a painting of francis drake

Queen Elizabeth I's favorite pirate was an English hero, but his career has a dark side

Sir Francis Drake earned glory for England by plundering Spanish targets around the world. Now historians are exploring his part in the slave trade for a fuller look at this sea dog's life.

CONQUERING THE WORLD

Samuel Lane’s 19th-century portrait of Sir Francis Drake reflects the evolution of the Elizabethan sailor into a British imperial hero.
BRIDGEMAN

Every British schoolchild knows that Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe on the Golden Hind. Fewer are aware that when he set out on the voyage in 1577, the ship was called the 

Pelican, and that Drake changed the name midvoyage to manage the consequences of having beheaded one of his own officers following a rushed—and some would say, unsafe—trial. 

Four centuries of mythmaking have created different versions of Drake. To the English, he was a plucky hero of the Elizabethan golden age who outsmarted the mighty Spanish. To the Spanish, he was a pirate, feared and hated as el Draque (the dragon). Historians have peeled away these layers to reveal a more nuanced portrait. Drake lived just as England was beginning to carve out a new, naval role for itself on the European and global stage. A brilliant and fearless navigator in a new age of colonialism, Drake used—and was used by—England’s elite to get rich through pillage and slave-trading. 

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