The next objective was Cape St. Vincent, so famous through centuries of naval history because it is the great strategic salient thrust out into the Atlantic from the southwest corner of Europe, and thus commands the flank approaches to and from the Mediterranean, to and from the coast of Africa, and, in those days, the route to and from New Spain by way of the Azores. Here Drake had trouble with Borough, his second-in-command, a friend of cautious Burleigh and a man hide-bound in the warfare of the past—a sort of English Don. Borough objected to Drake's taking decisive action without the vote of a council of war. Remembering the terrors of Italian textbooks, he had continued to regard the galleys with much respect in the harbor of Cadiz even after Drake had broken them with ease. Finally, still clinging to the old ways of mere raids and reprisals, he stood aghast at the idea of seizing Cape St. Vincent and making it a base of operations. Drake promptly put him under arrest.
Sagres Castle, commanding the roadstead of Cape St. Vincent, was extraordinarily strong. The cliffs, on which it occupied about a hundred acres, rose sheer two hundred feet all round except at a narrow and well defended neck only two hundred yards across. Drake led the stormers himself. While half his eight hundred men kept up a continuous fire against every Spaniard on the wall the other half rushed piles of faggots in against the oak and iron gate. Drake was foremost in this work, carrying faggots himself and applying the first match. For two hours the fight went on; when suddenly the Spaniards sounded a parley. Their commanding officer had been killed and the woodwork of the gate had taken fire. In those days a garrison that would not surrender was put to the sword when captured; so these Spaniards may well be excused. Drake willingly granted them the honors of war; and so, even to his own surprise, the castle fell without another blow. The minor forts near by at once surrendered and were destroyed, while the guns of Sagres were thrown over the cliffs and picked up by the men below. The whole neighboring coast was then swept clear of the fishing fleet which was the main source of supply used for the Great Armada.
The next objective was Lisbon, the headquarters of the Great Armada, one of the finest harbors in the world, and then the best fortified of all. Taking it was, of course, out of the question without a much larger fleet accompanied by an overwhelming army. But Drake reconnoitred to good effect, learnt wrinkles that saved him from disaster two years later, and retired after assuring himself that an Armada which could not fight him then could never get to England during the same season.
Ship fevers and all the other epidemics that dogged the old sailing fleets and scourged them like the plague never waited long. Drake was soon short-handed. To add to his troubles, Borough sailed away for home; whereupon Drake tried him and his officers by court-martial and condemned them all to death. This penalty was never carried out, for reasons we shall soon understand. Since no reinforcements came from home, Cape St. Vincent could not be held any longer. There was, however, one more stroke to make. The great East-India Spanish treasure ship was coming home; and Drake made up his mind to have her.
Off the Azores he met her coming towards him and dipping her colors again and again to ask him who he was. 'But we would put out no flag till we were within shot of her, when we hanged out flags, streamers, and pendants. Which done, we hailed her with cannon-shot; and having shot her through divers times, she shot at us. Then we began to ply her hotly, our fly boat [lightly armed supply vessel of comparatively small size] and one of our pinnaces lying athwart her hawse [across her bows] at whom she shot and threw fire-works [incendiary missiles] but did them no hurt, in that her ordnance lay so high over them. Then she, seeing us ready to lay her aboard [range up alongside], all of our ships plying her so hotly, and resolutely determined to make short work of her, they yielded to us.' The Spaniards fought bravely, as they generally did. But they were only naval amateurs compared with the trained professional sea-dogs.
The voyage was now 'made' in the old sense of that term; for this prize was 'the greatest ship in all Portugal, richly laden, to our Happy Joy.' The relative values, then and now, are impossible to fix, because not only was one dollar the equivalent in most ways of ten dollars now but, in view of the smaller material scale on which men's lives were lived, these ten dollars might themselves be multiplied by ten, or more, without producing the same effect as the multiplied sum would now produce on international affairs. Suffice it to say that the ship was worth nearly five million dollars of actual cash, and ten, twenty, thirty, or many more millions if present sums of money are to be considered relatively to the national incomes of those poorer days.
But better than spices, jewels, and gold were the secret documents which revealed the dazzling profits of the new East-India trade by sea. From that time on for the next twelve years the London merchants and their friends at court worked steadily for official sanction in this most promising direction. At last, on the 31st of December, 1600, the documents captured by Drake produced their result, and the East-India Company, by far the greatest corporation of its kind the world has ever seen, was granted a royal charter for exclusive trade. Drake may therefore be said not only to have set the course for the United States but to have actually discovered the route leading to the Empire of India, now peopled by three hundred million subjects of the British Crown.
So ended the famous campaign of 1587, popularly known as the singeing of King Philip's beard. Beyond a doubt it was the most consummate work of naval strategy which, up to that time, all history records.