Sir Francis Drake, Explorer: Route, Timeline & Voyage

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  • 0:00 Knighthood
  • 0:29 Francis Drake
  • 1:50 Circumnavigation of the Earth
  • 3:05 Later Exploits
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the sixteenth-century English privateer and knight, Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and the scourge of Spanish North America.


Today, English knighthood is little more than a ceremonial title. Rather than the English warriors of the past who received the honor due to military feats, today's knights can be anything from singers, like Sir Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney, to business leaders like Sir Richard Branson.

In previous centuries, however, knighthood was only given to those who glorified the British Crown and England through military service - men like Sir Francis Drake.

Francis Drake

Though the exact date of his birth is not known, it is likely that Francis Drake was born around 1540 in Tavistock, Devon, England. Though he came from a farming family, he quickly took to the sea as an adult, and in 1567 he sailed with his cousin John Hawkins to North America with a ship full of slaves. This first voyage proved disastrous after the fleet was attacked by the Spanish off the coast of North America, and Drake and Hawkins narrowly escaped.

This first voyage planted a severe hatred of the Spanish in Drake's mind, a mindset which influenced his future voyages. Indeed, by 1572 Drake was granted a privateer's commission by Queen Elizabeth I, which essentially gave him free reign to attack any non-English ship he pleased, so long as the English Crown received a fair share of the spoils.

With this commission, Drake sailed to the West Indies in 1572. Drake's expedition proved wildly successful as he raided Spanish ships and ports, most notably the Nombre de Dios site in modern-day Panama where the Spanish loaded much of their North American gold on Europe-bound ships. Drake plundered the Spanish ships and returned to England in 1573, his two ships loaded with Spanish gold, in the process gaining a reputation as a brilliant admiral and scourge of the Spanish.

Circumnavigation of the Earth

It was largely due to this enhanced reputation that Drake was given a secret commission in 1577 by Queen Elizabeth to attack the Spanish colonies in North and South America. Drake sailed with five ships down the coast of what is today Brazil, though by the time he reached the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America, only his flagship remained. On the western coast of South America, Drake sailed north, plundering and raiding Spanish ports and settlements along the way.

After traveling as far north as modern-day Oregon in search of a sea route back eastward to England, Drake gave up and set off west into the open Pacific Ocean in July of 1579. After a few months of open ocean travel, Drake reached the Moluccas in the south Pacific. He pushed on through the Celebes and Java, trading with Portuguese traders along the way. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Drake hugged the African and European coastlines.

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