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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Larger-Than-Life Swashbuckling Seaman Eludes Capture

SIR FRANCIS DRAKE: The Queen's Pirate by Harry Kelsey; Yale University Press $35, 579 pages

October 21, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Who in the English-speaking or the Spanish-speaking worlds has not heard of Sir Francis Drake?

In the English realm, Drake was the greatest of Queen Elizabeth's sea dogs, the scourge of the Catholic King Philip II of Spain. To Spanish eyes, Drake was the Gran Luterano, the terrifying Protestant who plundered the Spanish Main and beat back the 1588 attempted invasion of England by Philip's Armada.

In both worlds, Drake was larger than life.

Harry Kelsey tries to cut him down to size.

He almost succeeds, but the Drake he portrays striding about these pages turns out to be more interesting than Kelsey would have him be. The debunker tries to grasp his subject, but the subject slips free. Drake is larger than life, after all.

It is true, as Kelsey laboriously points out, that Drake was diligent in promoting his own legend. So were his friends and family.

Drake's exploits fit nicely into the national myth that sustained the British Empire. The first Englishman to sail around the world was a most suitable symbol for the empire that encompassed it.

Kelsey tries with care to take apart this myth and those who helped construct it. He is particularly scornful of Julian S. Corbett's influential 1898 book "Drake and the Tudor Navy," which, he might as well be saying, is best read while listening to Sir Edward Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory."

In this type of "patriotic book," Kelsey writes, Drake is no longer a pirate, "but a hero, defending God and queen against a threatening Spain."

"That sort of biography no doubt served a national purpose," Kelsey continues, "but history ought to say what the man was really like.

"Francis Drake was a rogue, an able seaman and a pirate. Drake was a commoner who made himself rich and in the process became a friend of the queen, who tried to turn him into a gentleman. This is the Francis Drake who emerges from the historical record, an interesting fellow but not the Francis Drake of patriotic myth."

But Drake amounted to more than just "an interesting fellow." He was a manifestation of that dazzling burst of energy that characterized Elizabethan England and propelled the island nation in a couple of centuries to the front of all the nations of the world.

Like many men from his native Devon in his day, Drake went to sea, learning his trade of piracy (and slave trading) from the local Hawkins family.

In a move that haunted him the rest of his life, he and his men fled a raid near Vera Cruz and sailed away, leaving a hundred or so of his comrades to their fate. But in a later series of raids on Cartagena and Panama, his piracy against Spanish ships and towns brought him great wealth, renown and the queen's gratitude. Kelsey argues that the places Drake raided were not well-defended. True enough, but the attempt and the result were justly admired.

So, too, with Drake's three-year voyage around the world. Kelsey gives it relatively short shrift.

Drake was the first to do it, after Magellan's ill-fated expedition, and was the first to return alive from an attempt and the first Englishman to try it. Whether Drake went to California (Kelsey argues plausibly that we'll never know) is relatively unimportant. It is most significant, though, that Drake's venture fired the imaginations and ambitions of seagoing Britons for the next four centuries. Like Charles A. Lindbergh's flight, Drake's voyage was much larger in history than the mere facts of the case.

Kelsey is more just in his account of the Armada. His description of the action at sea, and the vagaries of the winds at whose mercy the great ships moved, is vivid and gripping.

Kelsey is a research scholar at the Huntington Library and adjunct professor at UC Riverside. He and his publisher, Yale, have used the archives at the Huntington and other libraries to good advantage in this well-illustrated, well-mapped account of a man who was less than a prince of virtue but more than a mere pirate rogue.

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