Queen Elizabeth I was having problems. For all sakes and appearances, it seemed as if she was only Protestant Monarch left in Europe by 1577. The Spanish had essentially cut the Dutch off at the knees by making William the Silent a rebel. The French Catholics had forced the Protestants underground after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. From the Queen’s perspective, England was isolated, and her allies were either dead or on the run.
She also did not have the financial resources available to her that the Spaniards did, what with Spain pulling gold out of Mexico and Silver out of Peru. Direct confrontation with Spain would be suicide.
She did, however, have a group of sea dogs who were both itching to take their ships to the new world, and, if the opportunity arose, provoke the Spaniards in a game of nautical piracy. As it often took upwards of two years for communication to reach King Phillip II from the new world, such acts could be politically explained away with public admonitions from the Queen (while in private, laud her privateers).
Francis Drake was one such Sea-Dog. And in 1577, the Queen sent him to the new world to explore, but with the implied understanding that he would be engaging in various forms of piracy.
The thing was, his crew was under the impression that he would be going to the Caribbean to do this work, and it was only after a while at sea that he told that the real plan was to head around the Strait of Magellan, and create havoc on the west coast of the Americas.
Oh, and havoc he did raise (after having a few setbacks of his own). He raided towns and colonies all along the west coast, and took ships when the opportunity arose. By the time he found himself at, what is today the San Francisco area of California, Drake knew three things.
1) He was sitting on an awful lot of money, including 37,000 ducets in gold (roughly 7 million dollars in today’s money) from one ship, and 26 tons of silver from another, as well as various amounts of gold, silver, and jewels from the rest of his hell raising.
2) This money needed to get back to England.
3) The Spanish were actively looking for him, and would have loved to see him dead.
What this meant was that if he returned the way he came, he would likely have to engage in warfare, and due to sickness, mutiny, and the wear and tear of the sea, his crew and his fleet were less than able to put up a strong fight.
So he did the one thing he thought no one would suspect. He continued west.
Think about that for a moment. He was a half a world away from home, looked at his situation, and decided that his best choice was to accomplish a task that had only been accomplished once before in the history of the world – circumnavigate the globe!
“This is all great,” a few of you are likely thinking. “But what has this have to do with food?”
Well, after completing what must have been a treacherous trip across the pacific Ocean (keep in mind that the maps used here would have been either very primitive if not outright non-existent), Drake found himself at the Maluku Islands, known better as the Spice Islands, where he packs down his already laden ships with what he can, and continues on his journey back home. I’ll come back to this point in a bit.
He reaches Plymouth, England in September of 1580, where the extent of his haul is found to be greater than the annual English budget. For all intents and purposes, Drake is a hero. He was also a bit of a jackass, but I’ll let you discover that aspect of him for yourself.
From a food perspective, his landing in the Moluccas was important. He was by no means the first Englishman at the Spice Islands (the Portuguese used any sailor they could find, and an Englishman or two very likely had already been there on Portuguese ships). However, Drake demonstrated that, not only could the English make it to the Spice Islands, but the amount of money one could make if they established a colony there. The creation of the East India company twenty years later can be directly traced to what Drake accomplished.
Without Drake, the British pantry would have looked much different, as would have America’s spice rack. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.