Pirate of the Caribbean: The Contentious Legacy of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596)

Today in History - December 13, 2022  by Silvia Gerlsbeck

On December 13, 1577, English mariner, explorer, and buccaneer Sir Francis Drake set sail from Plymouth for the circumnavigation of the globe, which marks the first English expedition of that kind and was only preceded by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Secretly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I., Drake’s mission included the exploration of new trade routes, the attack on Spanish galleons and colonial towns along the way and the seizing of their treasures, and the search for the Northwest Passage, a possible route westward of the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Archipelago (today Canada). Despite the failed discovery of the Northwest Passage, Drake’s exploits paved the way for Great Britain’s rise as a major naval power. His fame as the most renowned sailor of the Elizabethan Age only rose with the overcoming of the Spanish Armada in 1588, where Drake held command over the English fleet as vice admiral.

Yet there is a darker side to this history and Drake’s success as a seafarer: his career as a slave trader and role in a new age of colonialism also render him a contentious symbol of English naval ingenuity and the Elizabethan ‘golden age’. Drake, together with his cousin Sir John Hawkins, enslaved up to 1,400 Africans on voyages to Guinea and Sierra Leone in the 1560s and was a crucial figure in the triangular transatlantic slave trade. It is this long neglected fact that has Drake join the ranks of notorious figures of British history, whose memorialisation has recently come under scrutiny in a reckoning with the country’s imperial past and been protested particularly by the Black Lives Matter movement – such as Edward Colston, Robert Milligan, or Cecil Rhodes, whose statues have been toppled, officially removed, or supplemented with information. This September, a new information panel has been added to Drake’s statue in his hometown Tavistock that details his involvement in the slave trade, the role Diego, a former slave, played in his achievements, and a picture of the medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

Between 1853 and 1939, you had not to travel too far from Landau to view a statue of Sir Francis Drake: the city of Offenburg in Baden-Wuerttemberg was the first in the world to erect a monument of Drake, which was later pulled down by the Nazis but would become known as ‘Kartoffelmann’.

Sources and Further Reading:

On the legacy of Sir Francis Drake – “The Queen’s Favourite Pirate”

On Britain’s involvement with New World slavery and the transatlantic slave trade:

On Abolitionism and its tools:

On Francis Drake and his involvement with the history of the potato:

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