Sir Francis Drake (The British Library Historic Lives), by Peter Whitfield
This book could have been so much better than it was. Sir Francis Drake is nothing if not a contentious figure, not least given the way in which his role in English history is deeply enmeshed in imperialism, the slave trade, and piracy, subjects of deep abhorrence in contemporary English politics. It is hard to celebrate a man like Drake for people who do not view English nationalism and the opportunistic attacks on Spanish trade and colonies as being something worth celebrating. Someone who was a strong English nationalist would find little objection to celebrating Drake as he was indeed celebrated in the Victorian era and even his own era (except by those with whom he crossed swords), but he represents a major challenge to contemporary sensibilities. As someone who finds Drake as a worthy figure to celebrate, I found the approach of this book rather disappointing, as the author appeared to be more inclined to respect contemporary sensibilities about political correctness than I would, and more inclined to plumb the depths of negative speculation about Drake’s conduct than I would think appropriate for a martial hero of the level of Drake’s excellence.
This particular book is a short one of about 150 pages, divided into six chapters. The book begins with a look at Drake as a young adventurer, coming from a family that was certainly not part of England’s elite and gaining experience thanks to kinship networks involved in trade and piracy (1). After that the author spends a couple of chapters looking at Drake’s travels to the Straits of Magellan (2) and then in the Pacific where he (3) sought to take advantage of Spanish weakness for plunder and also sought a way home around the world. After that the author looks at the open warfare that Drake engaged in to “singe the king of Spain’s beard” (4). After that comes a discussion of Drake’s Armada campaign, where he was in charge of the successful English effort to defend against the massive but unwieldy armada (5). Finally, the book closes with a chapter that discusses Drake’s last voyages, which were less successful as Spain was starting to increase the security of its American colonies, as well as the establishment of the Drake legend that the author appears so irritated with (6). The book then concludes with a chronology, suggestions for further reading, and an index.
In looking at this book it is pretty clear that the author is in somewhat over his head. For one, even though this book is short there is a great deal of padding where the author shows various artifacts related to Drake’s career, which takes up a great deal of this book. For another, this book would have been vastly better had the author not taken advantage of the fact that Drake made enemies and that his actions on behalf of English interests do not fit contemporary sensibilities to write what amounts to a hack job against Drake rather than a reasonable and sensible history about his life and actions. If you want to find out about Drake, this is not the book you want to look at, as its information is scanty and its perspective highly negative and colored by contemporary political correctness, all of which accounts for this not being nearly as good a book as one would hope and something that will likely lead me to avoid or expect poor things from any book of the author’s in the future. One wonders why this was accepted into a collection of historical works that is meant to honor notable English (and British) historical figures at all.