1577 Francis Drake Departs for the Pacific

After Martin Frobisher departed for the Arctic, Queen Elizabeth sent her favorite sea captain Francis Drake to see what he could find on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. She gave him the plans his friend Richard Grenville had so carefully produced to obtain the patent of 1574. Elizabeth probably chose Drake over Grenville because Drake was more experienced sailing the southern seas.

Since Drake will not touch down in New England, we will limit this article to a brief synopsis of his world-wide-tour. His was the second English expedition to circumnavigate Earth. It was the fourth such adventure when you include the Spanish expeditions.

When Juan Sebastián Elcano returned to Spain in 1521, after his boss Ferdinand Magellan died in the Philippines, he reported to the King of Spain, Charles V that the Victoria’s sister ship, the Trinidad, was last seen heading eastward to South America from the Spice Islands. King Charles dispatched another explorer, Garcia Jofre de Loaísa (1490 – 20 July 1526), to search for the Trinidad. While he was at it, Loaísa was to claim and begin colonizing the Philippines. Elcano joined him as second in command. A third officer, Andrés de Urdenata (1498-1568)(1), whom we mentioned in the article about Humphrey Gilbert’s first proposal to seek the Northwest Passage, was also part of the crew.

Loaísa left on July 24, 1525 in the Santa Maria de la Victoria with six other vessels and 450 men. Two ships wrecked as they navigated the Strait of Magellan. One tacked back to the Atlantic and deserted the expedition. Four sailed into the Pacific, but were scattered by a storm. One of those four, the Santiago, sailed north to the Pacific coast of Mexico and, in July 1526, was the first ship from Europe to reach the west coast of North America. The San Lesmes disappeared entirely, leaving history with another mystery and food for a contemporary novel.(2) A third, the Santa Maria del Parral, beached on the northern coast of Sulawesi. Only four of the crew survived being killed or enslaved by the natives. They were later rescued by a Spanish expedition on its way home to Spain from Mexico in 1528.

On July 30, 1526, on the way to the Spice Islands in the Santa Maria de la Victoria, Loaísa died of scurvy. Elcano died a few days later. Only Andrés de Urdaneta and twenty-four men made it to the islands, landing there in September. They would complete the round-the-world trip home, but not in the Santa Maria. One of the Portuguese armadas that traded in India arrested them for trespassing in the Spice Islands and took them home under Portuguese guard. They reached Spain in 1536.

Martín Ignacio Martínez de Mallea [known as Martín Ignacio de Loyola (c1550 -1606)] completed the third circumnavigation. He was the first to accomplish the feat twice: once between 1580 and 1584, and again between 1585 and 1589, while Drake is on his voyage. [Loyola, a Franciscan friar, was probably the most widely traveled man in history up to the 17th century.]

He departed from Cadiz on July 21, 1582, and sailed to the Canary Islands. From there he crossed the Atlantic and stopped at La Désirade in Puerto Rico, then Santo Domingo on Hispañola, before landing at San Juan de Lúa [Veracruz] in today’s México. He traveled overland to Acapulco on the Pacific Coast, then sailed west to the Mariana Islands, the Philippines, and the Fujian province of China. But the Chinese thought he and his party were spies. They marched the Spanish to Guangzhou and imprisoned them for a year.

Once released, Loyola went to Macau, and then Japan, before he somehow obtained another ship and was back on track again. He sailed through the Straits of Malacca, coasted Portuguese controlled India, traveled south of the Cape of Good Hope, stopped off at Saint Helena Island, and finally reached Lisbon. An account of his voyage and his time spent in China was published in Rome in 1586 while Loyola was on his second trip.

Captain Drake set out before that on November 15, 1577. Right away, bad weather caused him to seek refuge in Falmouth Harbor in Cornwall. After assessing the damage to his ships, he returned to Plymouth for repairs.

On December 13, he set out again in the flagship Pelican with four other ships including the Christopher and his old flyboat, the Swan. The ships carried a total of 164 men.

As they passed through the Cape Verde Islands, they captured the Santa Maria, a Portuguese merchant ship, along with her captain Nuno da Silva. [Saint Mary was a common name for Catholic ships.] Da Silva was experienced sailing the waters off Central America and would prove to be helpful. Drake changed the name of the ship to Mary.

The Atlantic crossing was so difficult, and Drake lost so many men to sickness and the sea, that he had to scuttle(3) the Christopher and the Swan. When he reached Argentina, he found the Mary rotted and had to burn her. With only three ships remaining, he headed to the Strait of Magellan. One more ship wrecked as he passed under the tip of South America, and another ship was in such bad shape that she turned for home.

Drake pointed the lone Pelican north to explore the Pacific, pillaging Spanish ports and raiding Spanish treasure ships along the way. He renamed the Pelican the Golden Hind(4) partly to honor Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor of England (1540-1591), a major contributor to Drake’s expedition [his coat of arms was a golden hind], and partly because of all the gold he was accumulating in her hold. Drake’s biggest heist was the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción [aka Cacafuego] as she sailed west toward Manila. She carried eighty pounds of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, thirteen chests filled with royals of plate [gold coins], and twenty-six tons of silver.

The Golden Hind sailed as far north as Oregon, then Drake turned her south and stopped at either Cape Mendocino or Inverness Bay. He did not, apparently, see the Bay of San Francisco. There is some evidence that he left some men in California with the Coastal Miwok Indians, who were expected to found a colony there. He named the place ‘Nova Albion,’(5) which was Latin for ‘New Britain.’

From California, he crossed the Pacific to the Moluccas, where he tangled with the Portuguese. Then he sailed west, skirted the Cape of Good Hope, stopped in Sierra Leone, and finally headed home to Plymouth. The Golden Hind sailed into the harbor on September 26, 1580, under Captain Drake with 59 of the original 164 crew. When she reached Depford on the Thames, Queen Elizabeth awarded Drake a knighthood. She chose the French ambassador – who was there negotiating the Queen’s marriage to the Duke of Anjou at the time – to actually dub Drake on the shoulders with his sword.

The Queen’s half-share of the loot was worth more than all the rest of England’s income that year. Sir Christopher Hatton received a healthy £2300.

By that time, Admiral Martin Frobisher was returning from much colder climates.

Next article: 1578 Martin Frobisher’s Third Expedition


  1. Urdenata was the man that Saluaterra had quoted to Gilbert as claiming he had sailed through a northwest passage in the early 1560s, and who will explore the Pacific between Mexico and the Philippines in 1566 at the end of his career. We are now at the beginning of Urdenata’s career, when he was twenty-two years old.
  2. Greg Scowen’s conspiracy thriller The Spanish Helmet is based on Robert Langdon’s theory that the lost vessel made its way to New Zealand, which the Chinese had already discovered.
  3. To scuttle a ship is to deliberately cause it to sink, usually by drilling holes in the hull, or opening the seacocks to let water in.
  4. A hind was a female deer. The old Germanic word, hinde, literally mean hornless, young deer.
  5. Today, Nova Albion is the name of a main street in San Rafael, Marin County, California.