Depending on one’s historical sympathies, Sir Francis Drake is one of history’s many characters who was either great or infamous. To the English, he was a daring, successful patriot. To the Spanish, however, he represented everything to hate about lawless, Protestant aggression and the rising sea power to the north.
Queen Elizabeth, I knighted him after he circumnavigated the globe—the first Englishman to do so. The Spanish, meanwhile, dubbed him El Draque, or “The Dragon,” for the brazen piracy he carried out on that trip and countless others.
Drake contributed more than anyone to the war in which England famously defeated the Armada in 1588. But mere patriotism and fear of Catholicism didn’t drive him to harass the Spanish. For Drake, it was personal. One battle drove him mad with vengeance and convinced him he could no longer trust or trade with the Spanish.
In 1568, Drake was a 28-year-old captain in a seven-vessel fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins. This was his second slave-trading voyage to the Spanish colonies. The crew had recently unloaded its cargo in Cartagena, and the ships were weighed down with gold, silver, and all types of jewels.
During Hawkins’s most recent voyage, he and his crew had been feted as heroes by court and countrymen alike. He had also made a 60 percent profit and become highly wealthy overnight. The haul he carried now promised to dwarf his previous journeys.
On the way back to England, however, a violent storm hit the fleet off the coast of Cuba and drove them into the coast of Florida, badly damaging Hawkins’s ship, the Jesus of Lubeck. Running low on supplies and unsure if the Jesus of Lubeck would make it back to England, Hawkins decided to risk landing at the nearest port, San Juan de Ulua, off Veracruz.
This created considerable concern because the English were trading with Spanish colonists on the black market. Spain’s King Phillip II interpreted the Treaty of Tordesillas—which divided the world between the Spanish and Portuguese—to mean that no other nation should colonize or trade in the Americas.
Three years earlier, the Spanish had massacred a French Huguenot colony near present-day Jacksonville, Florida for being there and being Protestant.