1567 The Adventures of Hawkins, Drake, Ingram, Browne, and Twide

England’s Catholic Queen Mary died at the end of 1558 and her Protestant younger half-sister Elizabeth took her place on the throne. Elizabeth I will rule for the next forty-five years [from age twenty-five to seventy].

In the ninth year of her reign, 1567, two of Elizabeth’s courtiers left on a long privateering mission, Admiral John Hawkins and Captain Francis Drake(1) – neither were yet knighted. They planned to take possession of gold, silver, and other precious items from Spanish, French, and Portuguese ships. They also planned to gather black slaves from Africa and sell them in the West Indies where sugar plantation owners offered large sums of money for them. Three of the seamen working for Hawkins and Drake will end this adventure by walking from Vera Cruz, Mexico, to Nova Scotia. Not only do the three seamen walk a record-breaking distance, but they join the tiny select club of English men who first walked on New England’s soil.

There are at least three sources for this story:

  1. More than a decade later, one of the three seamen provided a verbal testimony – all three were illiterate – of the adventure to Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham.
  2. Richard Hakluyt included John Hawkins’ report of the event in his Principall Navigations.(2)
  3. A Spaniard named Luis Cabrera de Cordova wrote his narrative in a letter(3) to Filipe Sequndo Rey de España [Philip II, King of Spain].

Admiral John Hawkins was thirty-five years old. He had been born in Plymouth, where his father, William Hawkins, served Henry VIII as one of his principal sea captains. [Back in 1527, William Hawkins became the first Englishman to venture to South America.] William’s son John was apparently well educated, though no records verify any schooling. By the time John was twenty, he had killed a man. The courts proved it was in self-defense and granted him a royal pardon.

Captain Francis Drake was some twelve years younger, at twenty-two or twenty-three. [His exact birthday is not known.] He was the oldest of twelve sons born in Devonshire to a Protestant farmer, Edmund Drake, and his wife, Mary Mylwaye. Edmund was ordained in the Church of England, which appointed him vicar of a parish in the county of Kent. The family there in 1549 when Francis was about five.

Reverend Drake kick-started his son’s sea career by apprenticing Francis to a neighbor who owned a bark used for coastal trading and shuttling merchandise to and from France. The unmarried neighbor had no issue [children] and when he died, he bequeathed his bark to Francis.

In 1567, Spain and England were technically at peace with each other. Queen Elizabeth had signed a treaty with King Philip of Spain stating that her captains would stop pirating Spanish ships. That meant Hawkins and Drake could not sail as privateers. However, the men knew that in England, the line between pirating and privateering was a thin one. They knew that Queen Elizabeth wanted to weaken Spain as much as she could. They suspected she would look the other way if they captured a stray plate fleet or two.(4)

Admiral Hawkins’ small merchant fleet of six ships left from Plymouth Harbour. His flagship, the 700-ton Jesús de Lubeck, was one of Queen Elizabeth’s largest vessels at the time, though quite old. The Minion, probably a carrack at 350 tons [still larger than the Mayflower], was also aged. The Little Judith, under Captain Drake’s command, was small at only 50 tons [perhaps a pinnace or brigantine]. There were three additional ships noted on the records as barks. We only know the name of one of them, the William and John. The ships carried a total of between 400 and 500 men and boys. They expected their voyage would take many months, possibly years.

By this time, Admiral Hawkins had already earned a nasty reputation as a privateer raiding Spanish ports around the Caribbean. He was as ruthless as the Moors who harassed Portuguese villages back in Henry the Navigator’s time. Hawkins had carried out two bloody attacks on Central America. One of them was on the Spanish port of Rio de la Hacha. When her people refused to trade with him, he stormed the town, took the people hostage, and burned most of the town right to the dirt.

When the Spanish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth – from whose journals historians have procured some of the information for this story – learned about Hawkins’ departure in 1567, he begged the Queen to make Hawkins promise to stay clear of the Caribbean, which she did.

Hawkins aimed his fleet toward Portuguese-controlled Guinea on the west coast of Africa to collect the black slaves. The fleet sailed the well-traveled route past France, Portugal, southern Spain, and the Straight of Gibraltar to stop at the Spanish Canary Islands for wood and water. From there they sailed to Guinea.

Slaving was a family business for Admiral John Hawkins. His father, William, had been a pioneer of the trade. William was not the first Englishman to capture slaves in Africa and sell them to plantations in the West Indies(5), but he was a chief developer of the triangular trade that made a profit at each stop. Cash crops [sugar and eventually tobacco] were grown in the Spanish dominions and shipped to Europe for sale. The money then bought slaves in Africa who were shipped to the Spanish Dominions. Hawkins knew the Negro(6) people would fetch a lot of money from the Spanish. As discussed in Crossing the Ocean Sea, occasionally the Europeans captured the Black Africans themselves. But usually they purchased the slaves from Muslims and black slave traders.

When Hawkins reached the coast of Guinea, he found French and Portuguese vessels anchored there. They were on the same mission and probably under license with the Portuguese slavers. Nonetheless, Hawkins thought nothing of corralling a couple of those ships into his own fleet as if he were stealing sheep from his neighbor’s pasture. One at a time, his fleet surrounded the foreign ship and sailed up to its sides. Hawkins’ men jumped aboard armed with swords and pistols and took possession of one French privateer ship and one Portuguese caravel. Hawkins distributed the foreign crews among his own ships and proceeded with his slaving business.

The English acquired several bands of black slaves [over 400 people] and strapped them in the holds of the enlarged fleet.They bound their feet with iron shackles and chained them to each other. The shelves were stacked many levels deep in the ’tween and orlop decks. There was barely enough room for each man, woman, or child to move his/her head. The slaves remained in that position as the ship crossed the Atlantic to Central America – nearly a month. Many died along the way.

From England’s point of view, where slave-trading was legal, Hawkins was not smuggling. On the other hand, King Philip had banned slaving, so the purchase of slaves in New Spain was, indeed, illegal trade. The Spanish also demanded that Hawkins pay taxes on his profits. No rules stopped the smuggling. In fact, the bans enabled Hawkins to charge more money for his human cargo.

Admiral Hawkins’ fleet stopped along the coast of Darien, near what is now Panama, and sold some of the slaves. Then, in spite of Hawkins’ promise to Queen Elizabeth, he ordered his ships to sail north to the Antilles, a large group of islands within the Caribbean Sea where the explorer Giovanni Verrazzano lost his life to the Caribs. By this time, the Spanish had either killed off the cannibals, roped them into slavery, or watched them die from European diseases. Hawkins was able to sell the rest of his cargo to the Spanish plantation owners there.

He did not care he had broken his agreement with the Spanish Ambassador and Queen Elizabeth. The holds of his ships were filled with gold, silver, and pearls. He and his crew were rich. By law, Queen Elizabeth would receive one fifth of the bounty. Hawkins knew Elizabeth would find a way to accept her portion.

But the luck of this arrogant Englishman and his crew was about to change. Summer was upon them. Violent storms with cyclonic winds that whipped over seventy-five miles an hour plagued the Caribbean between June and November. Hawkins knew about the hurricanes, as the Aztecs called them, and that it was time to head for home and get out of their way.

By the middle of September, his fleet had made it through the channel between the Yucatán peninsula and the large island of Cuba. As the ships cleared the channel and headed into the Straight of Florida, the winds began to grow. Life-threatening gales attacked in succession, one monstrous tempest after another. During the first blast, the fleet lost sight of one of the three barks, the William and John. She was able to make it back to England alone. The rest of the fleet was blown into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, trapped by the ferocious weather.

Thrashing winds tore at their sails. Waves mounting four and five times higher than the Jesús de Lubeck crashed upon them and caused extensive damage. Hawkins had no choice but to seek refuge in the nearest port on the mainland, even though every harbor and beach was controlled by the Spanish.

He ordered his fleet to pull in at the fort of San Juan de Ulúa across from New Spain’s official harbor, Veracruz. Veracruz was the most important Spanish port in Central America. Would the Spanish give the English the needed water and provisions? And would they help Hawkins repair his ships so he could sail home?

It so happened that the people in the port were expecting a very large armada [Spanish fleet] that was transporting the colony’s new viceroy [governor] from Spain, Don Martin Enriqeuez. The Aztec Indians had been rising against their oppressors, so Spain had sent Enriqeuez with reinforcements to calm them down. Luckily for Hawkins, the people of San Juan mistakenly assumed his ships were part of the viceroy’s fleet. Hawkins must not have been showing his colors [the flags of his country] – a true sign of a pirate.

In the report Hawkins later filed in England, he claimed that before the English ships proceeded to take care of their business, he identified himself to the port authorities by writing a message to the current viceroy.

The repairs had barely begun when the Spanish fleet carrying the new viceroy arrived, guarded by two giant warships. The new viceroy probably stood on the poop deck of the largest of those galleons as she sailed into the harbor of his new home. He recognized immediately that Hawkins’ little fleet was not part of his.

No one attacked right away. Admiral Hawkins was well armed himself, but he did not want to blast away at the Spanish and start a war if there was not one already. The English ships remained portside and the Spanish fleet moved in opposite them, trapping the English between them and the port. The Spanish acted peacefully, fooling Hawkins into believing he was allowed to take care of his repairs. What Hawkins did not know was that the new viceroy had sent word to other ports in New Spain asking for assistance.

On the fourth day, a large Spanish merchant ship sailed into the harbor and slipped quietly into the gap between the two lines of ships. She anchored next to the Minion, which was moored at the end of the English line. Hawkins became alarmed when he noticed freshly cut gun ports in the sides of the merchant ship’s hull. His worry increased when he saw soldiers from the other Spanish vessels board the merchant ship. But, before he could move the Minion away from the merchant ship, a loud trumpet signaled the Spanish to attack. Hawkins ordered his ships to release themselves from their moorings, but it was too late.

Like ants from an anthill, Spanish soldiers streamed out of the merchant ship onto the Minion. They tromped over the small ship as if it were a stepping-stone to reach the rest of the English ships. At the same time, throngs of soldiers poured out of the Spanish fort to join the new viceroy’s soldiers. The British frantically prepared their guns for battle. The Spanish guns surrounding them were at point blank range.

Seconds later a deafening cannonade began. The battle lasted six hours. Both forces did great damage to the other. Hawkins’ flagship, the Jesús, was battered so badly she began to sink. He and his crew moved to the Minion, which had been saved from gunfire as a result of serving as the bridge between the Spanish and English vessels. When the remaining two English barks sank, their crews joined the survivors on the Minion. By then she was so overcrowded, men hung from her halyards [lines that connect the sails]. The only other ship left afloat was the Little Judith, commanded by Captain Drake. He valiantly persisted in defending her.

The Spanish sent a fireboat towards the Judith and the Minion hoping to finish them off. But Drake cleverly utilized the smoke screen and the oncoming dusk to maneuver himself out of the harbor. Hawkins followed closely behind him in the overflowing Minion.

The two vessels headed east. As darkness overtook them, they lost sight of each other. When dawn arrived, Drake looked around for the Minion. But she was nowhere to be seen. So, he assumed she was heading back to England, or, at the least, close behind him and headed home.

However, the Minion was in no shape to cross the Atlantic. Passengers spilled from her decks like froth from a beer mug. Men were jammed inside her hold, unable to move. To make matters worse, “not an oat grain or a pea” was left to feed them. Many men were wounded and in need of care.

Hawkins sailed her north, hugging the coast in search of shelter and food. As passengers died, their fellow seamen threw them overboard. The conditions were so awful that after two weeks, about a hundred men volunteered to be set ashore. They figured that their chances for survival in the wilderness were better than staying onboard the devastated ship.

After debarking, seventy or so of the castaways walked southward, ready to face the natives and the Spanish. Only one of them is known to have survived. Fifteen years later he found a boat back to England and told his tale. He reported that most of his fellow castaways were caught by the Spanish and either tortured, imprisoned, or burned to death. A scant few may have joined up with the natives and married native women.

The other thirty or so castaways walked north in search of Florida. They had heard about a plantation of French Huguenots living there. What they did not know was that several years earlier, the Spanish had attacked the plantation and massacred all the residents.

Not knowing anything about the terrain, the thirty starving seamen walked the perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico – over a thousand miles. When they could not find the French Huguenots in Florida, which they recognized by the crocodiles, they continued trekking north.

The natives in what later became Georgia and the Carolinas were very helpful. Using the sand as a drawing board, they sketched pictures of ships with sails and then pointed north. They were trying to tell the English about the European fishermen [most likely Basque] who fished off the coast of Maine and Nova Scotia. It is possible that some of the English seamen had served on similar boats themselves. Or maybe they had heard about the fishing grounds from other sailors in ports back in England. The important thing is that the seamen knew they had to make it north before the fishing season ended, or they would miss their ride home.

As the men made their way north, the Indians ferried them across the rivers in their canoes and served as guides along the paths. The English never stayed in one place more than three or four days. Only three men made it all the way to Nova Scotia. Some joined the natives along the way and others died. The final three: David Ingram, Richard Browne, and Richard Twide, completed the journey in eleven months. From there they hitched a ride on a French ship back to Europe.

For years the three illiterate seamen shared their story with fellow drinking buddies in their neighborhood pubs. Rumors of their adventure reached the royal court, but no one acted on them, yet. Over time, Richard Browne and Richard Twide died, leaving only David Ingram. In 1581, fourteen years after the walk through what was by then referred to as Norembega [later New England], some of Queen Elizabeth’s explorers and historians wanted to hear Ingram’s story.

Captain Martin Frobisher, Sir Humphrey Gilbert [you will meet both these men soon] and Richard Hakluyt were planning exploratory trips to Norembega. Elizabeth sent the head of her special forces, Sir Francis Walsingham, to search for David Ingram and bring him to court for questioning. Frobisher and Gilbert wanted to hear Ingram’s first-hand account of what Norembega was really like.

As we said, David Ingram never learned to read or write. Some of his tales had grown taller than their original versions. Sir Walsingham had a difficult time deciphering fact from fiction. Ingram claimed that he saw things he could not have seen in North America, such as elephants. Maybe he remembered the elephants from his earlier visit to Africa. He reported that an Indian king rode around on a pallet made of crystal and silver, covered with jewels. He said every native household owned vessels made of silver. He said Indian kings showed him rubies that were four inches wide, and pearls as big as beans. He said there was a bird bigger than an eagle.

This report fueled the myth that Norembega was a land of riches. Additional rumors stated there was a sea filled with golden fish, and that trees were hung with strings of silver. There were great mines filled with copper. The forests abounded with sassafras trees [or the cypress trees of Canada], the leaves of which were boiled in a tea that supposedly cured any illness. And there were tall trees for making excellent masts for ships.

All these rumors gave England’s investors a reason to investigate North America.

The Aftermath for Hawkins and Drake

In the mean time, Francis Drake and John Hawkins made it back to England and began redesigning British ships. Only ten years later, in 1577, Drake left in a galleon called the Golden Hind to search for a passage through America to the Southern Sea. He returned in 1580 after circumnavigating the world. Queen Elizabeth knighted him for the achievement, supposedly right there on the quarterdeck of the Golden Hind after Drake’s arrival in Deptford Harbour. Elizabeth granted Drake one third of the loot.

Spain’s King Philip nicknamed Drake El Draque [the Drake]. Philip considered Drake a mere pirate and – so said one legend – posted a bounty of 20,000 gold ducats on his head [a $6.5 million today].

In 1588, Hawkins and Drake starred in the battle against the Spanish Armada. Hawkins served as a vice admiral and was knighted for bravery. Drake fought from the deck of the jewel of England’s navy, the Revenge.

Some mariners called Francis Drake El Drago [the Dragon] for his ferocity. The contemporary phrase Draconian comes from the harsh and severe way he treated his crews.

Both men, Sir Hawkins first, died of disease, possibly dysentery, in 1595 while on another treasure hunt. They were attacking Spanish settlements in Puerto Rico. Both knights were buried at sea near near the island. Hawkins was sixty-three years old. Drake was around fifty-six.

Next article: The Irish Situation [in progress]


  1. Some sources claim that Hawkins and Drake were second cousins. That would mean they had a mutual great-grandparent. We searched through English ancestry records and found no connection. Neither of the men were nobility, and records of their ancestry are not completely verified.
  2. Web source: Hans P. Kraus, Sir Francis Drake: A Pictorial Biography, “The Unfortunate Voyage San Juan de Ulúa, 1567-1569.” http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/catalog/drake/drake-2-unfortunatevoy.html
  3. Luis Cabrera de Cordova, letter to Filipe Sequndo Rey de España, Madrid, 1619. Francis Drake is listed as Francisco Draque. John Hawkins is listed as Juan Aquines.
  4. Plate refers to coins. Spanish plate fleets carried coins cast from Inca and Aztec gold and silver that had been melted down.
  5. London trader John Lok was the first in 1555. William Towerson was second, or close to it in 1569. We will read about the Lok trading family in the article about Martin Frobisher.
  6. Negro comes from the Latin word for black, niger, nigr. The Spanish and Portuguese first used the term to mean the people of dark skin in Africa. We will capitalize the word because Caucasian is capitalized.