Sir Francis Drake (1540?-96), English navigator and explorer, born near Tavistock. He served an apprenticeship as a mariner, and in 1567 he was given his first command. His ship, the Judith, was one of a squadron of vessels led by a kinsman of Drake, the English navigator Sir John Hawkins, on a slave-trading voyage in the Gulf of Mexico. All but two ships of the expedition were lost when attacked by a Spanish squadron. In 1570 and 1571 Drake made two profitable trading voyages to the West Indies. In 1572 he commanded two vessels in a marauding expedition against Spanish ports in the Caribbean Sea. During this voyage, Drake first saw the Pacific Ocean; he captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama and destroyed the nearby town of Portobelo. He returned to England with a cargo of Spanish silver and a reputation as a brilliant privateer. He was sent next to Ireland to help quell the rebellion there from 1573 to 1576.
In 1577 Drake was secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I, queen of England, to undertake an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast of the New World. With five ships and 166 men, Drake set sail from Plymouth, England, on December 13, 1577. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, two of the ships had to be abandoned in the Río de la Plata estuary of South America. In August 1578 the three remaining ships left the Atlantic Ocean and entered the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of the South American continent. Sixteen days later they sailed into the Pacific Ocean. A series of violent storms, lasting more than 50 days, destroyed one ship. Another sailed back to England. Drake, blown far south, sailed on in his flagship, the Golden Hind.
The lone vessel moved northward along the Pacific coast of South America, plundering Valparaíso and other Spanish ports; Drake also captured Spanish ships and subsequently made use of their more accurate charts. Seeking an eastward passage back to the Atlantic Ocean, Drake continued to sail north, possibly reaching as far as latitude 48° North, near the present U.S.-Canadian border. Unable to find a passage, he came about and headed south. The Golden Hind put in for repairs at an inlet (now called Drake's Bay) north of present-day San Francisco. Drake claimed the land for England, naming it New Albion.
On July 23, 1579, Drake set sail again, this time heading westward across the Pacific Ocean. In November he reached the Moluccas, a group of islands in the southwest Pacific. He stopped at Sulawesi (Celebes) and Java, islands of Indonesia, rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, and reached England in September 1580. Bearing a rich cargo of spices and captured Spanish treasure, he was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world. Seven months later he was knighted aboard the Golden Hind by Queen Elizabeth. He became mayor of Plymouth in 1581 and served as a member of Parliament in 1584 and 1585.
Later in 1585 Drake sailed again with a large fleet for the West Indies. He raided many Spanish settlements, including Saint Augustine in present-day Florida. Before returning, he put in at the first English colony in the New World, on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina, and brought the unsuccessful colonists back to England. According to tradition, Drake introduced tobacco to England as a result of this visit to North America.
In 1587 war with Spain was recognized as imminent, and Drake was dispatched by the queen to destroy the fleet being assembled by the Spanish in the harbor of Cádiz. He accomplished most of his purpose and in the following year served as vice admiral of the English fleet that defeated the rebuilt Spanish Armada. In 1589 Drake was unsuccessful in an expedition designed to destroy the few remaining Spanish ships. He returned to Plymouth and to Parliament. In 1595 the queen sent Drake and Hawkins on an expedition against the Spanish forces in the West Indies. This mission as well was a failure. Both Drake and Hawkins contracted dysentery in the Caribbean, and their bodies were buried at sea.