Aboard this escort went Francis Drake as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Home in June, Drake ran down to Tavistock in Devon; wooed, won, and married pretty Mary Newman, all within a month. He was back on duty in July.
For the time being the war cloud passed away. Elizabeth's tortuous diplomacy had succeeded, owing to dissension among her enemies. In the following year (1570) the international situation was changed by the Pope, who issued a bull formally deposing Elizabeth and absolving her subjects from their allegiance to her. The French and Spanish monarchs refused to publish this order because they did not approve of deposition by the Pope. But, for all that, it worked against Elizabeth by making her the official standing enemy of Rome. At the same time it worked for her among the sea-dogs and all who thought with them. 'The case,' said Thomas Fuller, author of The Worthies of England, 'the case was clear in sea divinities Religious zeal and commercial enterprise went hand in hand. The case was clear; and the English navy, now mobilized and ready for war, made it much clearer still.
Westward Ho! in chief command, at the age of twenty-five, with the tiny flotilla of the Dragon and the Swan, manned by as good a lot of daredevil experts as any privateer could wish to see! Out and back in 1570, and again in 1571, Drake took reprisals on New Spain, made money for all hands engaged, and gained a knowledge of the American coast that stood him in good stead for future expeditions.
It was 1572 when Drake, at the age of twenty-seven, sailed out of Plymouth on the Nombre de Dios expedition that brought him into fame. He led a Lilliputian fleet: the Pascha and the Swan, a hundred tons between them, with seventy-three men, all ranks and ratings, aboard of them. But both vessels were 'richly furnished with victuals and apparels for a whole year, and no less heedfully provided with all manner of ammunition, artillery [which then meant every kind of firearm as well as cannon], artificers' stuff and tools; but especially three dainty pinnaces made in Plymouth, taken asunder all in pieces,' and stowed aboard to be set up as occasion served.
Without once striking sail Drake made the channel between Dominica and Martinique in twenty-five days and arrived off a previously chosen secret harbor on the Spanish Main towards the end of July. To his intense surprise a column of smoke was rising from it, though there was no settlement within a hundred miles. On landing he found a leaden plate with this inscription: 'Captain Drake! If you fortune to come to this Port, make hast away! For the Spaniards which you had with you here, the last year, have bewrayed the place and taken away all that you left here. I depart hence, this present 7th of July, 1572. Your very loving friend, John Garrett.' That was fourteen days before. Drake, however, was determined to carry out his plan.
So he built a fort and set up his pinnaces. But others had now found the secret harbor; for in came three sail under Ranse, an Englishman, who asked that he be taken into partnership, which was done.
Then the combined forces, not much over a hundred strong, stole out and along the coast to the Isle of Pines, where again Drake found himself forestalled. From the negro crews of two Spanish vessels he discovered that, only six weeks earlier, the Maroons had annihilated a Spanish force on the Isthmus and nearly taken Nombre de Dios itself. These Maroons were the descendants of escaped negro slaves intermarried with the most warlike of the Indians. They were regular desperadoes, always, and naturally, at war with the Spaniards, who treated them as vermin to be killed at sight. Drake put the captured negroes ashore to join the Maroons, with whom he always made friends. Then with seventy-three picked men he made his dash for Nombre de Dios, leaving the rest under Ranse to guard the base.
Nombre de Dios was the Atlantic terminus, as Panama was the Pacific terminus, of the treasure trail across the Isthmus of Darien. The Spaniards, knowing nothing of Cape Horn, and unable to face the appalling dangers of Magellan's straits, used to bring the Peruvian treasure ships to Panama, whence the treasure was taken across the isthmus to Nombre de Dios by recuas, that is, by mule trains under escort.
At evening Drake's vessel stood off the harbor of Nombre de Dios and stealthily approached unseen. It was planned to make the landing in the morning. A long and nerve-racking wait ensued. As the hours dragged on, Drake felt instinctively that his younger men were getting demoralized. They began to whisper about the size of the town — 'as big as Plymouth' — with perhaps a whole battalion of the famous Spanish infantry, and so on. It wanted an hour of the first real streak of dawn. But just then the old moon sent a ray of light quivering in on the tide. Drake instantly announced the dawn, issued the orders: 'Shove off, out oars, give way!' Inside the bay a ship just arrived from sea was picking up her moorings. A boat left her side and pulled like mad for the wharf. But Drake's men raced the Spaniards, beat them, and made them sheer off to a landing.some way beyond the town.
Springing eagerly ashore the Englishmen tumbled the Spanish guns off their platforms while the astonished sentry ran for dear life. In five minutes the church bells were pealing out their wild alarms, trumpet calls were sounding, drums were beating round the general parade, and the civilians of the place, expecting massacre at the hands of the Maroons, were rushing about in agonized confusion. Drake's men fell in — they were all well-drilled — and were quickly told off into three detachments. The largest under Drake, the next under Oxenham — the hero of Kingsley's Westward Ho! — and the third, of twelve men only, to guard the pinnaces. Having found that the new fort on the hill commanding the town was not yet occupied, Drake and Oxenham marched against the town at the head of their sixty men, Oxenham by a flank, Drake straight up the main street, each with a trumpet sounding, a drum rolling, fire-pikes blazing, swords flashing, and all ranks yelling like fiends. Drake was only of medium stature. But he had the strength of a giant, the pluck of a bulldog, the spring of a tiger, and the cut of a man that is born to command. Broad-browed, with steel-blue eyes and close-cropped auburn hair and beard, he was all kindliness of countenance to friends, but a very 'Dragon' to bis Spanish foes.