The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the JEHOVAH, and his wonders in the deep (Psalm 107:23-24).

Sir Frances Drake was one of the heroes of the defeat of the "Invincible" Armada, and the first captain to sail around the world. In 1591, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for his amazing 3 year circumnavigation of the globe.

Map of Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the globe!!

Frances Drake (1542 -1598) at about 35 years old.
Frances Drake (1542–1598)

In 1577, Francis Drake began an incredible journey which eventually took him around the world.

The purpose of his voyage was to find a Northwest Passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and plant a British colony in the New World.

Sir Frances Drake after his knighthood by Queen Elizabeth I for his voyage around the world.
Sir Frances Drake after his knighthood by Queen Elizabeth I.

This latter day Odysseus used celestial navigation–the daily orbiting sun, moon and stars, to guide him on his Homeric odyssey.

Sir Frances Drake should be called SAINT Frances Drake because he was a devout Protestant Christian....Many of the great saints and heroes of the Bible like Joshua and King David were warriors:

Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely (handsome) person, and JEHOVAH is with him (I Samuel 16:18).

This GREAT Briton was a navy of one as he almost single handedly destroyed Spanish sea power....He was the father of the Royal Navy, and unlike the majority Papal Britons, he did not favor an alliance with Spain against the French.

He was beloved by the persecuted Christians of Europe and HATED by the Spanish Inquisition and their supporters. Even today, some sore losers refer to him as a pirate or corsair.

The battle of San Juan de Ulúa

Drake's personal vendetta against the Spanish began during a peaceful trading voyage to the New World. In 1568. Drake served under Admiral Sir John Hawkins and captained a ship named the Judith. They were forced by a storm into the Spanish port of San Juan de Ulúa about 15 miles from Vera Cruz, Mexico:

Serving as a captain under Hawkins was Francis Drake. In his mid twenties, Drake had already spent half his life in the seagoing profession. When he reached the age of twelve or thirteen his father had arranged for him to apprentice under the old captain of a small bark plying the coastal trade between England, France, and the Low Countries, or Netherlands, and Drake had learned to read current, wind, and tide, and to handle a ship in all weather on those treacherous coasts. Then at age twenty, he had gone into the service of his wealthy ship-owning kin, the Hawkins brothers of Plymouth, and this was his third voyage to the Caribbean in their employ. His skill in directing men, and the alacrity with which he performed his duties, had marked him for advancement, and on the present voyage John Hawkins had given him command of the fifty-ton bark Judith when they departed Africa. (Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, p. 12).

Promised safe conduct to repair their ships, the Spaniards attacked them without warning. Drake barely escaped with his life and finally reached England 4 months later. Only 100 of the original 400 plus sailors on the Hawkins expedition ever saw their homes again. Many were sent to Spain and burned alive by the Inquisition, while some ended up as slaves rowing the Spanish galleons.

Drake's secret mission to discover the Northwest Passage

In December 1577, Frances Drake set sail with 5 ships to discover the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. This mission was TOP SECRET and even the crew did not know their final destination.

Spanish spies were EVERYWHERE at the court of Elizabeth, and secrecy was absolutely essential. The mission's main goal was to sail into the Pacific and find the western entrance to the passage. Then England could set up a colony there and accomplish 4 main objectives:

  1 Preach the Gospel of Christ to all the New World natives
  2 Arm the New World natives against the Spanish Inquisition
  3 Expel the cruel, rapacious Spaniards from the New World completely
  4 Establish trade with the Far East and make England the center of the spice trade

Establishing a colony to trade with the Orient was the very goal of John Cabot when he left England in 1498. That colony was wiped out by the Portuguese and Spanish . . . so absolute secrecy was essential to the success of the mission.

Nova Albion or New England

Frances Drake left England in December 1577, with 5 ships and 164 men. After many tribulations, he arrived on the Pacific coast in September 1578, with 1 ship and 85 men. He managed to capture a Spanish ship with sailing charts of the Pacific ocean and this enabled him to sail northward to find the passage.

He sailed all the way to Alaska or above latitude 48 degrees before the cold forced him to turn back. It was then he found a harbor to repair his ship andfounded New Albion.

Replica of Drake's ship the Golden Hind now on display in London.
Replica of Drake's ship the Golden Hind now on display in London.

Nothing is left of the original Golden Hind except a chair at Oxford University.

Drake's Bay in northern California where Sir Francis founded a colony.

Drake's Bay in northern California where Sir Francis founded a colony.

When Drake arrived in New Albion, he had 2 ships and 85 men. He could not return by the Straits of Magellan because the Spanish would be waiting for him so he decided to sail around the world and reach England by that route.

When he arrived at the Moluccas, he had 65 men, so 20 were left behind to found a colony, and continue looking for the Northwest Passage:

How the men were selected for this mission will never be known. Even their names were subsequently lost to memory except for one man: the pilot named Morera. However, it is a fact that some twenty of Drake's men were unaccounted for when he left this coast. No doubt Drake offered "profitable persuasions" such as he had first promised in June.
Most likely, they were instructed to proceed to the junction of the strait with the passage eastward, and then to continue only if the seaway clearly was open. If not, they would have had to return down the coast to their former camp at Whale Cove, which alone offered a secure relationship with the Indians, and await rescue. There certainly would not have been any thought of them trying to return to England via Magellan's Strait or crossing the Pacific in such small vessels. But Drake would have assured them that with the great cargo of treasure he was bringing back, the Queen would allow him to return for them if need be, and to fulfill his plan for Nova Albion.
(Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, pp. 324-325).

The greatest trial for Francis Drake came on the homeward voyage. Somewhere in Indonesia, his ship struck a submerged reef and was absolutely helpless in the vast ocean. Francis Drake's answer to the crisis was to call the crew to PRAYER for divine intervention. JEHOVAH came to the rescue of his great captain and the ship slipped off the reef:

Darkness descended, leaving the ship's company in extreme peril. If the wind and waves grew stronger, she would have been driven farther onto the reef and there would have been no possibility of saving her. Moreover, the nearest land was six leagues away, and the ship's boat could carry only about twenty men, including the oarsmen. Four or five trips would have been necessary to ferry everyone ashore, and in the meantime the ship might have broken up. Even if everyone managed to get ashore, with little in the way of arms or provisions they would have been at the mercy of the natives.
The next morning they waited for the tide to lift them off, but high water came and went without any effect. Again they looked for someplace to set their anchor, but to no avail. Returning to the ship, Drake called the men together to pray for divine intervention, and Fletcher delivered a sermon and administered communion. Then Drake set all hands to work lightening the ship. Provisions, eight cannons, and three tons of cloves were heaved over the side, and at four o'clock in the afternoon the Golden Hinde suddenly heeled and slid off the reef into deep water.
(Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, pp. 173-174).

The miracle inspired his men with faith and the rest of the voyage back to England was uneventful.
Francis Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth

On September 26, 1580, Francis Drake returned to England with a vast quantity of gold and silver. He immediately went to London where the Queen Elizabeth I received him gratefully. They had a very long private conversation, and he related all the details of his incredible journey.

Strict secrecy was however still absolutely necessary. If the Spanish ever found out that the English had planted a colony in the New World, they would have moved heaven and EARTH to destroy it.

Queen Elizabeth knighting Drake aboard his ship the Golden Hind.
Queen Elizabeth knighting Drake
aboard his ship the Golden Hind.


Little did the new Sir Francis realize that Elizabeth was secretly married to Robert Dudley and he would never allow her to reinforce the California colony.

The globe wasn't TILTED back in 1580, so it must have tilted between the time of Drake and Galileo!!


Elizabeth gave this priceless jeweled cup to Sir Francis at his knighthood.

Elizabeth gave this priceless jeweled cup to Sir Francis at his knighthood.

His knighting by his grateful Queen was the high tide of Sir Francis Drake's remarkable career. Not until many years later was the true extent of his miraculous journey revealed to the public.

This fearless act by the queen enraged King Philip II, and he began building his "Invincible" Armada to invade England and put a stop to any British colonization of the New World.

Sir Francis Drake used CELESTRIAL navigation!!

During the Elizabethan age, mariners did not have the GPS so they had to rely on the heavenly bodies: namely the sun, moon and stars for navigation....Here is a quote from the book The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake:

While the practical means of determining one's latitude had been developed, however, there was no corresponding means of determining longitude—one's position east or west of a known point—from a ship at sea. Theoretically, as Bourne explained in A Regiment for the Sea, one could produce a book of ephemerides in which the moon's distance from the sun or a prominent star, viewed from a particular place, or "prime meridian," at a given hour could be predicted and tabulated, day by day, for several years to come. Then an observer in another location, finding the moon at a greater or lesser distance from that star, and knowing its rate of motion, could calculate the difference in local time between his position and the prime meridian. The time differential could then be converted to degrees of longitude—each four minutes being equal to one degree—and after adjusting for the observer's latitude the degrees could be converted into miles east or west of the prime meridian. (Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, pp. 71-72).

Celestial navigation is the process whereby angles between objects in the sky (celestial objects) and the horizon are used to locate one's position on the globe. At any given instant of time, any celestial object (e.g. the moon, Jupiter, navigational star Spica) will be located directly over a particular geographic position on the earth. This geographic position is known as the celestial object’s sub point, and its location (e.g. its latitude and longitude) can be determined by referring to tables in a nautical almanac.

A correct knowledge of the motions of the sun and moon is absolutely necessary for celestial navigation.
A correct knowledge of the motions of the sun and moon is absolutely necessary for celestial navigation.
Sir Francis Drake discovered that California was about 3,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
A cross staff used to measure height and distance.
A cross staff used to measure
height and distance.

By using this scientific method, Sir Francis was able to calculate that Nova Albion was 3,000 miles from the east coast of Canada. Later this correct longitude began to show up on maps of the New World.

Lunar distances at sea were used
for celestial navigation.
As astrolabe was used to determine the height of the sun in the sky.
As astrolabe was used to determine
the height of the sun in the sky.

At that time, no country could have a maritime empire without a correct knowledge of astronomical navigation. As the British Empire expanded, Greenwich, England, was established as the PRIME MERIDIAN for calculating LONGITUDE at sea.

The sun and moon pass over the prime meridian EVERY DAY!!

Greenwich, England, is now the prime meridian for longitude and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is a term originally referring to mean solar time at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in London. It is now often used to refer to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) when this is viewed as a time zone, although strictly UTC is an atomic time scale which only approximates GMT in the old sense. It is also used to refer to Universal Time (UT), which is theastronomical concept that directly replaced the original GMT.

Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
The sun and moon pass over the prime meridian every day!!
The prime meridian runs through Greenwich in London, England.
The prime meridian runs through Greenwich
in London, England.
The invention of the marine chronometer made celestial navigation unnecessary!!

Latitude was determined by measuring the sun's angle at noon with the aid of a table giving the sun's declination for that day.

Calculating LONGITUDE required an extensive knowledge of the moon's motion, and the moon was not visible every night, so this presented navigators with a major problem.

In 1714, the British Parliament established the Longitude Board and huge prizes were offered for a practical solution to finding longitude at sea.

John Harrison—a humble British carpenter—invented an ingenious clock that could keep time accurately on a ship and therefore solve the longitude problem.

John Harrison (1693-1776), inventor of the marine chronometer.

John Harrison (1693–1776), inventor of the marine chronometer.

Harrison's first clock, made in 1730, was 63 cm (24.8 in.) high.

Harrison's first clock, made in 1730,
was 63 cm (24.8 in.) high.

John Harrison's final masterpiece, made around 1760, was a hand held marine chronometer.

John Harrison's final masterpiece, made around 1760, was a hand held marine chronometer.

John Harrison–like all great inventors–had to battle years of apathy and ignorance before his invention was accepted by the Royal Navy....

Heavenly charts led to the invention of the computer!!

Believe it or not . . . the heavenly nautical navigation charts led to the development of the computer. One day, a brilliant English mathematician named Charles Babbage was looking at a copy of the Nautical Almanac and he noticed a lot of mistakes therein:

The turning point in Babbage's scientific career came in 1821, when he and the astronomer John Herschel were examining a set of mathematical tables, the sort used as the basis for astronomical, engineering and navigational calculations. The two men were disgusted by the number of errors in the tables, which in turn would generate flaws in important calculations. One set of tables, the Nautical Ephemeris for Finding Latitude and Longitude at Sea, contained over a thousand errors. Indeed, many shipwrecks and engineering disasters were blamed on faulty tables.
These mathematical tables were calculated by hand, and the mistakes were simply the result of human error. This caused Babbage to exclaim, 'I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam!' This marked the beginning of an extraordinary endeavour to build a machine capable of faultlessly calculating the tables to a high degree of accuracy. In 1823 Babbage designed 'Difference Engine No. 1', a magnificent calculator consisting of 25,000 precision parts, to be built with government funding. Although Babbage was a brilliant innovator, he was not a great implementer. After ten years of toil, he abandoned 'Difference Engine No. 1', cooked up an entirely new design, and set to work building 'Difference Engine No. 2'. (Singh, The Code Book, p. 64).

The Royal Navy was very anxious to surpass the French and Dutch in the art of navigation so advances in maritime navigation were encouraged.

Charles Babbage (1792-1871).

Charles Babbage


Charles Babbage is known as the father of the modern computer.

Mistakes in the heavenly tables led him to invent a calculating machine to eliminate human error.

He also broke the supposedly unbreakable Vigenère cipher.

The London Science Museum's replica Difference Engine, built from Babbage's design.

Charles Babbage was another brilliant Briton like John Harrison who could have invented ANYTHING if given enough financial help....Babbage is called the father of the modern computer and is also credited with breaking the supposedly unbreakable French Vigenère cipher.

Vital Links



Andrewes, William J.H. (Editor) The Quest for Longitude. Harvard University Press, 1996.

Bawlf, Samuel.The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake 1577–1580. Walker & Co., New York, 2003.

Bourne, William. A regiment for the sea, and other writings on navigation. Hakluyt Society, Cambridge University, England. 1963. (Originally published in 1574).

Corbett, Julian. S. Drake and the Tudor Navy. (in 2 volumes). Burt Franklin, New York, 1899.

Henty, G.A. Under Drake's Flag: a Tale of the Spanish Main. PresonSpeed Publications, Mill Hall, PA, 1998. (Originally published in 1880).

Quill, Humphrey. John Harrison: The Man Who Found Longitude. Humanities Press, Inc., New York. 1966.

Singh, Simon, The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography. Doubleday, New York & London, 1999.

Sobel, Dava & Andrewes, William J.H. The Illustrated Longitude. Walker & Co., New York, 1995.

Whitfield, Peter. Sir Francis Drake. New York University Press, 2004.

Waters, D.W. The Art of Navigation in England in Elizabethan & Early Stuart Times. Yale University Press, 1958.

Copyright © 2015 by Patrick Scrivener

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