Sunday, 31 July 2011

From the archives: Deptford's corsair connection

As the Museum of London Docklands explores London's pirate links, here's the story of Deptford's privateer connection.

Deptford, like Saint Malo, has its connections with licensed pirates: not corsairs but privateers. The most famous of these was Francis Drake, who was knighted by Elizabeth I in Deptford. He is often seen as one of England’s great naval heroes, but was also a slave trader and unscrupulous adventurer.
Like his Breton counterparts, Drake started his career young, first going to sea before he was thirteen. When the ship’s owner died, he left the ship to the 20-year-old Drake who now became its master. Before long, he was sailing to the Americas – and participating in the slave trade - and in 1569 was captured by the Spanish, although he managed to escape. He thereafter devoted himself to acting against Spain.

We remember that Drake sailed around the world, but perhaps not why. The purpose of his voyage was to attack the Spanish: the Queen saw him as a privateer, but to Spain he was no more than a pirate and a large reward was offered for his capture. His voyage in the Golden Hindwas helped enormously by his capture of Spanish charts, and even a Spanish captain experienced in navigating South American waters. He also took more traditional treasure of gold, silver and jewels.
 
Drake had departed from Deptford in 1577, visiting St Nicholas's Church before he left. The Golden Hindreturned to Deptford in April 1581 and Elizabeth I came onto the ship for dinner. Impressed by the value of his cargo (she was entitled to a half share) and his achievement in being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, she knighted Sir Francis on board. (Pointless bit of trivia: his actual dubbing with the sword was carried out by the French ambassador the Marquis de Marchaumont, not the Queen herself).

When war between England and Spain broke out a few years later, in 1585, Drake gained a more respectable position as vice-admiral. He was second in command of the fleet which fought the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England. Nonetheless, his privateering instincts still took precedence over more official concerns: he was willing to momentarily put aside his official role when profit was to be made. Thus, acting as privateer more than vice-admiral, he captured the gold-laden Spanish galleon Rosario as it fled up the English Channel. No doubt the corsairs of Saint Malo would have approved.



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