Drake, Sir Francis (1540-1596), an English navigator. Drake was the first Englishman to sail around the world, and he was a commander of the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada. His boldness as a sea captain helped England's rise to supremacy on the seas.
Drake was born in Devonshire, the son of a farmer, and went to sea at an early age. He inherited an employer's vessel and became well-to-do in coastal shipping and in slave trading. In 1567 he joined John Hawkins, who was already famous as a sea captain, in an ambitious slave-trading voyage to the Gulf of Mexico area. This venture cost Drake nearly all his fortune when a Spanish fleet attacked and destroyed all the slave traders' ships. He became a privateer, looting Spanish ships and ports in the Caribbean Sea area. In one expedition (1572-73), his booty included 30 tons (27,000 kg) of silver seized when his men waylaid a Spanish mule train on the Isthmus of Panama.
While on the isthmus, Drake caught sight of the Pacific Ocean and felt the urge to sail on it. He attained that goal when Queen Elizabeth I backed his plan to disrupt Spanish control of the South American west coast.
Drake with three ships passed through the Strait of Magellan in 1578, but because of storms in the Pacific one ship foundered and another turned back, leaving only Drake's own ship, the Golden Hind, to continue the voyage. He raided ports in Chile and Peru and captured a ship loaded with bullion bound for Panama. Drake then sailed up the west coast of North America beyond San Francisco Bay to search for a passage to the Atlantic. After claiming California for England, he sailed across the Pacific, stopping at several islands, including the Philippines. He reached England by way of the Cape of Good Hope, Africa, and was knighted by the queen on board his ship. The trip in all took two years, 10 months.
In 1585 Drake led a large fleet to the Americas to attack St. Augustine and other Spanish ports. On his return he brought back the English colonists from Sir Walter Raleigh's unsuccessful colony on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Foreseeing Spain's plans to invade England with the Armada, Drake in 1587 raided the Spanish port of Cadiz and sank about 30 ships. The English mockingly called this attack “singeing the king of Spain's beard.” When Drake helped repel the Armada invasion in 1588 he was a vice admiral. In 1589 he commanded naval forces in an attempt to seize Lisbon, but the attack failed.
Drake was in the building business in Plymouth during his later years. However, in 1595 he joined Hawkins in an expedition against the Spaniards in the West Indies. Both Drake and Hawkins became ill and died on their ships, and the expedition returned to England. Drake was buried at sea near Portobelo, Panama.