After serving as a merchantman and learning ocean navigation, Francis Drake signed on with his cousin John Hawkins, a successful slave trader who sold his cargoes illegally to the Spanish in South America. He made a fortune and shared it with Queen Elizabeth, who turned him loose on the Spanish Main (the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico) as a raider. Although they were not officially at war, the English “sea dogs” preyed on Spanish treasure ships, raided coastal towns, and made themselves a much-feared enemy of Spain with the tacit, and sometimes overt, approval of their Queen. From 1570 to 1573 Francis Drake cruised the Spanish Main, raiding and plundering. If caught, the Protestant English sailors would be subjected to the Spanish Inquisition, tortured, then cruelly executed as heretics and pirates. Although wounded in battle, Drake somehow always eluded their grasp. Drake conducted worship services, public reading of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and prayer aboard ship and readily acknowledged his allegiance to Christ. His hatred of the Catholic Church was not extended to his Spanish prisoners, whom he treated with respect. The treasure fleets funded Phillip II’s persecution and murder of Protestants and Drake saw his depredations as doing the Lord’s work in handicapping Spain’s aggression.
Colluding with French Huguenot corsairs, Drake made several huge hauls of gold and silver and received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Plymouth. In 1557 Drake embarked on his most ambitious cruise. He had become a favorite at court and received the secret approval of the Queen to raid the coast of Peru. Sailing aboard his 200-ton flagship The Pelican, which he renamed The Golden Hind, Drake’s flotilla sailed the African coast then fought its way through the rough waters of “Magellan’s Pass” and into the Pacific Ocean. Only the flagship made it into the Pacific; two ships he burned, one sank, and then returned to England.