The Great Sea-Captains
A S matters are looked at in these times, Elizabeth's relations to Spain were exceedingly strange. To-day if two countries are not at war, they are at peace, but in the sixteenth century it was not at all uncommon for two rulers to annoy each other as much as possible without any formal war, and more than once a third country joined one side or the other because in so doing there was an opportunity for gain.
Philip would have been glad to conquer England, but as long as Elizabeth maintained peace with France, there was little hope for him. Moreover, the Netherlands were keeping his hands full, and what was most exasperating, Elizabeth was helping the revolters. There was one more thing to be considered, if Philip did conquer England, there was no hope of his being able to claim the throne as long as Mary was alive. So it was that this ruler of half Europe, was really at the mercy of that exasperating monarch, Elizabeth of England, and she hectored and tormented him to her heart's content. Early in her reign most of her advisers would have been glad to go to war with Philip, but Elizabeth delayed. She hated war. Every year of peace enriched and strengthened her kingdom, and moreover, even without fighting Philip, she was gaining much of the wealth and power that a Spanish conquest would have brought her.
This gain came about through the exploits of her sea-captains. As has been said before, it was regarded as an honorable occupation to get some negroes on the African coast, carry them to the Spanish colonies in America, and sell them for a goodly amount of Spanish gold. This was precisely what Sir John Hawkins did, but when he had leisurely made his way back to England, he found himself in trouble. Elizabeth sent for him.
"They tell me you are no better than a pirate," she said, bluntly, although her look was not so stern as Cecil would have wished.
"Your Majesty," replied Hawkins, "I am but a plain, simple sailor."
"And so my plain, simple sailors are bringing me into a war with King Philip?" asked Elizabeth.
Hawkins was no more afraid of the queen of England than of the king of Spain, and he told his own grievances as frankly as if she had been one of his men.
"Your Majesty," said he, "I took the blacks from the savage countries of Africa, and surely there was no harm in that. I carried them to Saint Domingo, and I sold them to the planters. The governor of the island was willing, and the planters were glad to get them. I paid the harbor dues, and I left one hundred negroes with him to pay a larger duty if the king asked more of an Englishman than he did of a Spaniard. I bought hides with the money and sent them in a Spanish vessel to be sold in Spain. The king seized them, and he won't pay me a penny for them."
"Well, my plain, simple sailor," asked the queen, "is it your will that I and my council should go to Spain and get your hides?"
"Your Majesty," he answered, "give me a good vessel under me and plenty of sea-room, and I'll trouble no council to care for me and my right." Elizabeth was in a rarely good-natured mood. She patted the captain on his broad shoulder.
"I'd gladly know what the king of Spain would do with such a saucy fellow as you," she said. "You'd better go home and think no more about the New World. One side of the Atlantic is enough for a man." The captain withdrew, but Elizabeth bade an attendant call him back.
"Let me understand when it is your will to go on another trip," she said, "for no one could expect a pirate to obey his queen, and then, too, I have a vessel that might be the better for a voyage or two, even in the hands of a simple sailor like yourself."
Cecil objected and the Spanish ambassador raged, but it was not long before Hawkins set out on another voyage, this time in a great ship of the queen's, and she as well as many of her council took shares in the enterprise. "See you to it that you do no wrong to the king of Spain," were the queen's orders, but she lent the commander one hundred good soldiers. When Hawkins came back in all the glory of a successful voyage and with bags of Spanish coins for queen and councilors, he was invited to dine with his sovereign. The Spanish ambassador was also dining at court, but he could have had little pleasure in his dinner, for he was thinking of what he should have to write to the king of Spain. What Philip said when the letters reached him no one knows, but whenever he came to the name of Hawkins, he wrote on the margin "Beware, beware!"
On one of Hawkins's voyages went a kinsman of his own named Francis Drake. He was a young man of medium height, with broad shoulders, reddish beard, and keen, kindly eyes. The voyage on which he went was unsuccessful, for a Spanish ship set upon the Englishmen and robbed them. Worse than that, there were not provisions enough to last on the trip home, and one hundred of his comrades volunteered to take their chances on the land that the rest of the company might be sure of safety.
Drake made up his mind that the king of Spain should pay for his own lost investment and his kinsman's captured hides to say nothing of reprisal for the suffering and perhaps death of the hundred brave men who had sacrificed themselves for their comrades. He did very little talking about his plans, but there were sailors enough in Plymouth who were ready to go anywhere with him, and he had friends who were willing to invest in any undertaking that he would lead. He set sail for America.
He was not going out vaguely into the west, hoping that somewhere he might pick up something worth bringing home, he had a very definite plan. He sailed straight for Panama and landed. There he waited. While he was waiting, he climbed a tall tree one day, and far to the westward the Pacific Ocean spread out before him. "If the almighty God will give me life," said he, "I'll sail a ship in those waters before many years."
After a while he and his men heard bits of Spanish song, the tinkling of bells on the necks of mules, and the sound of the feet of the animals striking upon the well-trodden path. Then the English dashed out, for this was King Philip's treasure train that once a year paced leisurely up the path with the output of the mines, with gold, silver, emeralds, and diamonds. There were more than the ship could carry, says the old story. The ship could easily come again, the ocean was free; so they buried the great bars of silver and steered for England.
When Drake arrived, he made no boast of what he had done, he divided the treasure and did no talking. He read books on geography, he studied charts and globes, he questioned seamen who had been on the farther side of the ocean, and he had more than one interview with the queen and different members of her council. To agree as a council to support Drake would be to declare war against Spain, and it would not answer to have the names of the councilors who invested in the enterprise made public, but many a one among them, and even the queen herself was ready to fill a coffer or two with good Spanish gold.
The preparations were so unusual that the voyage could not be kept secret. "I pray your Majesty," wrote the Spanish ambassador to Philip, "I pray you order your planters in the New World to hang every Englishman upon whom they can lay hands, and bid your sailors sink every ship that comes in their sight."
The two vessels, one of one hundred and twenty tons and one of eighty tons, with three little sloops, were made ready. Everything about then was put in the best order possible for fighting or for sailing. Luxuries were not forgotten, for this keen young sailor did not scorn the elegancies of life. There was handsome furniture finely carved. There was a beautiful silver service for his table, every piece engraved with the arms of his family. His cooking utensils were of silver. He had a liberal supply of perfumes, many of them the gift of the queen. Expert musicians were on board, for this luxurious captain must dine and sup to the sound of music.
With his men he was ever kindly, even affectionate, and he was not afraid to share their work if there was need, but they knew him for one that could command, and they never failed in their respect. Nine or ten men formed his council. He decided all questions himself, but he ever listened attentively to what they had to say. They dined at his table, but not one of them ventured to be seated in his presence or to wear a hat without the invitation of their commander. November 15, 1577, the little fleet set sail at five o'clock in the afternoon—on a one day's voyage it proved for the Golden Hind, Drake's own ship, was injured in the "forcible storm and tempests" that arose, and he had to go back to land.
Three years later many a man England was troubled about the deeds of this commander who was so fond of perfumes and music and silver plate, for there were stories abroad of what he had done on the other side of the sea. Philip was furious; the Spanish ambassador raged, and more than one who had invested in Drake's venture every shilling that he could raise would have rejoiced to lose his money if he could have been sure that Drake would never return. In the midst of the anxiety and uncertainty, some eager to have him come in safely and others trembling at the thought of his arrival, there was a mighty roaring of the signal guns at Plymouth Harbor, for Drake had returned, and he had been around the world.
On a little hill, somewhat withdrawn from the crowd that stood shouting and cheering to see the ship come in, stood two men, the elder grave and troubled, the younger eager and excited.
"I verily believe," said the elder, "that you would willingly be among those doltish screamers on the shore yonder."
"It's not so bad a thing, is it, for a man to know that his money has come back to him doubled ten, twelve, perhaps a hundred times? It's little wonder that they scream."
"That goes as it may," returned the elder, "but the gold in that vessel is devil's gold. If half the tales be true, Francis Drake is no better than a pirate. Has he not burned settlements, stolen treasure, and sunk galleons?"
"Well, what of it, if they be those of Spain?" asked the young man indifferently, shading his eyes to see the ships more clearly.
"Nothing of it if a man cares for naught but gold, nothing of it to him whose empty money-bags are a sorer grief to him than the ill that is sure to come to England from this wild and savage piracy."
"You mean that old leaden foot will bestir himself?"
"Philip is slow, but he will strike at last."
"Let him. One Englishman can meet two Spaniards any day."
"He boasts best who boasts last," said the elder. "Remember that every Spaniard has his hands full of gold from the American mines."
"And it is you yourself who are blaming Captain Drake for taking it from them," laughed the young fellow gaily. "Goodby, uncle, I'm going down among the wicked folk to see the ships come to shore."
For once the stories were not equal to the reality. In the holds of Drake's vessels were such masses of treasure that men hardly ventured even to estimate it. Vast quantities were carried to the Tower of London. Drake made most costly gifts to the nobles, but some of them refused to accept anything from the "master thief of the unknown world," as they called him.
"He is nothing but a robber," declared they, "and he will bring war upon us."
"Is it robbery, demanded others, to take from Spain what Spain has stolen from us? How else can a man get his rights? Has not Philip taken our ships, hindered our commerce, captured our sailors, and tortured them to make them give up the true faith? Have we not a clear right to take reprisal when and where we can?"
"It is a lawful prize," reasoned others, "and if war is to come, this Spanish gold will save taxes and fight many a battle for us."
The Spanish ambassador went straight to the queen and said gravely, "I present from my master, the king of Spain, a request that the pirate Drake be surrendered to him."
"The king of Spain is generous with his presents," answered Elizabeth flippantly. "For this one I return him all due thanks."
"Your Majesty," said the ambassador, "this man Drake has sunk our ships, stolen our treasure, and interfered with our possessions in the New World."
"If you can prove his misdeeds to my satisfaction," rejoined the queen with a little yawn, "this wonderful treasure of yours shall be restored, though one might think it was but fair payment for the rebellions that Spain has caused in Ireland—or does my good friend Philip claim Ireland too for his own? As for his possessions in the New World, I don't know what right the Pope has to give away continents. The sea and the air are free to all, and neither Pope nor Spain can keep my brave captains from sailing the ocean, I doubt whether I could keep them from it myself. Shall we talk of other matters? You have an excellent taste in music, and here is a rare bit of song that has but newly come to me:—
"Your Majesty," broke in the exasperated ambassador, "if I report this scene to King Philip, matters will come to the cannon."
"You really shouldn't say such things," said Elizabeth with a coquettish glance at the enraged Spaniard, and she added quietly, "If you do, I shall have to throw you into one of my dungeons."
Elizabeth made Drake a knight, she wore his jewels in her crown, and she dined with him on board the Golden Hind. She often had him at court, and never wearied of hearing the story of his adventures.
"Tell me of the savages," she commanded, and Drake began:—
"We saw them moving about under the trees, and when we came near, they paddled out to meet us. They made a long speech with many gestures, and it seemed as if they couldn't do us reverence enough. The next day they came again, and this time they brought a great ragged bunch of crow's feathers. The man who stood at the king's right hand knelt before me and touched the ground with his forehead three times. Then he gave me the feathers. I noticed that the king's guards all wore such bunches on their heads, so I stuck them in my red cap as well as ever I could, and the savages all danced around me and made the most unearthly screeching that I ever heard. Then they began to show us their wounds and sores, and made signs that we should blow on them to heal them. I gave them plasters and lotions. They ought to do some good, for they were mixed on a day that Dr. Dee said would make any medicine of worth."
"Tell me about the Cacafuego," bade the queen, and Drake said:—
"We took a Spanish ship, and one of the sailors said, 'Let me go free and I will tell you such news as you never heard before.' I promised, and he said, 'There's a ship not far ahead of you, her name is the Cacafuego, and if you can catch her, you'll have such a prize as you never saw in a dream—and I'll get my revenge on her captain for this,' he muttered, and then he put his hand on a great red scar on his forehead. We chased her to Payta, but she had gone to Panama, and when we came to Panama, she was somewhere else. 'I'll give a gold chain to the first man that sees her,' I said, and, your Majesty, if I had even given an order to drop anchor, I verily believe every man of them would have climbed the masthead. Well, about three o'clock one afternoon my page John caught sight of her, and we pursued. Oh, but it was glorious! I wish you had been there!" said the sturdy sailor, forgetting for a moment that he was addressing the sovereign of England.
"So do I," declared Elizabeth, and she too forgot that she was a queen, she forgot everything but the wild adventures that the man before her had met. Drake went on:—
"We fired across her bow, but she wouldn't stop. Then we shot three pieces of ordnance and struck down her mizzen mast, and we boarded her. A man could wade up to his waist in the treasure in her hold. There were thirteen chests full of Spanish reals, there were six and twenty tons of silver, and fourscore pounds of gold, and there were jewels and precious stones. Your Majesty can see them in the Tower, but oh, how they glittered and flashed and sparkled in the dark hold of the vessel when we broke open the caskets and turned the light of the lanterns on them, and how the dons swore at us! It's many a month that they should do penance for that day's work."
"I really wonder that you didn't excommunicate them as you did your own chaplain," said Elizabeth.
"They were only swearing, and he was a coward," explained Drake. "A man who'll go about among the sailors before a fight and tell them he is not sure that it is the will of God to give them the victory ought to be excommunicated, he ought to be hanged."
"Tell me again just what you said," demanded the queen, "that I may see what penalty you deserve for daring to show dishonor to one of my chaplains."
"I chained him by the leg to the forehatch," replied Drake, "and I said, 'Francis Fletcher, I do here excommunicate thee out of the church of God, and I renounce thee to the devil and all his angels;' and then I tied a riband around his arm, and I said, 'If so be that you dare to unbind this riband, you'll swing from that yardarm as sure as my name is Francis Drake.' "
"And what was it you wrote on the riband?" asked the queen, though well knowing the answer.
"I wrote 'Francis Fletcher, the falsest knave that liveth.' I don't see how I could have done less."
"Neither do I," agreed Elizabeth heartily, "and it would but ill become me to differ with a man who has just given me a New Albion. Where say you that my new domain lies?"
"On the western shores of North America," answered Drake, "and perchance, your Majesty, this new domain may stretch into Asia itself, for the western land reaches much farther west than I had thought, and it may be that in the far north the New World touches the old."
"Then I am perhaps queen of the Indies," said Elizabeth with a smile. "Now go, my brave sailor, but see to it that you come soon to court again, for there is much more that I would know of this wicked journey of yours."
So it was that these bold buccaneers went on their voyages, not so much for adventure or discovery as for the sake of gold. The easiest way to get gold was to take it from the Spanish settlements in America, but when Drake sailed, the Spaniards on the eastern coast of America were becoming wary. Too many of their treasure ships had been attacked and too many of their settlements robbed for them to live as carelessly as had been the case in the earlier days. Spanish ships on the Atlantic were manned with men who could fight, and Spanish settlements on the eastern coast of America were guarded and fortified.
On the Pacific shore matters were different. Spanish gold from the fabulously rich mines of Peru was carried leisurely up the coast in vessels manned chiefly by negro slaves. At Panama it was unloaded and taken across the isthmus. Then it was carefully guarded, and vessels well supplied with Spanish troops bore it across the ocean to the treasure vaults of Philip. It did not occur to the Spaniards that even an English corsair would venture to round Cape Horn, and when Drake appeared among the unprotected ships and the unfortified settlements, he found an easy prey. It was less dangerous for him to cross the Pacific and double the Cape of Good Hope than to return to England among the Spanish vessels on the Atlantic; and that is why Drake was the first Englishman to sail around the world.
These English buccaneers sailed under a sort of roving commission from the queen. They were to give her a share of their profits, but they knew well that if they could not extricate themselves from any trouble that they might fall into with Philip, she would make no effort to defend them, but would declare that they had had orders to do no harm to her "good friend, the king of Spain." Still, the prizes of success were so enormous and the charm of adventure so enticing that there was no lack of bold leaders to rob the coffers of Spain, to fill the treasury of Elizabeth, and to prepare experienced seamen for the great struggle that awaited England when Philip "of the leaden foot" should at last arise and show his might.