The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10

Author: Julian Corbett  | Date: A.D. 1586-1587

Drake Captures Cartagena;
He "Singes the King of Spain’s Beard" at the Cadiz

A.D. 1586-1587


Sir Francis Drake (born in Devonshire about 1540; died in 1596), greatest of the Elizabethan seamen, has been the subject of perhaps equal praise and blame at the hands of the world’s historians. So famous were his exploits, and so scanty the actual knowledge of them in his own time, that "he was not dead before his life became a fairy-tale." But history has distinguished fact from legend in the life of this naval hero, whose undisputed achievements have kept his name conspicuous among his country’s foremost sea-fighters.

He began his career in the coasting-trade, sailed with Sir John Hawkins in 1567, and three years later began privateering operations against the Spaniards in the New World, by way of making good the losses which they had inflicted upon him. These depredations on Spanish possessions were continued through many years, with occasional attacks upon the coast of Spain itself. "By Spanish historians," says an English writer, "these hostilities are represented as unprovoked in their origin, and as barbarous in their execution, and candor must allow that there is but too much justice in the complaint."

Whether justifiable or not, these aggressive acts of Drake had much to do with the desire for revenge upon England which led Philip II to prepare for a great invasion of that country. Drake, on his return, in 1580, from the first English circumnavigation of the globe, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. She now gave him important commands, and from this period at least his career may be regarded in connection with the regular service of his sovereign.

In the autumn of 1585 Drake sailed with twenty-five ships against the Spanish Main, harrying the coasts of the West Indies and of northern South America. Cartagena, which he captured in 1586, was the chief port and stronghold of New Granada (now Colombia). By this feat, as also by his "singeing of the beard of the Spanish King" at Cadiz next year, he assailed with telling effect the power with which England was at once to be brought into more serious conflict.

The mill of Philip’s purpose went grinding on relentlessly. He invited a large fleet of English corn-ships to the relief of his famine-stricken provinces, and then, as they lay unsuspecting in his ports, he seized them every one. Never once was the growing armada out of his mind. This atrocious outrage was but to feed his monster, and swift and sharp was the retribution it earned. It was in the last days of May, and, ere June was out, far and near the seas were swarming with English privateers, and "The Dragon" was unchained.

Fortified with letters of marque to release the embargoed vessels, Drake hoisted his flag at Plymouth on the Elizabeth Bonaventura, and there, by the end of July, "in all jollity and with all help and furtherance himself could wish," a formidable fleet gathered round him. Frobisher was his vice-admiral, Francis Knollys his rear-admiral, and Thomas Fenner his flag-captain. Christopher Carleill was there, too, as lieutenant-general, with a full staff and ten companies under him. No such privateering squadron had ever been seen before. It consisted of two battle-ships and eighteen cruisers, with their complement of store-ships and pinnaces; it was manned with a force of soldiers and sailors to the number of two thousand three hundred, and it is not surprising that constant difficulties delayed its departure.

Yet delay was dangerous in the extreme. The Spanish party had again taken heart, and were whispering caution in the Queen’s ear. Even Burghley grew nervous that she would repent; but at last he got sailing-orders sent off, and, with a sigh of relief, entered in his diary that Drake had gone. To his horror came back a letter from the admiral still dated from Plymouth, instead of from Finisterre, as he had hoped, and he sent down a warning to urge the immediate departure of the fleet. August wore away, and the equipment was still incomplete, when Drake, who was now in constant dread of a countermand, was alarmed by Sir Philip Sydney’s suddenly appearing at Plymouth and announcing his intention of accompanying the expedition. Determined to have no more to do with courtiers and amateur soldiers, he secretly sent off a courier to betray the truant’s escapade to the Court. He must even be suspected, in his desperation, of having set men in wait to intercept and destroyany orders that were not to his liking. The precaution was unnecessary. Sydney was peremptorily stopped, and ere any letter came to stay Drake, too, the wind had shifted northerly, and, all unready as he was, he cleared for Finisterre.

There he arrived on September 26th. He was clear away, but that was all. He was short both of water and victuals. There had not even been time to distribute the stores he had, or to issue his general orders to the fleet. He smelt foul weather, too; and, determined to complete somewhere what he had left undone at Plymouth, he boldly ran in under the lee of the Bayona Islands in Vigo Bay. The old Queen’s officers were aghast. Entirely dominated by the prestige of Spain, they believed that nothing could be done against her except by surprise, and they trembled to see their admiral thus recklessly fling his cards upon the table. But he knew what he was doing. As with sagacious bravado he had sprung ashore at Santa Marta, and had mocked the Spanish fleet in Cartagena harbor, so now before he struck he exulted that his unfleshed host should hear him shout "En garde!" to the King of Spain; that they should listen while he cried that England cared not for spying traitors, for she had nothing to conceal; that her fleets meant to sail when and where they would, and Philip might do his worst. It was a stroke of that divine instinct which marks out a hero from among able captains—the magic touch of a great leader of men, under which the dead fabric of an army springs into life and feels every fibre tingling with the strong purpose of its heart.

Two leagues from the town of Bayona the fleet anchored; and resolved at once to display his whole strength, and exercise his men in their duties, Drake ordered out his pinnaces and boats for a reconnaissance in force. His boldness bore immediate fruit. The Governor sent off to treat, and by nightfall it was arranged that troops should land, and in the morning be allowed to water and collect what victuals they could. But at midnight the threatened storm rolled up. The troops were hurriedly reëmbarked; and, barely in time to escape disaster, the flotilla regained the ships. For three days the gale continued, threatening the whole fleet with destruction till it was got safely up above Vigo. There the whole of the boats in which the panic-stricken inhabitants had embarked their property were captured,and, though by this time the Governor of Bayona had arrived with a considerable force, he was compelled to permit Drake to carry out his purpose in peace.

By October 8th he was out in the Bayona road again, waiting for a wind to waft him on his way, and it was reported at the Spanish court that he had gone toward the Indies. The consternation was universal. The Marquis of Santa Cruz, high admiral of Spain and the most renowned naval officer in Europe, declared that not only the African islands, but the whole Pacific coast, the Spanish Main, and the West Indies were at the corsair’s mercy, and told his master that a fleet of forty sail must be instantly equipped for the pursuit. But though for another fortnight Drake rode defiantly at the Bayona anchorage, not a limb of Philip’s inert machinery could be moved against him; and, while the chivalry of Spain chafed under their sovereign’s deliberation, the second blow was struck.

Madeira was passed by and the Canaries spared; for Palma, which Drake intended should revictual him, showed so bold a front that he would not waste time in trying to reduce it. It was on another point that his implacable glance was fixed.

Five years ago at Santiago, the chief town of the Cape Verd Islands, young William Hawkins, a personal adherent of Drake’s, had been made the victim of some such treachery as his father and captain had suffered together at Vera Cruz. From that hour it was doomed. In the middle of November the fleet arrived in the road and the troops landed. Threatened by Carleill from the heights above the valley where it lies, and from the sea by Drake, without a blow the town was abandoned to its fate. For ten days the island was scoured for plunder and provisions, and ere the month was out the anchorage was desolate and Santiago a heap of ashes.

Drake’s vengeance was complete, and, exulting like Gideon in the devastation that marked his course, he led his ships across the Atlantic. Is there a moment in history more tragic than that? For the first time since the ages began, a hostile fleet was passing the ocean—the pioneer of how many more that have gone and are yet to go—the forerunner of how much glory and shame and misery! What wonder if the curse of God seemed upon it? Hardly had it lost sight of land when it was stricken with sickness. In a few days some three hundred men were dead, and numbers of others prostrate and useless; but in unshaken faith, and with reverent wonder at the inscrutable will of Heaven, Drake never flinched or paused. His only thought was how to check the evil. At Dominica he got fresh provisions from the natives, and refreshed his sick with a few days on shore. At St. Christopher he again halted to spend Christmas and elaborate the details of his next move.

The point where Philip was now to feel the weight of his arm was the fair city of Santo Domingo in Española. It was by far the most serious operation Drake had yet undertaken. Hitherto his exploits had been against places that were little more than struggling settlements, but Santo Domingo was indeed a city, stone-built and walled, and flanked with formidable batteries. It was held by a powerful garrison, as Drake learned from a captured frigate, and a naval force had been concentrated in the harbor for its defence. As the oldest town in the Indies, its renown had hitherto secured it from attack, and in Spain it was held the queen city of the colonial empire. The moral effect of its capture would be profound, and, besides, from Virginia the governor of Raleigh’s new colony had sent home a fabulous report of its wealth. Drake was fully alive to the gravity of the task before him. His dispositions had never been so elaborate, and they evince at least a touch of that military genius which the strategists of the next century denied him. While the sick were recruiting he sent forward a squadron to reconnoitre, and, if possible, to open communications with the maroons who infested the hills. For three days the garrison was thus exhausted with constant alarms, and then on January 1, 1586, the whole fleet appeared in the bay.

Night fell, and, as darkness closed the eyes of the harassed garrison, with the fleet all was activity. In boats and pinnaces the troops were being rapidly embarked, and soon Drake in person was piloting the flotilla for the surf-beaten shore. At a point within the bay, but some ten miles from the town, a practicable landing-place had been found. Watch-houses overlooked it, but watchmen there were none. Drake had got touch with the maroons. By his directions a party of them had stolen down from the hills, and as the sentries came out from the city in the evening, swiftly and silently they had been every one despatched. Thus, unseen and unmolested, the troops were successfully landed, and then, with pious and cheery farewells to Carleill, Drake returned to the fleet to prepare the ground for the surprise.

In the morning he anchored in the road, ran out his guns, and proceeded to threaten a landing at a point close to that side of the town upon which Carleill was stealthily approaching in two parallel columns. As the Spaniards saw the fleet preparing the advance of the boats and pinnaces, the whole of the horse and a large force of foot marched out of the town to oppose the threatened attack, and took up a position fronting the sea, with their left resting on the town and the other flank exposed in the line of Carleill’s advance. It was exactly what had been foreseen, and, ere the Spaniards had discovered that the movement from the fleet was merely a feint, the horse which were covering their exposed flank were flying before Carleill’s musketeers.

The surprise was complete. Taken in flank by Carteill, and threatened in the rear by his second column under Powell, the chief of the staff, the infantry could make no real resistance; and so rapidly was the English advance pushed home that the struggling mass of friend and foe entered pell-mell through the open gates of the town. For an hour, alarms of drum and trumpet mingling confusedly with the sounds of street-fighting reached the listening fleet as the two columns forced their way to meet upon the Plaza. But how they fared none could tell, till on a tower a white staff suddenly appeared, and in another moment the cross of St. George fluttered gayly out upon the breeze. With a roar of triumph the ships’ guns saluted the signal of victory. The town was won.

Though the garrison fled panic-stricken across the river on the far side of the city, and the citadel was evacuated in the night, the place was far too large to be occupied by the force at Drake’s command. Following, therefore, the same tactics that had been successful at Nombre de Dios, he ordered the troops to intrench themselves in the Plaza and to occupy the principal batteries. In this way he held the city for a month. The plunder was disappointing. The city was already a hundred years old, and its day was done; for the reckless native policy of the colonists had almost ruined the island. It remained but to treat for a ransom. The Governor at once declared himself unable to meet the extravagant demands of the English admiral, and in order to bring him to terms Drake began to burn the town piecemeal. But so well was it built that little harm could be done, and every day his impatience increased.

Once, in the course of the negotiations, he sent a boy with a flag of truce to the Spanish camp. A Spaniard, meeting the lad, so ill-treated him that he could barely crawl back to die at the admiral’s feet. Then all the fury of Drake’s nature burst forth. Two friars who were among the prisoners were immediately sent ashore and hanged by the provost-marshal on the scene of the crime. Another was despatched to the Spanish camp to declare that two more would be executed every morning until the offender was brought down and hanged on the spot by his own authorities. In hasty alarm the demand was complied with, and then the international dinners and the negotiations went on more smoothly. Convinced at last of the poverty of the colony, Drake accepted a ransom of twenty-five thousand ducats. The sum, which is equal to about fifty thousand pounds of our money, though little enough to satisfy the shareholders, was very serious for the enemy. For besides this loss the town had been stripped of everything worth carrying away by the troops and seamen. Two hundred forty guns were taken on board the English ships; and not only were they thoroughly refurnished from the Spanish stores, but for a month the whole expedition had lived in free quarters at the enemy’s expense. The entire fleet which lay in the harbor fell into Drake’s hands, and, with the exception of four of the finest galleons, was given to the flames. Besides the vessels which the Spaniards themselves had scuttled, two galleys with their tenders, fifteen frigates, and a galleon were thus destroyed, and hundreds of galley-slaves set free.

"It was such a cooling to King Philip," said one in Europe as the news leaked out, "as never happened to him since he was King of Spain." But as yet Drake was far from done. In the middle of February, with his force recruited by the English prisoners he had freed, and with a troop of attendant prizes laden with his spoil, in undiminished strength he appeared before Cartagena. No city in America was more difficult of approach, butthe memories of the old hard days were still green, when, storm-beaten, drenched, and chilled, without food or shelter, he had ridden in the harbor day after day in despite of all the Spaniards could do, and he knew it all like a pilot. The city was built close to the shore fronting west, and directly from its southern face an inlet of the sea stretched many leagues southward along the coast, forming a large lagoon. The long spit of land which separated this sheet of water from the sea was pierced by two natural channels. At the far end was the dangerous Bocca Chica, and some three miles from the city was a larger entrance known as the Bocca Grande. Between this entrance and the town a tongue of land ran out at right angles from the spit to the opposite shore, forming an inner harbor and barring all approach to the city from the outer part of the lagoon, except by a narrow channel which lay under the guns of a powerful fort on the mainland.

On its northern and eastern faces the city was encircled by a broad creek, which ran round it from the inner harbor to the sea in such a way as to form a wide natural moat, rendering the city unapproachable from the mainland except by a bridge. This bridge was also commanded by the harbor fort, nor were land operations possible at any other point except from that part of the spit which lay between the city and the Bocca Grande. So finely, however, did this narrow down before the city could be reached, that between the inner harbor and the sea it was but fifty paces wide, and here the Spaniards had had time to prepare defences that looked impregnable. From shore to shore a formidable entrenchment completely barred the way; and not only was its front so staked and encumbered as to render a night attack impossible, but its approaches were swept by the guns and small-arms of a great galeas and two galleys which lay in the inner harbor.

To a man so tender as Drake ever was for the lives of his men and the safety of his ships, to attack such a place might well have appeared hopeless; but the originality of the amphibious corsair at once descried a hole which had escaped all the science of the Spanish martialists. Instead of entering by the Bocca Grande, with consummate skill and daring he piloted the whole fleet through the dangerous channel at the extreme end of thelagoon. The only impression which so hazardous a movement could create in the minds of the Spaniards was that he was about to repeat his Santo Domingo operations, and land his troops there to attack from the mainland. Such an impression must have been confirmed as, moving up the lagoon, he anchored opposite the Bocca Grande and threatened the harbor fort with his boats; but Drake’s project was far different. Instead of being landed on the mainland, Cafleill with eight companies was quietly slipped ashore in the Bocca Grande, with instructions to make his way diagonally through the woods that covered the spit till he reached the seashore, and then, instead of advancing on the front of the intrenchments, to wade along through the wash of the surf till he was within striking distance of the Spanish position.

Meanwhile Frobisher advanced with the flotilla against the harbor fort, and as soon as Carleill was heard in contact with the enemy’s pickets he opened fire. The boat-attack was repulsed —indeed, it may only have been intended as what soldiers then called "a hot alarm"—but Carleill was completely successful. By the march through the surf he had not only evaded the obstacles which the enemy had so carefully prepared, but he had been covered from the fire of the galleys in the harbor, and had never so much as entered the fire-area of the heavily armed intrenchments. After a desperate struggle at push of pike, the position was carried by assault, and once more so hotly was the advantage pursued that in one rush the whole town was captured. The garrison fled across the bridge to the hills, and the next day, when Drake brought up the fleet to bear upon the fort, that also was evacuated.

No success was ever better earned and few more richly rewarded. Cartagena was the capital of the Spanish Main, and though much younger than Santo Domingo it was far wealthier. It yielded rich loot for the men; and for his shareholders Drake, after a long negotiation, succeeded in exacting a ransom of a hundred ten thousand ducats, besides what he got for an adjacent monastery. Though to all this plunder Drake could add the consolation that he had destroyed the galleys and shipping which crowded the port, and blown up the harbor fort which the Spaniards had forgotten to include in the convention,he was still unsatisfied. Well knowing that by an advance up the Chagres River in his boats Panama lay at his mercy, he was resolved with its capture to crown the campaign; but as he lay in Cartagena the sickness, which had never really ceased, broke out again with new virulence, and made such havoc with his force that he had reluctantly to confess that Panama must wait. To capture it with the crippled means at his command was impossible, and the only question was whether Cartagena should be held till he could return with reënforcements.

The soldiers declared themselves ready to undertake the task; but in a full council of war it was finally decided that no strategical advantage would be gained at all proportional to the risk that would be run in further weakening the fleet, and on the last day of March the signal to make sail home was flying from the Elizabeth Bonaventura. So severely, however, did they suffer from the weather and want of water that it was nearly two months before they reached the coast of Florida. Still Drake found time and energy to destroy and plunder the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine, and relieve Raleigh’s exhausted colony in Virginia. With the remnants of the settlers on board, he weighed for England, and on July 28, 1586, he was writing from Plymouth to Lord Burghley laconically reporting his return; and, apologizing for having missed the Plate fleet by only twelve hours’ sail—"the reason best known to God"—he declared that he and his fleet were ready at once to strike again in any direction the Queen would be pleased to indicate.

"There is a very great gap opened," said Drake in his letter to Burghley, "very little to the liking of the King of Spain." That, with the calm request for orders, was his comment on a feat which changed the destinies of Europe. At its fullest flood he had stemmed the tide of Spanish empire. It was no less a thing than that.

A few months ago all Europe had been cowering in confused alarm before the shadow of a new Roman empire. Ever since the first triumph of Luther, the cause of Reformation had been steadily losing ground; on England and the Low Countries hung its only hope, and with the fall of Antwerp Europe saw itself on the eve of that "last great battle in the west" which must decide its fate for centuries. In despair of the result, each tremblingpower was trying to hide behind the other; each was thrusting its neighbor forward to break the coming blow; and Philip led the cheating till his hour should come. He was bent on crushing Elizabeth; and then, with one foot on the ruins of her kingdom, he meant to stamp down his rebellious Netherlands into the gloomy Catholicism in which his own dark soul was sunk. As the fruit of his splendid deliberation ripened, he strove to cheat Elizabeth into inactivity by a hope that peace might yet be purchased by the betrayal of the Netherlands.

Then in laughing gusts came over the Atlantic the rumors of his exploits, till the full gale they heralded swept over Europe, whirling into oblivion a hundred intrigues and bending the prestige of Spain like a reed. The limitless possibilities of the new-born naval warfare had been demonstrated, and the lesson startled Europe like a revelation. An unmeasured force was added to statecraft, and a new power had arisen. The effect was immediate. Men saw the fountain of Spanish trade at England’s mercy; they knew how narrowly the Plate fleet had escaped, and a panic palsied Philip’s finance. The Bank of Seville broke; that of Venice was in despair; and the King of Spain, pointed at as a bankrupt, failed to raise a loan of half a million ducats. Parma was appalled. With his brilliant capture of Antwerp he had seen himself on the brink of that great exploit with which he hoped to crown his career; and now, instead of a host armed at all points for the invasion of England, he saw around him a broken army it was impossible to supply. In Germany the Protestant princes raised their heads, and, seeing dawn at last, began to shake off the lethargy into which despair had plunged them. England was wild with joy. Burghley himself was almost startled from his caution, and cried out with half a shudder that Drake was a fearful man to the King of Spain.

For two years Philip had been at work upon his Armada. His ports were crowded with its details; his storehouses were bursting with its furniture; and Walsingham at last was able to convince the Queen, by a paper stolen from the very closet of the Pope, that it was upon her head the great engine was to crash. Her eyes were opened; and, infected for a moment with the warlike spirit into which her people and her Parliament had lashed themselves, she ordered Drake in 1587 to the coast of Spain.

It was no longer as a privateer that he was to act. He held the rank of her majesty’s admiral-at-the-seas, and William Borough, the comptroller of the navy, was his vice-admiral. Four of the Queen’s largest battle-ships and two of her pinnaces were under his command, and the London merchants committed to his flag ten fine cruisers, with the famous Merchant Royal at their head. Besides these, he had six hundred tons of his own shipping, as well as some of the lord admiral’s. In all, exclusive of tenders, there were twenty-three sail—five battle-ships, two first-class cruisers, seven of the second class, and nine gunboats large and small. With this fine force he was instructed to proceed to Cape St. Vincent, and by every means in his power to prevent the concentration of the several divisions of the Armada by cutting off their victuallers, and even destroying them in the ports where they lay. If the enemy sailed for England or Ireland, he was to hang on their skirts, cut off stragglers, and prevent a landing; and, finally, he was given a free hand to act against the East and West India convoys.

Elizabeth was in a resolute mood. Drake’s ideas of naval warfare were developing a step further, and the Queen for the moment listened. He was beginning dimly to grasp that the command of the sea was the first object for a naval power to aim at. It was because he had not command of the seas that he had been unable to retain his hold of Cartagena, for the troops which should have formed its garrison were wanted to defend his fleet. Wiser for the lesson, his aim was now to crush the Spanish navy, and then, in undisputed control of the sea, to gather in his harvest. The opposition were thoroughly alarmed, and, while Drake in hot haste was driving on his preparations, they left no stone unturned to get his orders modified. They tampered with his men, they whispered slanders in his mistress’ ear, they frightened her with threats from abroad, they tempted her with offers of peace from Parma on the old disgraceful terms. For Walsingham, who, through thick and thin, was always at Drake’s back, it was an unequal fight; with the stanchest of his party in disgrace for Mary’s premature execution, he was single-handed against a host, and at last the friends of Spain prevailed. Early in April a messenger sped down to Plymouth with orders that operations were to be confined to the high seas. As Philip’sships were all snug in port, and could well remain there as long as Drake’s stores allowed him to keep the sea, it was a complete triumph for Spain. But when the messenger dashed into Plymouth with the fatal packet he found the roadstead empty. Drake was gone.

In vain at the last moment a number of his sailors had been induced to desert; he had filled their places with soldiers. In vain a swift pinnace was despatched in pursuit; Drake had taken care no orders should catch him, and, with his squadron increased by two warships from Lyme, was already off Finisterre, battling with a gale which drove the pinnace home. For seven days it raged and forced the fleet far out to sea. Still Drake held on in its teeth, and so well had he his ships in hand that on the 16th, within twenty-four hours after the gale had blown itself out, the whole fleet in perfect order was sailing gayly eastward past Cape St. Vincent.

Eastward—for he had intelligence that Cadiz harbor was full of transports and store-ships, and on the afternoon of the 19th, as he entered the bay, he saw a forest of masts in the road behind the city. A council of war was summoned at once, and without asking their opinion he quietly told them he was going to attack. It was his usual manner of holding a council, but it took Borough’s breath away. It shocked the old Queen’s officer, and outraged his sense of what was due to his own reputation and experience and the time-honored customs of war. He wanted to talk about it and think about it, and find out first whether it was too dangerous. And there was certainly some excuse for his caution. Cadiz stands on a precipitous rock at the end of a low and narrow neck of land, some five miles in length, running parallel to the coast. Within this natural breakwater are enclosed an outer and an inner port; and so cumbered with shoals and rocks was the entrance from the sea that no ship could get in without passing under the guns of the town batteries, while access from the outer to the inner port was only to be gained by the Puntal passage, half a mile wide.

Opposite Cadiz, on the other side of the outer harbor, was Port St. Mary, and within the Puntal channel, at the extreme end of the inlet, stood Port Royal. Both places, however, were so protected by shoals as to be unapproachable except to theport pilots. It was an ideal scene of action for galleys to develop their full capabilities. Two had already appeared to reconnoitre, and how many more there were no one could tell. Galleys, it must be remembered, were then considered the most formidable warships afloat, and quite invincible in confined waters or calms. By all the rules of war, on which Borough was the first authority in the service, to attack was suicide; but Drake had spent his life in breaking rules. He did not care. The enemy was there, his authority was in his pocket, the wind was fair, his officers believed in him, and as the sun sank low behind them the fleet went in.

A scene of terror and confusion followed. Every ship in the harbor cut its cables and sought safety in fight, some to sea, some across the bay to St. Mary’s, some through the Puntal passage to the inner harbor and Port Royal. To cover the stampede ten galleys came confidently out from under the Cadiz batteries. All was useless. While the chartered cruisers swooped on the fugitives, the Queen’s ships stood in, to head off the advancing galleys, as coolly as though they had fought them a hundred times before. In a few minutes the English admiral had taught the world a new lesson in tactics. Galleys could only fire straight ahead; and, as they came on line abreast, Drake, passing with the Queen’s four battle-ships athwart their course, poured in his heavy broadsides. Never before had such gunnery been seen. Ere the galleys were within effective range for their own ordnance they were raked and riddled and confounded, and to the consternation of the Spaniards they broke for the cover of the batteries. Two had to be hauled up to prevent their sinking; the rest were a shambles, and nothing was now thought of but how to protect the city from the assault which seemed inevitable. Hardly any troops were there: a panic seized the population; and Drake was left alone to do the work for which he had come.

Beyond the batteries the fleet anchored with its prizes, plundering and scuttling with all its might, till the flood came in again. Then all that remained were fired, and, by the flare of the blazing hulks as they drifted clear with the tide, Drake moved the fleet into the mouth of the Puntal channel, out of range of the batteries. He himself took up a position seaward of the newanchorage, to engage the guns which the Spaniards were bringing down from the town and to keep off the galleys; for as yet the work was but half done. In the inner harbor lay the splendid galleon of the Marquis de Santa Cruz, and a crowd of great ships too big to seek the refuge of the shoals about Port Royal, and at daylight the Merchant Royal went boldly in, with all the tenders in company. Then, in spite of the labors of the past night, the plundering, scuttling, and burning began again. Outside, the galleys were making half-hearted demonstrations against the English anchorage, but they were easily kept at bay. By noon it was all over, and Drake attempted to make sail. In the past thirty-six hours he had entirely revictualled his fleet with wine, oil, biscuit, and dried fruits. He had destroyed some twelve thousand tons of shipping, including some of the finest vessels afloat, and four ships laden with provisions were in possession of his prize crews.1

It was enough and more than enough. But the wind would not serve, and all day long he lay where he was, in sight of the troops that were now pouring along the isthmus into Cadiz.

Again and again the galleys attempted to approach, and every time Drake’s broadsides swept them back before they reached their effective range. Vainly, too, the Spaniards strove to post guns near enough to annoy the fleet. Nor did the struggle cease till at midnight a land-wind sprang up, and, brushing from his path the galleys that sought to block the way, Drake made sail. By two o’clock he had cleared the batteries and was safe outside without losing a single man. Boldly enough then the galleys gave chase, but, unfortunately, the wind suddenly shifted completely round. Drake at once went about, and the galleys fled in most undignified haste, leaving the English fleet to complete its triumph by anchoring unmolested in full view of the town.

Such an exploit was without precedent. The chivalry of Spain was as enthusiastic in its admiration of Drake’s feat of arms as it was disgusted at the cumbrous organization which condemned it to inactivity. A whole day Drake waited where he was, to try and exchange his prisoners for English galley-slaves, but, getting nothing but high compliments and dilatory answers for his pains, on the morrow he sailed. There was no time to lose. By his captures he had discovered the whole of Philip’s plan. Out of the Mediterranean the divisions of Italy, Sicily, and Andalusia were to come and join the head-quarters at Lisbon, where the Grand Admiral of Spain, the Marquis de Santa Cruz, was busy with the bulk of the armada. At Cape St. Vincent was the road where ships coming out of the Straits waited for a wind to carry them north, and there he had resolved to take his stand, and fight everything that attempted to join Santa Cruz’s flag in the Tagus.

Such light airs prevailed that it was not till the end of the month that the fleet reached the road. By that time its water was exhausted, and, as every headland was crowned with works commanding the anchorage and the watering-places, Drake at once saw he must take them. In his usual off-hand way he summoned his council, and told them over the dinner-table what he was going to do. It was more than the vice-admiral’s dignity and caution could endure. In high dudgeon he returned to his ship, and, in the midst of a gale which suddenly arose and drove the fleet to the north of the cape, he indited a long and solemn protest, not only against the contemplated operation, but against the unprecedented despotism with which Drake was conducting the whole expedition. Borough, though no doubt jealous of Drake, certainly believed he was doing nothing beyond his right and duty. He felt he had been attached to the expedition as the most complete sailor in the kingdom, and he valued and deserved his reputation. In the scientific knowledge of his art he was unrivalled, and he was the only officer in the service who had fought and won a purely naval action. No one, therefore, can fairly blame him for resenting the revolutionary manner in which his commander was ignoring him in contempt of the time-honored privileges of the council of war.

Drake, in his hot self-confidence, thought otherwise. As he rode out the gale under the lee of St. Vincent, and the tempest howled through his rigging, once more there fell upon him the shadow of the tragedy which could never cease to darken his judgment. Already, in Cadiz harbor, he had thought his vice-admiral too careful of his ship when the shot were flying; andnow he saw in him another Doughty sent by the friends of Spain to hang on his arm. "In persisting," he told Lord Burleigh, "he committed a double offence, not only against me, but it toucheth further." To his embittered sense the querulous protest was a treasonable attack on his own authority, and in his fury he brutally dismissed the old admiral from his command and placed him under arrest on his flag-ship. In vain the astonished veteran protested his innocence, apologized, and made submission. Drake would not listen. The ring of the headsman’s sword upon the desolate shores of Patagonia had deafened his ears to such entreaties forever.

Two days later he was back in Lagos Bay, landing a thousand men for an attempt upon the town, but in the evening, after vainly endeavoring to induce the bodies of cavalry which hovered on their line of march to come within reach, the troops reëmbarked, reporting the place too strong to be taken by assault. Such reports were not to Drake’s liking. It was no mere cross-raiding on which he was bent, but a sagacious stroke that was essential to the development of his new ideas. To get the command of the seas it was necessary that he should be able to keep the seas, and for this a safe anchorage and watering-places were necessary. In default of Lagos, strategy and convenience both indicated St. Vincent road for his purpose. It was commanded by forts, but that did not deter him; and, resolved to have his way, he next day landed in person near Cape Sagres.

On the summit of the headland was a castle accessible on two sides only. The English military officers declared that a hundred determined men could hold it against the whole of Drake’s force. But he would not listen; it commanded the watering-place, and he meant to have it. Detaching part of his force against a neighboring fort, which was at once evacuated, he himself advanced against the castle, and at the summit of the cliff found himself confronted with walls thirty feet high, bristling with brass guns and crowded with soldiers. The garrison had just been reënforced by that of the evacuated fort, and to every one but the admiral the affair was hopeless. He attacked with his musketeers, and, when they had exhausted their ammunition, in the name of his queen and mistress he summoned the place to surrender. In the name of his lord and master the Spanish captain laughed at him. Whereupon Drake, more obstinate than ever, sent down to the fleet for fagots, and began piling them against the outer gate to fire it. So desperate was the resistance that again and again the attempt failed. For two hours the struggle lasted. As fast as the defenders threw down the fire, the English piled it up again; and in the midst of the smoke and the bullets the admiral toiled like a common seaman, with his arms full of fagots and his face black with soot. How long his obstinacy would have continued it is impossible to say, but at the end of the two hours the Spanish commandant sank under his wounds and the garrison surrendered. Daunted by a feat which every one regarded as little short of a miracle, the castle and monastery of St. Vincent, together with another fort near it, capitulated at the magician’s first summons, and left him in complete possession of the anchorage to water the fleet undisturbed.

Having fired the captured strongholds, and tumbled their guns over the cliffs into the sea, Drake returned to the fleet to find the sailors had not been idle. Between St. Vincent and a village some nine miles to the eastward which they had been ordered to burn, they had taken forty-seven barks and caravels laden with stores for the Armada, and destroyed between fifty and sixty fishing-boats with miles of nets. The tunny-fishery, on which the whole of the adjacent country chiefly depended for its subsistence, was annihilated. For the time Drake’s work on the Algarve coast was done, and, having watered the fleet and fished up the captured guns, he sailed for Lisbon.

His own idea had been to land there and smite Philip’s preparation at its heart, but this the Government had expressly forbidden. Still he hoped that the havoc he had made and the insults he had put on the Spanish coasts might goad Santa Cruz to come out and fight him. For three days he lay off Cascaes, in sight of Lisbon, threatening an attack and sending polished taunts to the Spanish admiral. He offered to convoy him to England if his course lay that way; he took prizes under his very nose; with his fleet in loose order he sailed up to the very entrance of the harbor; but, though seven galleys lay on their oars watching him from the mouth of the Tagus, Santa Cruz would not move, and Drake learned at last how deep was the wound he had inflicted.

Philip’s organization was now completely dislocated. The fleet at Lisbon was unmanned. Its crews had been shattered in Cadiz harbor, and the troops that were intended for it had been thrown into the defenceless city under the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, with orders that while Drake was on the coast not a man was to be moved. All thought of an attack on England was given up. It was even doubted whether by straining every nerve it would be possible to save the home-ward-bound fleets from the Indies. The Italian squadrons were ordered to land their troops at Cartagena, and Philip hoped that by forced marches across the peninsula they might possibly arrive in time for Santa Cruz to sail before it was too late. Every one else looked on the convoys as doomed. For Drake, having assured himself that Santa Cruz could not stir, and that England was safe for a year at least, resolved to make for the Azores and wait for the prey that had so narrowly escaped him the year before.

On the third day of his stay off the Tagus he took advantage of a northerly gale to run for the anchorage at St. Vincent, which he had made his own, and where he intended to water and refresh for the voyage. There, huddled under the lee of the cape, was found a fresh crowd of store-ships, which he seized. For nine days he lay there, rummaging the ships, taking in water, and sending the men ashore in batches to shake off the sickness with which, as usual, the fleet was attacked. Every day new prizes fell into his hands, and ere he sailed he had taken and destroyed forty more vessels and a hundred small craft. On May 22d he put to sea, and, as the news spread, a panic seized every commercial centre in the Spanish dominions. Half the merchants in Philip’s empire saw ruin before them: the whole year’s produce both of the East and West Indian trade was at Drake’s mercy; and no one knew how Spain, with its resources already strained to the utmost, would survive the shock.

Whatever might have been the result had these fears been realized, destiny seemed to have decided that in the Channel should be played the last great scene. Drake had not been two days out when a storm struck his fleet and scattered it over the face of the sea. For three days it raged with extraordinary fury. Drake’s own flag-ship was in dire peril, and, when the heavenscleared, only three of the battle-ships and half a dozen smaller craft were together. Not a single merchant-ship was to be seen, and the Lion, Borough’s flag-ship, on which he was still a prisoner, was missing too. Before leaving St. Vincent Drake had told Walsingham that he ought to have at least six more cruisers to do his work properly, and now two-thirds of what he had before were gone. Still he held on, hoping to find some of the missing ships at the rendezvous in the Azores.

On the morning of June 8th St. Michael’s was sighted, but not a sail had rejoined the flag except the Spy, one of the Queen’s gunboats, with the captain and master of the Lion on board, and they reported that the crew of Borough’s ship had mutinied and carried him home. Then, in the depth of his disappointment, Drake’s fury blazed out anew. His fierce self-reliance and fanatic patriotism had taught him to see a traitor in every man that opposed him, and the bitter experience of his lifelong struggle against the enemies of his country and his creed could bring him but to one conclusion—Borough was the traitor who had ruined the greatest chance of his career! A jury was impanelled, the deserter tried for his life, found guilty, and condemned to death.

It was little good except to relieve the admiral’s anger. The splendid opportunity was gone; the fruit of his brilliant exploit was snatched from his lips; for, even had the remnant of his fleet been less shattered than it was, the great convoys were beyond its strength. The only hope was to hurry back to England and beg for reënforcements to fight Santa Cruz for the life-blood of Spain.

Yet ere he sailed there was a consolation at hand. As he lay waiting for his shattered squadron to close up, fuming at traitors, and marvelling at the inscrutable will of Heaven, the dawn of June 9th lit up the gray sea and showed him a huge carack in the offing. On a smart breeze he gave chase. The carack kept her course, but, as Drake drew near, began displaying her colors nervously. Drake made not a sign in reply, but held on till he was within range. Then on a sudden, with a blaze of her ensigns and her broadside, the Elizabeth Bonaventura told the stranger what she was. Two of Drake’s squadron threw themselves resolutely athwart-hawse of the enemy, and the rest, plying her hard with shot, prepared to run aboard her towering hull. But, ere they closed, her flag fluttered sadly down, and the famous San Filippe, the King of Spain’s own East-Indiaman, the largest merchantman afloat, was a prize in Drake’s hands.

Well might he wonder now at God’s providence, as with lightened heart he sailed homeward with his prize. For not only was it the richest ever seen in England before or since, not only was its cargo valued at over a million of our money, but in it were papers which disclosed to our merchants all the mysteries and richness of the East India trade. It was a revelation to English commerce. It intoxicated the soberest capitalists; and they knew no rest till they had formed the great East India Company, to widen the gap which Drake had opened, and to lay the foundation of our Indian Empire.

1In the official report the Spaniards admit the loss of twenty-four ships valued at one hundred seventy-two thousand ducats. This, it would seem, was all they dared tell the King.


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Chicago: Julian Corbett, "Drake Captures Cartagena; He Singes the King of Spain’s Beard at the Cadiz," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 232–244. Original Sources, accessed October 1, 2023,

MLA: Corbett, Julian. "Drake Captures Cartagena; He "Singes the King of Spain’s Beard" at the Cadiz." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 232–244. Original Sources. 1 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: Corbett, J, 'Drake Captures Cartagena; He "Singes the King of Spain’s Beard" at the Cadiz' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.232–244. Original Sources, retrieved 1 October 2023, from