1586-1588 - Thomas Cavendish Circumnavigates the World

Six days after Ralph Lane and his Roanoke colonists returned to England, Ralegh’s former captain Thomas Cavendish (1560-1592) left on a voyage to circumnavigate the globe. Cavendish was the fifth explorer to complete this feat, but the first to do it on purpose. Magellan, Loaísa, Loyola, and Drake merely intended to reach the Orient.

Cavendish was either eight or ten years younger than Walter Ralegh. Having been born in Ipswich, Suffolk, he was not, technically, a West Country man, but he was a cousin of the Cavendishes who would serve as the Dukes of Devonshire and Newcastle.

In 1575, at age fifteen, he matriculated at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Like Ralegh, he did not stick around to take a degree. He left after two years. In 1584, he served as a member of Parliament for Shaftesbury, Dorset. Then, as you know, he departed in 1585 with Sir Richard Grenville for Roanoke. The expedition gave him the experience he needed for future ventures and a taste for pirating the Spanish. But he lost the money he invested with Ralegh.

Upon his return to England, Cavendish re-entered Parliament, this time representing Wiltshire. With the threat of a Spanish invasion looming over England, Queen Elizabeth encouraged all her qualified captains to carry out raids on the Spanish in the West Indies as Francis Drake had done. Still only twenty-six years old [to Drake’s forty-six], Cavendish applied for and received permission to sail an expedition of his own.

He built a fleet of three ships. The 120-ton Desire with 18 cannon, the 60-ton Content with ten cannon, and the 40-ton Hugh Gallant, probably carrying only small arms, with 123 men. They departed Plymouth Harbour on July 21, 1586 and reached the Strait of Magellan on Epiphany of the new year, January 6, 1587.

The vessels emerged into the Pacific Ocean on February 24. Attacking, conquering, and sometimes sinking at least nine Spanish ships, the fleet followed the west coast of South and Central America northward. Sometimes they raided Spanish towns for food and water. But Cavendish lost so many men to battle and sickness, that he had to deliberately sink the Hugh Gallant to employ her crew. Some say her ballast was filled with silver that Cavendish planned to retrieve later, but never did.

With their holds bulging with loot, the remaining two ships reached the southern tip of Baja California on November 4, 1587. Cavendish had heard rumors of the expected arrival of the 600-ton treasure ship, the Santa Anna. Manned by over 200 men, she usually stopped at Cabo San Lucas on her way back to Peru from the Philippines.

While they waited, Cavendish’s crew beached the ships on an island near today’s Mazatlan across the entrance of the Gulf of Mexico from the cape. They careened the vessels, scraped their bottoms of barnacles, and calked where needed.

The Santa Anna finally appeared on the western horizon. They chased her for several hours. By the time they closed in, Cavendish had deduced she had no cannon on board. He later learned that her decks had been needed for an extra load of cargo when the other ship she had been traveling with wrecked during a typhoon in the Philippines. Cavendish pounded the Spanish with fire balls and grape shot. The Santa Anna tried desperately to fight back with her small arms. But when she began to sink, she struck her colors and surrendered.

Cavendish escorted her crew [including Sebastián Vizcaíno (1548–1624) who later, in 1602, explored the California coast] back to a safe beach in New Spain. He retained some of the men, particularly those who had experience in Asian waters. Since his two small ships could not carry all the Santa Anna’s booty, much of it was left on the Spanish galleon. The English set fire to her, then sailed away. Cavendish headed west in the Desire, but the Content disappeared and was never heard from again, leaving history with an another unsolved mystery and food for another novel.

With the newly stolen gold and linen, Cavendish traded in the Philippines, in Java, and in many of the Spice Island for fresh supplies, wood, and wood. While cruising, he surveyed the Chinese and Japanese coastlines.

The Desire reached the east coast of Africa on May 14, 1588. Little did Cavendish know that back in England, his comrades were in the midst of gathering ships to protect themselves from the Spanish, who would attack three months later. Cavendish sailed westward under the Cape of Good Hope and turned north for home. He stopped to resupply at Saint Helena island. Finally, on September 9, the Desire, carrying the surviving forty-eight men, glided into Plymouth Harbour, which was still littered with the remains of the Spanish ships that had been destroyed during the battle the previous month.

After unloading his precious cargo, Cavendish paraded the Desire down the River Thames through London collecting his glory. Though battered and worn, she sparkled with her new sails of bright blue damask cloth.

Thomas Cavendish had been away only two years and forty-nine days. He completed the task nine months faster than Francis Drake. When he invited the Queen to dine with him aboard the Desire, she ordered him to kneel while she dubbed his shoulders with her sword and knighted him. The twenty-seven-year-old was a very wealthy man.

But, when he, accompanied by the navigator John Davis(1), attempts a second trip around the world in 1591, nearing the hundred year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first trip across the Atlantic, he will die at sea(2) at age thirty-one.

Engraving of Thomas Cavendish by Willem and Magdalena van de Passe in the National Portrait Gallery, London.(3)


Next article: 1587 The Second Attempt to Plant a Colony on Roanoke under Governor White


  1. According to Wikipedia, “The last letter of Cavendish, written to his executor a few days before his death, accuses John Davis of being a ‘villain’ who caused the ‘decay of the whole action’. John Davis continued on with Cavendish’s crew and ships and discovered the Falkland Islands, before returning to England with most of his crew lost to starvation and illness.”
  2. It is possibly he died off Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.
  3. Engraving of Thomas Cavendish by Willem and Magdalena van de Passe; original uploader: The Man in Question at en.wikipedia - Henry Holland [1620], Lifelike Images of the Lives and Epitaphs of the most Famous and Educated of the English who Flourished from the Year of Christ 1500 until the Present Year 1620, Printed by Jan Jansson at the expense of Crispijn van de Passe and Jan Jansson, OCLC: 6672789. See Heroologia Anglica. National Library of Australia. Retrieved on 2009-04-13. An original engraving (6 1/2 in x 4 1/2 in or 165 mm x 115 mm), Macdonnell Collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, NPG:D16613, purchased 1966: Retrieved on 2009-04-13. Originally transferred from en.wikipedia by HUB1; {{PD-Old}} Public Domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3117883