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Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate

by Harry Kelsey

$35.00 / Yale Univ. Press / 1999

Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate tries to set the record straight on the lovable rogue who captured the heart of a nation. Considered the scourge of Catholic Europe, a dragontea (dragon), and a gran luterano (grand lutheran), and the supreme defender of the Protestant Cause, Drake was, in fact, a pirate and profiteer, a middling seaman, and a man of doubtful piety. He never repeated the success of his bold, but lucky raids and was never trusted with full command of the English Fleet.

Queen Elizabeth was dazzled by his company but did not fully trust him as a captain. His raids in the New World, and on Cadiz and Lisbon made him a national hero, but, more than that, the author points out, it established him in the Spanish mind as the terrifying enemy of their national cause. Ironically, his reputation as a fierce and irresistible naval captain was created by the Spanish who sailed home with him from the New World.

The great merit of this book lies in its sober glance at what the life of an elizabethan adventurer was really like. Marginally supported by the crown because of his spoils, his propaganda value for the nation, and his personal charm, he remained all the while essentially a hired pirate, no greater at his trade than a dozen other profiteers. As to his supposed piety, he is known to have cheated his brother's widow, executed a close friend, abandoned a pregnant ship-whore on a deserted island, and directed parodic religious ceremonies on board his ships.

As a fascinating undressing of a myth, the book draws the reader back to the unlovely but swashbuckling realities of early modern sea-life and statecraft, leaving Drake a slighter, more ordinary figure while forcing us to question how much any of our myths are related to historical truth. Luckily, the Drake who emerges is a little more fiery than the man of myth though a little less pious.

—Duke Shaodow

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