Chapter III. "The Secret of the Strait"
Queen Elizabeth knew that Spain was opposed to her and her religion, and was not in her heart displeased when her brave seamen got the better of their Spanish rivals. She received Drake privately, and help was offered him secretly from people who stood high in the government. With this encouragement he resolved to embark on a most hazardous and daring adventure. While in Panama he had seen, from a "high and goodlie tree" on a mountain side, the great Pacific, and was immediately filled with a desire to sail on its waters and explore its shores. He therefore determined to cross the Atlantic, pass through the Strait of Magellan, up the Pacific, and to plunder the Spanish towns along the coast of South and Central America, until he should reach the region traversed by the richly laden Spanish ships coming from India and the Philippines. It is said that the queen herself put a thousand crowns into this venture. One thing is certain, that he received sufficient help to fit out five small vessels, with one hundred and sixty-four men. With these he sailed from Falmouth, England, in December of 1577. With the exception of perhaps one or two of the rich men who had helped him, no one, not even his men, knew of his plans.
After a long and interesting voyage in which one vessel was lost and the others, though he did not know it, had deserted him, he found himself with but one ship beating his way up the coast of Lower California. This was his flagship Pelican, which he had rechristened the Golden Hind. It was then so laden with rich booty, that it was like a hawk which had stolen too heavy a chicken, driven this way and that by the winds, scarcely able to reach its nest.
In addition to a good store of Chile wines and foods of various kinds, there were packed away in the hold of the Golden Hind, twenty-five thousand pesos of gold, eight thousand pounds of English money, and a great cross of gold with "emeralds near as large as a man's finger." From one vessel Drake had taken one hundred-weight of silver; from a messenger of the mines, who was sleeping beside a spring on the Peruvian coast, thirteen bars of solid silver; off the backs of a train of little gray llamas, the camels of the Andes, eight hundred pounds of silver; and besides all these were large quantities of gold and silver that were not recorded in the ship's list, and stores of pearls, diamonds, emeralds, silks, and porcelain.
The last prize taken was the Spanish treasure ship Cacafuegos. Drake had transferred its cargo and crew to his own vessel and, for a time, manned it with some of his men. Its noble commander, St. John de Anton, who had been wounded in the attack, received every possible attention on the English vessel, and in the report which he afterwards made to the viceroy of Mexico, he told of the perfect order and discipline maintained on the Golden Hind, and of the luxury which surrounded its commander, who was treated with great reverence by his men.
Before sailing on to the northward, Drake restored St. John and his crew to their vessel. Then, because he feared that they might fall into the hands of his fleet (having no suspicion that the other captains had returned home), he gave the Spaniards the following letter, which shows the great Englishman to have been more honorable than he is oftentimes represented: -
"To Master Weinter and the Masters of the Other Ships of my Fleet:
"If it pleaseth God that you should chance to meet with this ship of St. John de Anton, I pray you use him well according to my promise given him. If you want to use anything that is in the ship, I pray you pay him double value for it, which I will satisfy again. And command your men not to do any harm and what agreement we have made, at my return unto England, I will, by God's help, perform, although I am in doubt that this letter will ever come to your hand, notwithstanding I am the man I have promised to be.
"Beseeching God, the Saviour of the world, to have us all in his keeping, to whom I give all honor, praise, and glory,
"Your sorrowful captain, whose heart is heavy for you,
How to get home was the problem which this daring man had now to solve. There was no possibility of returning by the way he had come. He well knew that the news of his departure had reached Spain, and that her war ships would be waiting for him, not only at the eastern entrance of the Strait of Magellan, but at the Isthmus and in the Caribbean Sea.
If by sailing northward he could find the Strait of Anian, then his homeward journey would be safe and short; but if he could not find that illusive body of water, then there was left to him but the Pacific for a highway. However, this did not daunt him, as he felt that what the Portuguese Magellan had done, Drake the Englishman could do.
Keeping well out from shore, the Golden Hind now sailed northward for nearly two months. Drake passed just west of the Farallon Islands, never dreaming of the great harbor which lay so short a distance on the other side. He traveled as far north as latitude 42i or possibly 43i, and perhaps he even landed at one point, but he failed to find the strait. According to Fletcher, the priest of the Church of England who kept a journal of the expedition, they were finally forced by the extreme cold to turn southward. "Here," says Fletcher, "it pleased God on this 17th day of June, 1579, to send us, in latitude 38i, a convenient fit harbor." This is now supposed to be Drakes Bay, which lies thirty miles northwest of San Francisco, in Marin county.
"In this bay we anchored, and the people of the country having their houses close to the waterside showed themselves unto us and sent presents to our general. He, in return, courteously treated them and liberally bestowed upon them things necessary to cover their nakedness.