Winston Churchill is one of the people thought to have said, 'History is written by the victors.' In the case of Sir Francis Drake, that certainly seems to be true. In most English-speaking countries, Drake is well known as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, and as a key commander in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Along the west coast of the United States, conflict rages over exactly where Drake landed during his circumnavigation, with claims coming from San Francisco all the way to Washington state.
To the Spanish, however, Drake is known as 'El Draque,' or 'The Dragon.' There, he is remembered as a merciless pirate who made away with much of the gold being transferred from the Spanish Main, and is responsible for the sacking of many of those settlements, as well as several coastal cities in Spain itself. His hate for the Spanish and his great desire to get rich from them stemmed from his upbringing. The son of a Devonshire farmer and Protestant preacher, he was passionately Protestant and despised the Roman Catholic tradition of the Spanish. English historians describe Drake as a privateer, the main distinction being that Queen Elizabeth condoned his raids on Spanish ships and ports. After a particularly profitable raid on the settlement of Nombre de Dios and the capture of the Spanish Silver Train in 1573, Drake and his crew returned to England wealthy men. This time, however, Queen Elizabeth was not able to officially recognize his accomplishments because she had signed a temporary truce with King Phillip II of Spain while Drake had been gone.
Through the remainder of the 1570s, Drake continued to plunder Spanish ships and draw controversial maps of the Caribbean and Central American coasts, finally being sent by Queen Elizabeth to circumnavigate the globe. Upon his return, he was told to keep a low profile until the political ramifications of his voyages could be considered, but was finally received by Queen Elizabeth and knighted upon the decks of the Golden Hind on April 4, 1581.
Among his conquests, he sacked and plundered the major shipping port of Cartagena in 1586. Drake's actions made it clear that profit was one of his a primary motivators. During the 1588 pursuit of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel, Drake saw an opportunity to capture the Spanish galleon Rosario, which was known to be carrying funds to pay Spanish soldiers, and which carried valuable cargo from the Philippines each year to Acapulco in the Spanish Main. In capturing the Rosario and its crew (among them Admiral Pedro de Valdes), Drake misled the English fleet, causing confusion among the ships. Expectations were that Drake was supposed to sail his ship ahead of the fleet, hanging a lantern from the stern to guide less experienced captains through the waters. This break from protocol proved that he was not above ignoring strategic aims in favor of personal enrichment.
Whether history views Drake as a pirate or privateer, it is clear that he was both monetarily successful and a critically important figure in English, Spanish, and American history. His consummate skills in sailing and navigation were only eclipsed by his skill in gathering personal riches. He reportedly contracted a fever and was buried in a lead coffin in the waters off Nombre de Dios in 1596.