Zárate, who fell in with Drake in the Pacific, when he was voyaging from New Spain towards Peru, was sumptuously entertained; Drake discussed important questions with him and returned all his property to him with great humanity and courtesy--his silverware, his servants, a slave woman and his ship. This is a virtue which can never be sufficiently praised, even in enemies.

An anonymous Spanish Relacion covers the successful defense of Puerto Rico against the attempt to seize the treasure ship there. Events are related up to Dec. 20, 1595, and the license for printing is dated Feb. 21, 1596, less than a month after Drake's death, which of course was not then known in Spain. The present edition (hitherto only one other edition known) is unrecorded and possibly unique.

A translation of the text is on the opposite page.

  A contemporary account of Drake's repulse at Puerto Rico in an anonymous 


, 1596. [29]
A contemporary account of Drake's repulse at Puerto Rico in an anonymous Relacion , 1596. [29]


Everybody was surprised and overjoyed at this happy outcome, when two sail came in sight. We gave them chase until three in the afternoon, when our vice-admiral brought one of them by the lee, grappled with her and took her, leaving the Santa Isabel to keep her company. The flagship and the remaining vessels of the squadron continued in chase of the other ship. About then--that is to say, around four o'clock in the afternoon--the vice-admiral shot off three guns, as a warning to the flagship. Ordered to search the sea, the lookouts sighted nine sail coasting along the island of Guadeloupe. We thereupon abandoned the chase: the flagship returned to the convoy to pick up the frigates and spoke with [Vice-]Admiral Gonzalo Méndez, who transmitted the report he had extracted from the prisoners he had taken, as follows:

First, that they had de parted from Plymouth on 8th September in the year aforesaid, in company with a fleet commanded by the generals Francis Drake and [Sir] John Hawkins. The prize and her companion had lost company with the fleet in rough weather, four days earlier. Ships that might lose company had been ordered to rendezvous with the main body either at Bayona [in Galicia, on the north coast of Spain] or at Puerto Santo [in the Canary Islands] or off Guadeloupe [as might be requisite according to the stage of the voyage reached]. If they did not fall in with the fleet at those roadsteads they were to proceed to Puerto Rico where they were told the expedition would spend ten days. They had fallen with the island on the previous afternoon, and had sighted and counted nineteen sail, but had not succeeded in fetching them to speak with them; then they had taken our frigates for ships of their own squadron, and that was why they had fallen in with our flotilla.

Asked how strong their fleet was, they said that it consisted of 26 sail. Of these six were Queen's ships: five of them ranged from 800 down to 500 tons, and the other was of 300. Among the remaining 20 vessels, which were adventured by private persons, some were comparable to them in strength and burthen. All of them were under orders from the Queen.

Asked what effect the fleet was intended to accomplish when it left England, witness said that he knew no more than that it was to proceed to Puerto Rico and there take the silver; but that it was so well victualled and stored that the men believed that they were expected to spend a long time in the Indies.

News of Drake's death spread slowly. On June 20, 1596, Andres Armenteros, a member of the Council of the Indies, the Spanish governmental committee which supervised operations in America, wrote from Seville to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Drake's old opponent at Cadiz and during the Armada campaign. He informed the Duke that Drake was dead, and that his body had been carried back to England in a barrel of beer--this latter detail was of course not true.

Armenteros also speaks of a combined English-Dutch flotilla which was being assembled. Even as he wrote, this fleet was sailing towards Spain, under the command of the Earl of Essex and Lord Howard of Effingham, both of them old military associates of Drake.

Their successful attack on Cadiz (June 22-July 5, 1596) was a repeat performance of Drake's stunning attack on that same city in 1587, and the flames of this raid, as the Spanish war and merchant ships were again being destroyed, form a fitting postscript to the career of the great warrior and discoverer.

The Armenteros letter (reproduced to the right) is unpublished, so far as we can discover. A translation of the portion that relates to Drake is printed below.


I received your Grace's letter, of which I return a transcript herewith, and I gave it to the Flemings to make them understand the obstacles to the plans for trade in Calais. They called a meeting and discussed the question exhaustively, eventually deciding that what has been set down in the margin of the transcript will be the best course for His Majesty's service. I send this to Your Grace so as to comply with Your Grace's instructions, for this is the right and profitable course of action. Your Grace will already be aware that Drake's fleet on its return reached England with only five ships, and very few men in them: Drake's body was on board, embalmed, in a beer cask. Because of this failure the preparations of another war fleet which was being got ready in England, with ships from Holland and Zeeland participating, have been wrecked, because they were planning to fit it out with the two million pieces of eight that they wrongly thought Drake had been successful in capturing at Puerto Rico...

I kiss Your Grace's hands, those of Her Grace the Duchess, etc. Seville, 20 June, 1596.

The Licentiate Armenteros.

A hitherto unpublished letter of Andres Armenteros to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, reporting that Drake's body, embalmed, was brought back to England in a beer cask, 1596. [13]
A hitherto unpublished letter of Andres Armenteros to the Duke of Medina Sidonia, reporting that Drake's body, embalmed, was brought back to England in a beer cask, 1596. [13]

The account of Drake's last voyage in the third volume of Hakluyt's 

Principal Navigations

, 1600. [30]
The account of Drake's last voyage in the third volume of Hakluyt's Principal Navigations , 1600. [30]

The most comprehensive account of these dramatic events, as seen by the Englishmen whom Drake commanded on his last voyage, is a temperate and reliable narrative which corrects the many erroneous Spanish stories about it, some of them found when Howard and Essex sacked Cadiz. Though the story that follows is very nearly contemporary with the operation, for this second and definitive edition of Principal Navigations [30] Richard Hakluyt took care to see that it was complete and impartial. This chronicle of the final decline of Drake's fortunes (Volume III, pp. 583-590) is probably by one of his captains and the beginning is reproduced above.

In undertaking this narration of the life of Sir Francis Drake the object throughout has been to present it as it was seen through the eyes of the men of his time. So, if it is to be concluded fittingly, the last word must, by right, belong to his great countryman Richard Hakluyt. It is unthinkable to leave the English hero to the fate to which Licentiate Armenteros (see p. 176) consigned him when so incomparable a historian of voyages and discovery has recorded, in the present account, exactly how the greatest of English mariners did meet his end. The close of the epic story of the life of Sir Francis Drake, as told by Richard Hakluyt (Volume III, pp. 587-588) only four years afterwards, is transcribed below.

The 29 [December, 1595] sir Thomas Baskervil with 750 armed men, besides Chirurgians and provand boyes [boys serving for an allowance of food, without pay] went for Panama.

The last of December the Generall [i.e., Drake] burned halfe the towne, and the first of Januarie [1596] burnt the rest, with all the Frigats, Barks & Galiots, which were in the harbour and on the beach on shore, having houses built over them to keep the pitch from melting.

The second of January sir Thomas returned with his souldiers both weary and hungry, having marched more than halfe the way to the South sea...The march was so sore as never Englishman marched before...upon the top of an hill, through which we must needes passe, the Spaniards had set up a Fort and kept it with some 80 or 90 men, who played upon us as we came up, before wee were aware of them, and so killed some twentie or more among us...Then sir Thomas had perfect knowledge that they must passe two such Forts more, [even] if he got that [one], besides [knowing] Panama to be very strong, the enemie knowing of our comming long before.

Also our souldiers had no victuals left, nor any meanes to get more; which considerations caused sir Thomas to return and give over his attempt...the 5 [January] we set saile at 12 of the clocke, and stood to the westward.

The 10 day we saw an Iland lying westward some 30 leagues called Escudo, where wee came to anker...we sawe a roader [i.e., a vessel riding at anchor], who seeing us, set sayle, but that night with our Pinnesses we tooke him...The men being examined by the Generall confessed him to be an Advisor sent from Nombre de Dios to all the ports along the coast westward...It is a sickly climat...and given to much raine: here we washed our ships and set up the rest of our Pinnesses.

Cover of the oval container preserving the Silver Map of his circumnavigation, bearing Drake's coat of arms. [58a]
Cover of the oval container preserving the Silver Map of his circumnavigation, bearing Drake's coat of arms. [58a]

The 15 day Captaine Plat died of sicknesse, and then sir Francis Drake began to keepe his cabin, and to complaine of a scowring or fluxe.

The 23 we set saile and stood up again for Puerto Bello, which is but 3 leagues to the Westwards of Nombre de Dios.

The 28 at 4 of the clocke in the morning our Generall sir Francis Drake departed this life, having bene extremely sicke of a fluxe, which began the night before to stop on him. He used some speeches at or a little before his death, rising and apparelling himselfe, but being brought to bed againe within one houre died. He made his brother Thomas Drake and captaine Jonas Bodenham executors, and M. Thomas Drakes sonne [the later Sir Francis Drake, first baronet] his heire to all his lands except one manor which he gave to captain Bodenham.

The same day we ankered at Puerto Bello, being the best harbour we found along the maine both for great ships and small...After our comming hither to anker, and the solemne buriall of our Generall sir Francis in the sea: Sir Thomas Baskervill being aboord the Defiance,... M. Bride made a sermon, having to his audience all the captaines in the fleete.

  Top of Page
Top of Page
  Home >> Digitized Rare Books >> Drake Biography
  The Library of Congress >> Especially for Researchers >> Research Centers
  October 25, 2005
Contact Us:  
Ask a Librarian