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The Elizabethans And America

July 2024
25min read

“To push back the consciousness of American beginnings, beyond Jamestown, beyond the Pilgrims, to the highwater mark of the Elizabethan Age” -- Part One of a New Series.

With this account of the Great Queen and her captains and their struggle to master a great prize—the New World—we commence a series of articles specially prepared for AMERICAN HERITAGE by A. L. Rowse, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and author of many distinguished books, among them The England of Elizabeth. The series is based on Dr. Rowse’s recent George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures, given at Cambridge University and named for the dean of British historians. The second article, on Virginia, will appear in June.

The discovery of the New World, it has been said, is much the greatest event in the history of the Old. Certainly as that discovery went further and gathered momentum it marked a vast difference, after all, between the modern world and the Middle Ages—which, in contemplation, have a certain static, enclosed quality in contrast with the ceaseless dynamism, the expansiveness characteristic of our world. In this connotation—it is the heart of the subject—the discovery of America ultimately made the fortune of Great Britain and transformed its situation in the world. In Trevelyan’s words, here was a very taut, efficient little society within an island lying athwart the main seaways from America to northwestern Europe, a situation from which the country profited more and more. As America prospered and became more important, so did England.

We live in the midst of another profound transformation. In the dangers of our time, the separateness of English history may be thought of as merging in the general history of the English-speaking peoples, who are drawn closer together by them. But already twice in our lifetime Great Britain’s existence has been assured by its preponderant partner, the United States.

We owe this factor of our safety, the very condition of our lives, to the ambition and foresight, the enterprise and persistence, of our common ancestors, the Elizabethans. Their struggle to establish an English foothold on the other side of the Atlantic, their part in extending our language and institutions across the seas, the essential first steps that have led to an English world community—history can hardly offer a more significant theme.

But our ancestors arrived on the scene rather belatedly: the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the French, were all there before us. It is a striking thought that more than a century elapsed between the time when the Spaniards made their first permanent settlement in America in 1493 and the English made theirs at Jamestown in 1607. The Elizabethan effort, which did not really get going until the second half of the Queen’s reign, is all the more impressive: it shows what can be done by a small people, in the right circumstances, with a will.

They had, under the early Tudors, with the backing mainly of the Bristol merchants and the inspiration of the Cabots, John and his son Sebastian, made various sporadic, inadequate, baffled efforts into and across the Atlantic. We may well think that Henry VIII would have done better to put some of the energy that went into matrimonial, into geographic, enterprises. However, he did create an English navy, the prime condition of later maritime achievement, and he did procreate Elizabeth; he could not have done much better.

The Cabot voyages were more important for their consequences than for what they achieved. The significance of John Cabot’s crossing of 1497 was that he was the first to discover the mainland of America, while Columbus and the Spaniards were still occupied with the West Indies. Since the Spaniards based their claim to monopoly of the New World upon the right of prior discovery, the Elizabethans rejoined that Cabot had got to the mainland first. The one argument was as good as the other, and it becomes a cornerstone in the Elizabethans' fabric of resistance to Spain’s claim to monopoly, in the English demand for an open door to the territory not previously occupied by other European powers.

It is fairly certain that we should have taken this line and refused to recognize the division of the outside world between Spain and Portugal, confirmed by the Spanish Pope Alexander VI, and agreed between Spain and Portugal by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). Where would Great Britain have been if we had accepted a Spanish prohibition on English voyages in their sphere, or even if we had not fought it unitedly, undeviatingly throughout the Elizabethan Age? It was unthinkable that England should sit down under this sentence of exclusion: the whole future of the country and of its place in the world was at stake. But on the Spanish side, that was the settled determination—to keep everybody else out. Here was one of the two main causes of the long struggle the Elizabethans had with Spain.

What would have happened if we had not conducted the struggle unitedly, consistently, with Elizabeth’s firm grasp of power, we may observe from the case of France. The French were active in America, North, Central, and South, long before we were, and more aggressively. The French kings, however, lacked the will of Portugal and Spain for overseas expansion: they remained faithful to the traditional Mediterranean policy turned toward the Levant, uninterested in northwestern expeditions. The merchants and seamen of the Norman and Breton ports were left to their own devices.

By the truce of 1556 France accepted Philip II of Spain’s demand for prohibition of trade in the West Indies, except by special license from him—which was not readily forthcoming, we may suppose. The French sea captains refused to accept this, but they were without the support of their government. Contrast England under Elizabeth. The fact that England went Protestant was an inestimable advantage: it gave us a free hand; we were no longer hampered and held back as the French were by religious conflict.

In the years 1562–65, under the inspiration of Gaspard de Coligny as Admiral of France, three French colonial expeditions were sent to Florida, the first headed by Jean Ribault and the Breton Protestant René Goulaine de Laudonnière. But the settlers, like the English later, failed to cultivate the soil and suffered great privations. Disheartened, they were ready to return when a powerful reinforcement arrived, sent out by Coligny. Ribault made a settlement at Saint Augustine, then—with most of his forces—was caught and wrecked in a hurricane. Pedro de Menendez had been commissioned by Philip to destroy them; here was a divine opportunity. He got the wrecked men to surrender in expectation of terms, and then in three successive massacres wiped them out. Some few French took refuge among the Indians; very few ever got away. Among these was Laudonnière, who not unnaturally took to a life of privateering against the Spaniards, like Sir Francis Drake after a similar experience at their hands at San Juan de Ulúa a couple of years later.

Such incidents were raised by Protestant polemicists to the level of a debate, before the bar of European opinion, over the rights and methods of Spain in America. They added fuel to the growing Protestant detestation of Spain, to the campaign against the treachery and ruthlessness of her methods, and to the humanitarian propaganda—based on the revelations of her own Bishop Las Casas—against the barbarity of her treatment of the natives. The shock of these events was felt most acutely in England, still on terms of amity and alliance with Spain. This situation John Hawkins was trying to take advantage of, with the official backing of the Queen, to try out a licensed trade with the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean—if possible with Philip’s approval—for the colonists certainly needed and wanted the trade.

There is a popular idea that Hawkins began the slave trade to America. This is, of course, a delusion; I may as well correct it here. The Spaniards brought a few Negroes as slaves into Hispaniola as early as 1502. Since the aborigines proved hopeless for labor, a steady stream of Negroes began to flow across the Atlantic. The slave trade was no innovation: slaves had been imported into Spain from West Africa regularly for the past half-century. In 1518, the Spanish Crown granted a sole license for the transport of 4,000 Negroes a year direct from Africa to the West Indies, and these were supplied by Portuguese merchants who had the monopoly of the African coast trade.

In the second half of the sixteenth century, most of the contractors who purchased the right were German, Flemish, or Italian subjects of the Emperor or his son. But the supply of slaves was never enough for the demand, and Portuguese interlopers were the most persistent of those who sought to serve the market outside the Crown’s license. It was into this well-established trade that Hawkins sought to insert himself and, if possible, to gain Philip’s license—since he had been, in some sense, a servant of Philip’s in England. This may have been too much to expect, and on his third venture he narrowly escaped destruction. But he was in no sense an initiator in a trade of which, in any case, the dominant ethical standards of the sixteenth century did not disapprove.

This is the significance of Hawkins’ three famous voyages, on the last of which the young Drake served as captain of the barque Judith. King Philip’s answer was the piece of black treachery in the harbor of San Juan (now Veracruz), when the Spanish viceroy Don Martin de Enriques broke his pledged word. Hawkins’ ships were suddenly attacked, his voyage overthrown, more than a hundred of his men lost to imprisonment, the lash, or death at the hands of the Inquisition; Hawkins himself returned across the Atlantic, enduring unspeakable sufferings on board his ship, with only a handful of men left to bring her into Mount’s Bay. This experience was never forgotten or forgiven by the English seamen.

The French were driven out. The confusion of French policy, the inner conflicts of the religious wars, made it impossible to follow any consistent course and lost France her opportunities in America. But we must draw attention to what the English learned from the French in these matters, from their experience and example, and from the knowledge they had gathered about the New World, alluring, exciting, dangerous. The fact is that in these middle decades of the century there was something like an Anglo-French Channel community, particularly in evidence at the western end of the Channel, between Protestants on both sides of it. When one was in trouble, in opposition, or beyond the law, the other came to the rescue.

The young Walter Raleigh got his military apprenticeship serving under Huguenot command for several years in France; to the end of his life he retained French associations. Similarly Hawkins and Drake had close French ties, naturally enough from Plymouth, which had its Protestant opposite number in La Rochelle, with which it was closely connected. When Drake, quite young, returned to the West Indies to recoup himself and Hawkins for their losses at San Juan de Ulúa by robbing the treasure train outside Nombre de Dios, he did so in association with a French captain and crew.

But with the struggle becoming more intense, and France counted out for the rest of the century by civil war—maintained, of course, by Philip and necessitating England’s intervention for her own safety—in the hazards of that dangerous age not unlike our own, with a world riven in two by the struggle between Reformation and Counter Reformation, the chances in North America fell to the English. But it was certain these would have to be fought for.

Elizabeth I had been educated along with her brother by Cambridge tutors—men of the second generation of the Renaissance impulse in England, Protestant Reformers—whereas her sister Mary had been brought up by Oxford tutors, of the first generation of humanists, Catholic Reformers. Elizabeth’s mind was not enclosed within a dream of medieval faith; hers was an extrovert intelligence in touch with everything of interest happening in the real world of events and affairs.

And not least in the New World. She was interested in everything that concerned America—its newness and strangeness, its occupants and products, its vast potential riches (she had a very Tudor nose for that aspect of things: not for nothing was she a granddaughter of that canny Welshman, Henry VII). She was interested, in several senses of the word, in the voyages and the voyagers; in the geography of America and the geographers; in the capital question of English colonization; above all, in the political struggle with Spain for a place in that New World.

But—I hope I may be pardoned for saying—no one has yet disentangled her share in these activities, made out precisely what her contribution was to making North America English. It was a major one. The Queen always gave her support, sometimes instigation—as in the crucial instance of Drake’s voyage round the world, against the wishes of her minister William Cecil, Lord Burghley, by then a sated power gone rather conservative. Let us look, first, at her contacts with the new cosmographers, so much involved in these enterprises, and with the seamen.

An idiosyncratic figure in this circle was John Dee, mathematician, cosmographer, astrologer. A Fellow of St. John’s, Cambridge, he became one of the original Fellows of Trinity, whence he went over to Louvain and made the acquaintance of the foremost Flemish geographers of the day, Gemma Frisius, Mercator, Ortclius. He went on to Paris, where his lectures on Euclid, he said, made a striking impression. Dee was a Welshman; no one ever possessed more recognizably Celtic characteristics: the touchiness and suspicion, the acuteness and imagination, the originality along with a certain haphazardness, the tendency to go over the borderline.

All his life Dee was concerned with—among many other things—mathematics, the problems of navigation, spirits good and evil, and with the overriding problem of a route to the riches of the East. Could the English discover a route of their own, free of the Spaniards and Portuguese, by northeast or northwest? Over a period of thirty years he was connected with every voyage out from England searching for a northeast passage—a by-product of which was the very profitable trade with Russia. But he was equally interested in the Northwest Passage, its problems and outlets, and that brought him up against the American continent.

He was, perhaps, the first to write about these problems, in a series of what he called “Atlantical Discourses,” which remained, like a lot of his work, unfinished and unpublished. He thought that the term in general use then for America, “West Indies,” was misleading; if he could have had his way, America would have become known as Atlantis.

John Dee inhabited an exciting, and sometimes tortured, world of fact and dream, as so many earlier and later scientists have done—we have only to think of Newton himself. Dee dreamed of something unheard of before, a British Empire based on the sea: he was the originator of the phrase—a Welshman, the word with him is always Britain, not England; Thalassokratia Britaniké —his writings are full of such megalomaniac phrases. He planned a work in several volumes on this British Empire, of which only the first was published, the Pety Navy Royall , dedicated to Sir Christopher Hatton, the frontispiece proudly displaying the Queen seated in state in the ship of empire. Strange to say—and everything about Dee is strange—the megalomaniac proved prophetically right: perhaps he was not an astrologer for nothing.

In the discussions that resulted in granting Sir Humphrey Gilbert the patent under which the first English colonies in America were planted, Dee was drawn in to advise about the Queen’s title to North America. A Celt, he was not content to go back to Cabot; he went back to King Arthur. Dee held that the Friseland of the medieval Zeni brothers (apparently a deformation of Iceland), Greenland, and Estotiland (Labrador) to the west had been colonized by King Arthur and hence were rightful appanages of the British monarchy. Dee also added the Welsh tradition of the discoveries of the Atlantic coast by Prince Madoc in the twelfth century; and this he imparted to the historian and propagandist for English discoveries, Richard Hakluyt, who duly incorporated it in his work—on the Elizabethan principle: never throw away an argument.

We read in Dee’s diary that he spoke with the Queen herself as to her title in audiences at Windsor toward the end of November, 1577. He also spoke with her secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Sir Christopher Hatton, two leaders of the expansionist school in her council, patrons of the seamen and colonizers. Dee had further conference with the Queen at Richmond in October, 1578. Two years later he was dealing with Gilbert for a share in his grant for American discovery, and “September 10th, Sir Humphrey Gilbert granted me my request to him, for the royalties to the North above the parallel of the 50th degree of latitude.”

This, as so often in Dee’s life, was a purely notional acquisition, a chimerical gain. However, there were the consolations of the Queen’s favor. A week later we have a vivid close-up of her:

September 17th, the Queen came from Richmond in her coach, the higher way of Mortlake field, and when she came right against the church she turned down toward my house. And when she was against my garden in the field she stood there a good while, and then came into the street at the great gate of the field, where she espied me at my door making obeisance to her Majesty. She beckoned her hand for me; I came to her coach-side, she very speedily pulled off her glove and gave me her hand to kiss; and, to be short, asked me to resort to her Court, and to give her to weet [know] when I came there.

A fortnight later, October 3,

at eleven of the clock before noon, I delivered my two rolls of the Queen’s Majesty’s title unto herself in the garden at Richmond, who appointed after dinner to hear further of the matter. Therefore between one and two in the afternoon, I was sent for into her Highness’ Privy Chamber, where the Lord Treasurer also was, who, having the matter slightly then in consultation, did seem to doubt much that I had or could make the argument probable for her Highness’s title so as I pretended. Whereupon I was to declare to his honour more plainly, and at his leisure, what I had said and could say therein; which I did on Tuesday and Wednesday following at his chamber, where he used me very honourably on his behalf. …

But, “Oct. 7th, on Friday I came to my Lord Treasurer, and he being told of my being without, and also I standing before him at his coming forth, did not or would not speak to me, I doubt not of some new grief conceived.” Lord Burghley’s disapproval gave Dee bad dreams, which he noted, full of persecution mania. It took all the Queen’s graciousness to console Dee for his treatment at Lord Burghley’s hands. She came over to Mortlake to comfort him, called on horseback at his door, “and withall told me that the Lord Treasurer had greatly commended my doings for her title, which he had to examine, which title in two rolls he had brought home two hours before.” And so on, all very consoling to the wounded pride of a Welshman. More to the point, on All Souls’ Day, the Lord Treasurer sent him a haunch of venison. However, even astrologers can hardly live by venison alone.

No terrestrial preferment, nothing to live by, came Dee’s way, though the Queen was willing enough and made various suggestions; it seems the Lord Treasurer stood in the way. At last, Dee accepted better prospects from the Continent and went off to raise the spirits with Edward Kelly in Prague. When he returned, the Queen did find a berth for him after all: she made him warden of Manchester College, so that he spent his last years in security, if not exactly in the odor of sanctity.

These discussions and consultations in the 1570s had their practical issue in Martin Frobisher’s three voyages to the northwest in 1576, 1577, and 1578. As is well known, their promise of further geographical discovery in that region was deflected into the search for gold-bearing ore. These voyages were set forth by a combination of the forward school in the court circle with a body of merchants in the city. The leading figures among the Queen’s intimates in these activities were Sir Francis Walsingham and her favorite, the Earl of Leicester—followed by the young poet Philip Sidney and his friend Sir Edward Dyer.

Dyer, courtier and poet, a favorite with the Queen and evidently a charming man, is a characteristic figure in these concerns. A Somerset man by origin, his father, steward in Henry VIII’s household, got considerable grants of monastic lands there when the going was good. The father built up a large estate, which the son spent on court life. Edward Dyer was a good friend to Dee, whom he visited at his house along with Leicester and Philip Sidney. Dyer helped to circulate the appeal at court for funds to back Frobisher’s first voyage in quest of the Northwest Passage. Among the courtiers who subscribed were Leicester, Warwick, Walsingham, and Sidney; among the merchants, Sir Thomas Gresham, Anthony Jenkinson, Michael Lok, Alderman Bond. Frobisher made a promising reconnoiter of the channel between Greenland and the coast of Labrador, and came back with specimens of supposedly auriferous ore.

The second voyage was then a larger and more enthusiastic affair, the Queen herself becoming much the largest shareholder, with a venture of £1,000—no doubt mainly represented by a ship of hers. Lord Admiral Clinton, Sir William Winter of the Navy Board, Walsingham, and the Earl of Pembroke made large investments (from £175 to £100); the Queen’s cousin, her Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, Dyer, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Philip Sidney and his sister, the Countess of Pembroke, made smaller investments (of £50 and £25). On the return of the ships laden with ore, of which there were optimistic reports, the court circle very much increased its stake for the third voyage, sent forth in 1578. The Queen increased her venture to £1,350—and was anxious that the voyage should be pressed forward. Pembroke increased his stake; so did Walsingham and Philip Sidney—which neither of them could well afford. Others came forward—the gambling young Earl of Oxford for a large sum, all of which he lost; Hatton, Cumberland, Ralph Lane, even John Dee, subscribed for a £25 share. Lord Burghley put himself down for £100, but he did not pay up.

The cold eyes of King Philip, who watched from that small study in the Escorial so much of what was going on all over the world, were upon the venture. He was much concerned at this incursion into his New World. He urged his ambassador in London, Mendoza, to make every effort to obtain a chart of Frobisher’s voyage, though his own opinion was “it is difficult to believe that in so cold a region there can be any richness of metal.” Mendoza replied that he was hopeful of obtaining a chart through his spies. After several long talks with “these people” at court, he found that “the only way for me to keep my temper is to bear in mind that I am one of the school of the Duke [Alba] and a soldier of his.” At an audience of the Queen, she adroitly raised the issue of Philip’s denial of toleration in the Netherlands as the cause of his troubles there, and asked sensibly, “What did it matter to your Majesty if they went to the Devil in their own way?”

Mendoza’s reply was the shocked reaction of Spanish orthodoxy: these things were ordained of God, it was not in the power of princes to restrict religion, that is, Catholicism, etc. However, in September he was able to send on a chart of the voyage, which came safely to Philip’s hand, along with some of the ore. After prolonged assays, it all turned out to be of no value, the voyages a dead loss. Philip could well afford to laugh—except that he was never known to laugh openly. Baffled in that direction, the English were not now going to give up; they turned to others.

The fact was that the conflict with Spain for a share in America was coming into the open and, joined with that over the Netherlands, whose freedom was indispensable to England’s security, brought on the war. Drake’s voyage round the world announced the arrival of a new power on the world scene; it immensely raised the prestige of England on the threshold of the conflict, and helped to produce it—as the Queen knew it might, and took the risk.

The more one knows about that wonderful voyage, the more wonderful it becomes. What Bartholomew Dias had done in rounding the Cape, Vasco da Gama in crossing the Indian Ocean, Magellan in spanning the Pacific, Drake accomplished in one voyage, and came home safe to Plymouth Sound. The first English circumnavigator of the globe, he became the greatest celebrity of the day, with an aura about him for friend and foe alike. The Golden Hind, the ship of perhaps some 150 tons in which he accomplished it, was laid up at Deptford, and was one of the regular sights of London until she fell apart. It is pleasant to think that out of her timbers were made a chair that now reposes in the Bodleian Library and a table that stands in Middle Temple Hall.

In addition to the riches she brought back in her hold for the Queen—nearly half a million in specie—Drake came back with an immense amount of new information about the wonders of the world, about America, the Pacific, the possibilities opening up for the English in the Far East. No wonder the Queen was closeted alone with him for hours, day after day, on his return. He presented to her the logbook of the Golden Hind, the daily record of that marvelous journey during the three years 1577–80. What would we not give to possess it today—treasure-trove of the age we would value more than anything, except, say, the letters of Shakespeare? This precious book disappeared, along with many other treasures of the Crown, either in the deplorable civil war, or the fire at Whitehall in 1698—along with the maps and charts of the New World, Cabot’s among others, that used to hang, suggestive to the imagination, in the Queen’s privy gallery.

What we do know now is that to the Queen alone belonged the decision to set forth that voyage—against the wishes of her lord treasurer, Lord Burghley. That is the significance of Drake’s first question on coming into Plymouth Sound: “Is the Queen alive?” It would have been the worse for him if she had died in the interval. The voyage worked out far more successfully than anyone could have expected—except perhaps Drake himself, always a sanguine, confident man; but in some respects it worked out differently. I do not think we need take so seriously the loss of the draft for the voyage, for I suspect that a good deal of room was left for flexibility, in the English manner. And certainly several objectives came together in it.

The enterprise might very easily have been overthrown: that was the significance of Drake’s execution of Thomas Doughty for plotting mutiny. Doughty was Burghley’s man in the expedition, put there to hamper its operations; he might have succeeded had it not been for Drake’s determination, with the Queen’s backing. Drake sailed with her commission; nothing vexed him more than to be referred to as a pirate; he was the Queen of England’s officer, he insisted, and showed one of his Spanish prisoners off the coast of Peru his commission.

One purpose of the voyage stemmed from Richard Grenville’s project of a few years before for an expedition into the South Seas, to seek the southern continent they imagined to be there, Terra Australis. Grenville had pointed out, perhaps disingenuously, that it would merely pass by those countries already occupied by Christian princes. Anyhow, under the influence of a temporary lull in relations with Spain, the Queen countermanded his voyage. What she would not permit to Grenville as a private venture, she permitted three years later to Drake as a quasi-official one, with herself as the dominant partner.

Sir Christopher Hatton preferred Drake’s suit to her and procured him an audience. On emerging from the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific, Drake christened his ship, the Pelican, anew as the Golden Hind; it was Hatton’s crest. Drake afterward said that on parting the Queen addressed to him these words: “Drake! so it is that I would gladly be revenged on the King of Spain for divers injuries that I have received.” I see no reason to disbelieve this; it has the authentic ring. He added, “Her Majesty gave me special commandment that of all men my Lord Treasurer should not know it.” This sounds by no means improbable. In fact, what we know now from English and Spanish sources all hangs together.

There was indeed some secret between the Queen and Drake which has never transpired; some think it relates to the idea of a descent on the Isthmus of Darien and cutting the pipeline of Spanish treasure there. Likely enough: it was an idea that came to the fore in these years. In the preliminary discussions that were kept very secret—on the voyage out, no one knew where they were bound for—the objectives were greatly extended, and its destination was to be the Moluccas. There was included an idea of looking for the Pacific end of the Northwest Passage, the supposed Strait of Anian which should debouch somewhere about the coast of British Columbia.

From very early it had been resolved that “her Majesty be made privy to the truth of the voyage.” With all the implications of a first incursion into the Spanish preserve of the Pacific, and with the intention of reprisals against King Philip, it was decided that the voyage could not be left to a private syndicate. It became an official affair, sponsored by the Queen and the forward party in her council, Lord Burghley sitting back and absenting himself, well aware of what it boded. As such, its intentions could be kept secret—as to some extent they have remained.

The Queen contributed her ship, the Swallow, which represented her investment. Among other investors were Lord Admiral Lincoln and Sir William Winter of the Navy Board; Leicester, Walsingham, and Hatton; George Winter; Drake, whose investment represented his confidence in himself and was as much as £1,000; and John Hawkins, for £500: those two were still out to recoup themselves for what they had lost at San Juan. And so Drake left Plymouth Sound one December day in 1577, bound for the other side of the world.

His colleague John Winter in the Elizabeth was beaten back in the Strait of Magellan and forced by his crew to turn home again. While there he did take possession of Tierra del Fuego in the name of Queen Elizabeth; I leave that consideration to the international lawyers in the dispute that is still maintained over the Falkland Islands. Drake was left to go forward on his own. He made a feint to the west to look out for the coast of Terra Australis; then went up the coast of South America, off which he captured the treasure ship Cacafuego, then sailed north to California, where he landed and took possession in the name of the Queen.

The various accounts all agree about what happened. The native Indians were exceedingly friendly: “They are a people of a tractable, free and loving nature, without guile or treachery”—evidently inhabitants of a golden age; we see how the myth of the noble savage, the state of nature, and other concepts of literature and political theory grew up. To Drake’s embarrassment—for he was a firm Protestant who always traveled with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs on board—the native Californians took to worshiping the English as gods. The braves sought among the seamen till they found a god whose face pleased them, “which commonly were the youngest of us.”

As a sign of good will and a peace offering the Indians came down bringing baskets “filled with an herb which they called Tabah,” and offering their obedience. Drake took

the sceptre, crown and dignity of the said country into his hand, wishing nothing more than that it had lain so fitly for her Majesty to enjoy … and that the riches and treasures thereof (wherewith in the upland countries it abounds) might with as great conveniency be transported to the enriching of her kingdom here at home as it is in plenty to be attained there … Before we went from thence our General caused to be set up a monument of our being there, as also of her Majesty’s and successors’ right and title to that kingdom: namely, a plate of brass, fast nailed to a great and firm post; whereon is engraven her Grace’s name and the day and year of our arrival there, and of the free giving up of the province and kingdom, both by the king and people, into her Majesty’s hands; together with her Highness’ picture and arms, in a piece of sixpence current English money showing itself by a hole made of purpose through the plate, underneath was likewise engraven the name of our General … This country our General named Albion and that for two causes; the one in respect of the white banks and cliffs which lie toward the sea; the other that it might have some affinity even in name also with our own country, which was sometime so called.

It is nice to think of California as New Albion.

Drake proceeded north along the coast of Oregon until he came abreast of British Columbia, looking for the outlet of a northwest passage. But, his chaplain Francis Fletcher wrote, “we conjecture that either there is no passage at all through these northern coasts (which is most likely) or, if there be, that yet it is unnavigable … Though we searched the coast diligently even unto the 48th degree, yet found we not the land to trend so much as one point in any place towards the east, but running on continually northwest, as if it went directly to meet with Asia.” They concluded, correctly, that “the large spreading of the Asian and American continent which (somewhat northward of these parts), if they be not fully joined, yet seem they to come very near one to the other.”

So Drake returned to a harborage just north of present San Francisco, thought to be the present Drake’s Bay, for careening his ship before the long haul across the Pacific.

Meanwhile the Queen at home had to face the music. Drake’s depredations on the coast of Peru had made a great noise in the world and caused much indignation in Spain. When Winter came back in the summer of 1578, he was received with favor by the Queen, and was closeted alone with her to give her an account of the voyage. In August of the next year, Philip sent Mendoza reports of the events on their coast from the viceroys of Peru and New Spain, “which certainly disclose a very strange affair.” The impassive Philip was a master of understatement.


Drake was expected home after two years—he was a year overdue before he eventually returned, and the Queen was growing anxious for news. She also wanted to know the purpose of the preparations in Spanish ports. Philip was on the eve of his conquest of Portugal, by which he gained an oceangoing fleet and added a second empire to his own. The situation was growing very dangerous: England was coming face to face with a world empire, the balance of power quite thrown out with France paralyzed by civil war.

Elizabeth wanted to find out where she stood. In January, 1580, she invited Mendoza to a bearbaiting that had been laid on for her. He wanted to know her attitude toward Drake’s piracies. She countered by asking the purpose of Philip’s preparations at sea. At last she demanded with emphasis, “Ut quid tot sumptus?”“To what purpose such great charges?”—the discussion being carried on, of course, in extemporary Latin.

Several times Mendoza demanded another audience. At last the Queen granted him one on February 20, going out of her way to be gracious by descending from her dais and coming forward six paces to meet him, Mendoza reported to Philip, she was “so much alarmed about the fleet, no doubt accused by her own evil conscience.” Before he could say a word she asked whether he had come as a herald to declare war upon her. Mendoza replied that it was she apparently who was going to war with all the world. Elizabeth returned that she “would never make war upon your Majesty unless you began it first.” She pointed out that he already had a war with the Moslems on his hands in the Mediterranean, besides the rebellion of his subjects in the Netherlands to deal with. She had done her best for the tranquillity of the Netherlands and to prevent France from getting a footing there.

Mendoza complained of the plundering of Spanish ships, especially on the American treasure route. The Queen immediately seized on this to ask if there was news of any such ships returned. Mendoza was only able to inform her No—but he was sure they were being dealt with as they deserved by being sent to the bottom. The Queen kept him in conversation for three hours, trying to get out of him the extent of Philip’s preparations, their purpose and direction. Mendoza was satisfied that he had increased her alarm by saying that he could guess the purpose of so great an enterprise: “This frightened her more than before and she was very amiable.” Mendoza was a simple sort of man, who believed in frightening women. He never understood that here was one who the more amiable was the more dangerous and was not to be frightened.

Mendoza had his spies in the west country ports waiting for Drake’s return, and one day in September Drake was suddenly there with his cargo of treasure intact. His return presented a very awkward problem for the government; but the spontaneous reaction in the country to his astonishing exploit, the pride in his achievement, his nationwide popularity, and behind all this the support of the Queen, settled the matter. She received him in high favor, saw him much alone, walked with him often in the palace garden, always noticed him in public. It was expected that she would knight him when she went down to Deptford to visit the Golden Hind. And so she did, contriving to lose a purple garter in the proceedings to heighten good spirits, and handing the French ambassador the sword by way of associating France a little in the event.

The popular idea is that Drake got all the treasure. On the contrary, the bullion all came to the Queen, who put it safely in the Tower: she used it judiciously to keep resistance to Philip going in the Netherlands, so that he could never concentrate all his resources against England. She graciously accepted Drake’s gifts of jewels, and allowed him £10,000 reward, out of half a million, for his eminent services. She decreed that the other shareholders should receive as much again as they had invested: a good 100 per cent.

Out of this juncture, the protests and discussions it provoked, there came a classic statement of the English government’s position in regard to America—in which no doubt the sage intellect of Burghley had a powerful share. William Camden had access to the official papers and reports it thus:

The Spaniards have brought these evils on themselves by their injustice towards the English, whom, contra ius gentium, they have excluded from commerce with the West Indies [that is, America]. The Queen does not acknowledge that her subjects and those of other nations may be excluded from the Indies on the claim that these have been donated to the King of Spain by the Pope, whose authority to invest the King of Spain with the New World she does not recognize … This donation of what does not belong to the donor and this imaginary right of property ought not to prevent other princes from carrying on commerce in those regions or establishing colonies there in places not inhabited by the Spaniards. Prescription without possession is not valid. Moreover all are at liberty to navigate that vast ocean [the Pacific], since the use of the sea and air are common to all. No nation or private person can have a right to the ocean, for neither the course of nature nor public usage permits any occupation of it.

These words are the most succinct statement of the English position for which the struggle was now engaged.

(A second installment, dealing with the Virginia colony, will appear in June.)


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