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Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Elizabeth I, and the Anglo-Spanish conflict.

During the spring and summer of 1585, several of Elizabethan England's most prominent naval leaders, including Sir Francis Drake, Sir Richard Grenville, and Sir Martin Frobisher, sailed to the Americas to challenge Spanish dominance there. They commanded over three thousand men aboard dozens of ships, and their depredations of Spain's American territory constituted the first belligerent actions of the Anglo-Spanish War. Though Sir Humphrey Gilbert was not among the crews of these noteworthy voyages, as he had vanished at sea in his attempt to reach the Americas two years earlier, he wrote two groundbreaking treatises in 1577 that significantly influenced these three successful expeditions. He helped devise the schemes that Elizabeth I and her government implemented to weaken Spain in the Americas, which not only destroyed some of Spain's greatest West Indian port cities and severely damaged its merchant fleet, but also gave England a foothold in the west and strengthened its position for the impending war.

Scholars have long acknowledged that the ideas expounded by Gilbert in 1577 resembled the three expeditions that sailed from England in 1585. From Gillian Cell's research on Newfoundland in the late 1960s to James Horn's recent work on Roanoke, historians have noted, however briefly, that Gilbert's ideas did not die with him. (1) While several writers have recognized the relationship between Gilbert's writings and later expeditions, his precise impact on the three 1585 voyages and Elizabeth's part in their execution have yet to be fully articulated. (2) Though known more for his bravado and cruelty than his naval treatises, Gilbert displayed great foresight in his documents on Spain. By juxtaposing his two 1577 documents to the objectives and results of the later voyages, it becomes clear that the government based their attacks largely upon Gilbert's ideas. Analyses of the letters patent that Elizabeth granted to Gilbert and her role in the 1585 voyages also shed light upon her involvement in English privateering. Such comparisons make it clear that Elizabeth and her advisors retained worthwhile proposals like Gilbert's to utilize when they were required. Nearly a decade before war broke out, the English government recognized the threat posed by Spain and received a well-devised scheme to counter any attack. The ever-pacifistic Elizabeth attempted to maintain an edgy peace with Spanish King Philip II throughout the late 1570s and early 1580s; but when pushed to the brink, she revived Gilbert's proposals. His innovative notions, which included taking the initiative and weakening Spain in the Americas before Philip could unify his forces, gave England the upper hand in the imminent Anglo-Spanish conflict.

Gilbert and Elizabeth became acquainted as early as 1558, when the young Gilbert served in the princess's household. Four years later he fought for her at Le Havre, where he may have met Frenchmen who had been to America, thus influencing the course of his later voyages. During the mid-1560s Gilbert wrote A new passage to Cataia, petitioning Elizabeth for a charter of discovery to reach the Far East and use America as both a rendezvous point and trading post, and he requested her permission to search for the Northwest Passage on at least two other occasions. (3) The Muscovy Company protested his encroachment upon their territory, however, forcing Gilbert to capitulate (SP 12/42/16-8). In 1574 he headed a group of English West Country adventurers, including Grenville, Christopher Carleill, and George Peckham, who petitioned Elizabeth and Lord High Admiral Edward Clinton for permission to find "unknowen landes" to the west (SP 12/95/136-42). Even though they requested no royal investment and agreed to settle areas uninhabited by Christians, the queen and her government rejected their appeal.

By 1577 Gilbert had spoken to Elizabeth numerous times to no avail, so he finally changed his tactics. Hoping to take advantage of the recent anti-Spanish hysteria that gripped England due to Spain's increasingly brutal war in Low Countries, he wrote two tracts for the queen on how she might attack the Spanish directly. The latter document comes to an abrupt end in the original folio, suggesting that Gilbert may have hurriedly submitted it, or the document may be incomplete. His tracts are rather secretive in nature, though Gilbert's attempt to conceal his intentions would have hardly confounded Spanish spies. He uses unimaginative abbreviations such as "NF" for Newfoundland, "WI" for the West Indies, and "S" for Spain (SP 12/118/30-32). To his credit, he did leave the second document unsigned, but he inadvertently signed the first and someone simply scratched out his name. The obliterated signature is certainly his own, and though the documents are not in his hand, they are decidedly his doing. (4) His hesitancy to claim them and his attempt to conceal his objectives, however uninspired, indicate that he feared repercussions for his writing, most likely from Spanish officials in London. Luckily for Gilbert, Elizabeth welcomed his call to challenge Spanish dominance in the Americas.

In the first tract entitled, "A discourse how hir Majestie may annoy the king of Spayne," Gilbert makes his intentions clear from the outset, stating that "The safety of Principates, Monarchies, and Commonwealths rests chiefly in making their enemies weak and poor, and themselves strong and rich" (SP 12/118/30). He asserts that the English must attack Spain in the Americas and presumes that covert operations will be most successful. He suggests that the queen grant him letters patent for discovery and occupation with a special addendum that would leave her exempt from any wrongdoing. Should Gilbert and his adventurers plunder shipping off either the western European or American coastlines, Elizabeth could simply deny any knowledge of the adventurers' devious intentions and blame it on some other Protestant figurehead, such as the Prince of Orange, William the Silent. Gilbert clearly understood his reader. He knew that his generally peace-loving queen would not openly give her consent to attack Spain, but he also realized that she would be willing to weaken her enemy if she could not possibly be implicated in the affair.

Not surprisingly, Gilbert volunteered to lead the small expedition, and he suggested sailing directly to Newfoundland, where he would attack Portuguese and Spanish shipping. Western European fishermen had frequented the Grand Banks to harvest cod since the late-fifteenth century, and by the Elizabethan era it had become one of the world's most profitable fisheries. Well aware of this affluence, Gilbert hoped to plunder non-English ships off of Newfoundland and then return to Holland or Zeeland with his prizes to confuse the Iberians. If prevented from returning to these realms, Gilbert recommended that the queen arrange for some nobleman to briefly house his adventurers in England. Elizabeth could subsequently arrest the nobleman for abetting pirates, an action which would reassure European ambassadors resident in London of her innocence in the affair.

Gilbert believed that such a venture would require little investment but would result in a massive haul for the crown, which certainly sat well with the parsimonious Elizabeth. It would be easily accomplished since fishermen were poorly armed, were untrained in combat, and normally dispersed at port or abandoned their ships altogether. According to Gilbert, such an attack could potentially eliminate French, Spanish, and Portuguese influence in the area forever, because the fishermen might never recover, and England could then dominate the trade. Should the English expel these realms from the rich fishery, their kings would also lose a valuable source of revenues and sustenance for their navies. Gilbert clearly had a precise and well-devised scheme that accounted for numerous variables and ensured a substantial gain with minimal investment. Of course, such an offensive would also result in a significant loss of trade for England, but Gilbert felt that he could supplant the Spanish in the West Indies to compensate for the trade that would be lost as a result of his mission. In fact, he tantalizingly concludes the document by offering to submit a second agenda for attacking the West Indies.

Evidently his ideas intrigued Elizabeth, for she requested his other proposal. In the second document, Gilbert displays lucid reasoning and even predicts the sailing of the Armada, calling it a sore that will "break forth to some great harm" (SP 12/118/33) unless the queen performs a preemptive strike. He meticulously diagrams the final portion of his plan in the tract and proposes two options to assault Philip at his least defensible yet most valuable colonial possession: his West Indies holdings. In accordance with the first option, Elizabeth would dispatch soldiers to the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, where they would easily defeat the sparsely populated outposts like Santo Domingo and build their own fortifications. The men could live off of the islands' ample food sources, which included cattle, horses, fish, and plants, and from these strongholds they could intercept Spanish treasure ships returning from South and Central America, though Gilbert declares that both islands contain ample deposits of gold and silver as well. Consequently, the expedition would require men with the skills to mine for such minerals. Gilbert even supposes that such an operation would give runaway slaves the occasion to exact revenge on their former masters by aiding the English takeover, just as the Cimmarones had conspired with Francis Drake in New Spain during the early 1570s. Best of all, the islands' remoteness would prevent Philip from taking any retaliatory actions, and an investment of just 20,000 [pounds sterling] would do more damage than a 100,000 [pounds sterling] investment elsewhere.

The second option that Gilbert suggests is simply to plunder the treasure fleets on their return voyage to Spain, which marks the first instance of an Englishman calling for a direct attack on the plate ships en route. Even though the English knew that the Tierra Firme and Nueva Espapa Floras rendezvoused at Havana before returning to Spain, the danger involved and skill required for such an assault made it unfeasible. The fleets normally consisted of dozens of ships, and the precise timing of their crossing was difficult to ascertain as well. Gilbert formulated an innovative plan to overcome these barriers, however, as he intended to sail under cover to the vicinity of Bermuda, where the treasure fleets customarily stopped for water and provisions on their return to Spain. He planned to use the island as a base to attack the fleets, because the ships customarily altered their courses after leaving Bermuda. Drake had built such a base at the Isthmus of Panama in 1572 from which he harassed the Spanish treasure trains, so the plan could potentially succeed at sea. At the close of the document, Gilbert reiterates that such an attack would cripple the Spanish Empire and prevent Philip from retaliating against England for some time.

The impact of Gilbert's tracts on the queen was immediately apparent: Elizabeth granted him letters patent for colonization just a few months after receiving his work, even though he had been unsuccessfully petitioning for them for more than a decade. Gilbert began preparing his expedition before he ever received the letters, however, indicating that he and the queen had made an agreement prior to the official granting of the letters. (5) In the patent, Elizabeth made sure to get her share of Gilbert's plunder by claiming one fifth of all gold and silver from the expedition. She clearly expected him to discover and perhaps steal minerals, but the queen also set boundaries for Gilbert by granting him authority only to prospect lands "not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people" (PR, 21 Elizabeth, pt. 4, C 66/1178). Though she allowed him to repulse all intruders that encroached within two hundred leagues of his settlement on either land or sea, Elizabeth made certain that any offensive actions on his part would not be traced back to her. In the event that Gilbert and his men plundered any Englishmen or ally of the realm, he would be required to repay them in full. A failure to provide recompense would result not only in the loss of the patent, but also in the complete loss of protection from the queen. Elizabeth went even further to ensure her own innocence, ending the document forcefully by alleging that such piracy without restitution would result in Gilbert's entire expedition being exiled. Indeed, it appears that Elizabeth anticipated problems during the forthcoming voyage, and she indicated that Gilbert would be attacking Spanish shipping. When he went on the offensive, she would be free of implication both through her own denials and by means of Gilbert's letters patent.

Despite the verbosity and convoluted nature of the patent, which was certainly done to prevent Elizabeth from being implicated in any of Gilbert's piratical activities, the document mirrors Gilbert's own tracts in many respects. The queen's various provisos accord precisely with the intentions that Gilbert outlined in his Spanish documents. These tracts laid out his plans, and Elizabeth's letters patent were tantamount to her approval to enact this agenda. Among their numerous similarities, the documents both allude to naval battles with Europeans and the procurement of mineral wealth. In the patent, the queen also refers to Gilbert's travel "in this journey for discovery or in the second journey for conquest hereafter" (PR, 21 Elizabeth, pt. 4, C 66/1178). The expedition charted in Gilbert's treatises likewise included two separate voyages. Gilbert himself would complete the initial journey of discovery by possibly sacking a few Spanish outposts on his way to the Atlantic coast, where he would survey the land for suitable building sites for his piracy base.

Interestingly, Elizabeth would subsequently provide the conquest portion of the mission by dispatching her own fleet upon word of Gilbert's landing. Though Gilbert's grand 1578 expedition quickly turned to piracy, which compelled the queen to lose confidence in his leadership skills, by 1580 he began organizing another expedition. In March he dispatched the Portuguese pilot Simao Fernandez, now under the employ of Francis Walsingham, to search for a colony site, and by 1582 large scale preparations were under way. Elizabeth facilitated Gilbert's venture by refusing to discuss his preparations with the irate Spanish Ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, who was convinced that Gilbert planned to settle on the North American coast, where he would receive reinforcements from the queen (Quinn, Voyages, 1:244). Maurice Brown, who had joined Gilbert's expedition quite late, also knew that Elizabeth had pledged to resupply Gilbert after receiving word of his landing. He wrote:

The Queen hath promised Sir Humphrey at what time he doth return news of his landing and of the commodity of the country, her majesty will send him as much shipping as men, and other necessary things for his strength and furtherance of his intents as he will write unto her majesty for to send him. My Master (Being Francis Walsingham) hath protested by his honor to further the same and to see it performed. (Parmenius 194)

As a close associate of Walsingham, Brown was probably accurate in his assessment, though the queen would have never openly admitted to supporting such a venture. She certainly delayed her investment until Gilbert proved that he had actually landed in America, since his 1578 voyage never made it out of English waters. Whether she would have sent her own ships across the Atlantic after Gilbert remains uncertain, but she clearly supported his venture from the beginning.

After receiving a gilded anchor from Elizabeth as a sign of her support (BL Add. MS 4231/85), Gilbert left port in June of 1583; and though his expedition ultimately proved even more disastrous than his first, he accomplished much more. After landing at Newfoundland, a resting place for his journey south, he sent his ship Swallow back to England with several men who had become sick, but he may have also done so to request Elizabeth's reinforcements. During their stay at Newfoundland, Gilbert's Saxon miner Daniel discovered what appeared to be gold, and Gilbert intended to impress the queen with his samples. In fact, on his return voyage he informed the crew that they would be revisiting Newfoundland the following year, while another English fleet would sail south. When asked how he planned to attempt such a voyage, considering he had no money or ships and would probably lack royal support, Gilbert retorted that Elizabeth would give him 10,000 [pounds sterling] "for that he had seene, the same being enough for us all, and that we needed not to seeke any further" (Hakluyt 695). Since the queen had claimed one fifth of all Gilbert's minerals, he knew that she would be intent on returning. She had invested more than 2100 [pound sterling] in Martin Frobisher's 1577 and 1578 voyages after he discovered "gold" in America in 1576, so Gilbert may have been correct (BL Add. MS 39852/38-94). Unfortunately for Gilbert, his expedition only deteriorated after his discovery at Newfoundland. His ship Delight, full of his ore samples, maps, and other findings, wrecked near Sable Island as he continued south, and days of storms compelled him to heed the calls of his crewmen and return to England. Gilbert never made it back. His over-gunned frigate Squirrel disappeared north of the Azores, while the Golden Hind limped back to port with a small fraction of the original crew.

Though Gilbert never got the chance to challenge Spanish supremacy in the Americas, Elizabeth and her advisors remembered his innovative ideas when relations with Spain began to sour. Within a year of Gilbert's death, Mendoza's involvement in the Throckmorton Plot prompted Elizabeth to expel him from the realm and sever ties with Spain. A French Catholic supporter of Philip also assassinated one of Europe's other great Protestant sovereigns, the Prince of Orange, during the summer of 1584, which forced Elizabeth to doubt her own safety and the ability of the Dutch Protestants to resist Spain. War seemed certain following Philip's signing in December 1584 of the Treaty of Joinville, which sought to create a Franco-Spanish alliance against Elizabeth and other Protestants due to the probable succession of the Huguenot Henry of Navarre to the French throne. The treaty also appeared to resolve the decades-old Hapsburg-Valois rivalry that Elizabeth had used to avoid conflict by keeping Europe's great Catholic realms at loggerheads. Such a series of unfavorable events compelled the queen to resurrect Gilbert's pioneering tracts on Spain.

Sometime during the spring of 1585, Gilbert's old associate and Elizabeth's chief advisor, Francis Walsingham, drafted a concise version of Gilbert's two Spanish tracts entitled "An Plotte for the annoying of the K. of Spayne." The document combined various aspects of Gilbert's writings into a brief and simplified format. It called for an attack on the Newfoundland fisheries in April with three 200-ton ships. If Elizabeth invested, the ships would have to be burned, but if done privately, the ships could be returned to the Low Countries and taken as profit for investors. "[T]he entrepryce for the Indias" (SP 12/177/153-4) and the establishment of a piracy base would take place soon thereafter, and this three-pronged attack, Walsingham urged, would goad Philip into war.

A promotional document written by Richard Hakluyt the younger for Gilbert's half-brother Walter Ralegh borrowed various ideas from Gilbert too. Known as the Discourse of Western Planting, the work includes plans to arrest Iberian fishing vessels at Newfoundland, settle on the American mainland, and bring Philip "from his highe throne" (SP 12/195/212) in the West Indies, where he was at his weakest. Hakluyt's text on colonization and privateering was clearly influenced by Gilbert, and influential English officials like Walsingham and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, requested copies. (6) With such plans in place, Ralegh, Walsingham, and Elizabeth set about enacting Gilbert's agenda.

Elizabeth transferred Gilbert's patent for discovery to Ralegh just one year after Gilbert's disappearance at sea. Ralegh and the queen envisioned a piracy base on the North American mainland within striking distance of the Spanish treasure fleet, just like the one that Gilbert had blueprinted; and just as Gilbert had done in 1580, Ralegh dispatched the small Amadas-Barlowe expedition to reconnoiter for a preferable site for his base. After swinging through the West Indies in June of 1584 to pick up food and water, the Portuguese navigator Fernandez landed them safely on the mainland. After establishing friendly relations and possibly exploring the Chesapeake, the small squadron set sail for England, but not before at least one of the two vessels sailed directly for Bermuda. Ralegh had instructed them to make an attempt on a ship from the treasure fleet, possibly due to Gilbert's suggestion, but a storm forced them to abandon the operation. Instead, they headed for the Azores for the same purpose and waited there for up to six weeks, but finding no vessels and with their provisions declining, they continued homeward and reached England in September (Hakluyt 728-33; Quinn, England, 254-8). Upon their return Elizabeth knighted Ralegh for his success, though he and the queen had already begun preparing the main expedition before the reconnaissance voyage reached port.

For the primary expedition Elizabeth invested her 160-ton Tiger, which served as flagship, along with 9600 pounds of gunpowder, indicating Ralegh's objectives (Milton 82-8; Miller 81-2). Though Parliament refused to bestow Ralegh the authority to seize foreign ships and arrest their crews and other captives, Elizabeth overrode them and granted him this power, while she also allowed him to commandeer ships, sailors, soldiers, food, and armaments in Devon, Cornwall, and Bristol. (7) She personally recalled Ralph Lane from military service in Ireland to lead the land forces of the expedition and even continued to pay his salary. Not only was Lane a favorite of hers, having been equerry of her great stables, but as an expert in fortification who had helped bulwark the Irish coastline against potential Spanish invasions, he would be essential in constructing the piracy base (SP 63/114/161). The queen also agreed to Ralegh's request that the land be named Virginia in her honor, though all the while she remained publicly uninvolved in the venture or any other that might incriminate her in belligerent actions.

On April 9, 1585, over six hundred men, most of whom were veterans of the Irish campaigns like Gilbert and Ralegh, left Plymouth aboard seven ships under the authority of Thomas Cavendish and Sir Richard Grenville, a cousin to Ralegh and fellow west countryman who had been involved in Gilbert's colonization schemes since serving with him in Ireland. The ships headed for the West Indies, and in May Lane constructed his first fort at Tallaboa Bay, St. John's Island, and included private quarters for himself and General Grenville (Purchas 4:1645). The Spanish feared that the elaborate fortification would be used to occupy some Caribbean islands, though the leaders of the expedition never mentioned whether or not they planned to make this a permanent fort as Gilbert had suggested. The Spanish officials on the island were certainly impressed, saying that the fort gave the impression that the English intended to stay at least ten years (Quinn, Roanoke, 2:734-8; Wright 9). Indeed, David Durant contends that the remote island off Puerto Rico would have been a perfect location for a base to supply English ships (32), while David B. Quinn argued that the fort may have been destined to become a supply base for Francis Drake later in the year and that Grenville simply abandoned the site due to the probability of a Spanish attack (Quinn, Voyages 1:160-61). The Spanish had, in fact, constructed their own fortification at St. German on the island after the English arrived. With this threat so near, and still lacking the fruit and livestock that they desired, Lane, Grenville, and their men replenished their water supplies, stole a few Spanish horses, and continued westward.

After taking two Spanish frigates, the expedition sailed to Hispaniola and finally got their horses, cattle, fruit, and other commodities, just where Gilbert had suggested they would be.8 The crew then sailed north to the mainland and ultimately chose Roanoke for their base. Lane again erected a fort, while Ralegh's numerous mineral experts, including Joachim Gans and Daniel Hochstetter, tested ore sample for precious metals. Grenville had more on his agenda, however, for he headed south on August 25, 1585, with all but 107 of the men. He captured several Spanish vessels in the Caribbean but found his greatest prize, the Santa Maria de San Vicente, worth as much as 300,000 [pounds sterling], as it passed by Bermuda (Wright 12-5; Quinn, Roanoke, 1:219-21). By heeding Gilbert's advice, Grenville returned to England with a great bounty to present his queen, who was also one of the expedition's largest investors.

Before the Roanoke expedition ever reached their destination, however, events in Europe forced the English government to accelerate their attack and adopt another portion of Gilbert's plan. On May 26, 1585, Philip seized English grain ships in his ports and arrested their crews. Though Amias Preston and Gilbert's old friend and business partner Bernard Drake (9) were aboard the Golden Riall ready to reprovision Lane and his men after sacking the Spanish West Indies on the way, Elizabeth recalled them for service. Instead of having them sail to Roanoke, the queen ordered them to protect English interests at the rich Newfoundland fishery by warning English sailors of Philip's intentions and attacking all Iberian vessels (SP 12/179/48-50).

The fleet departed in July, and Preston quickly seized a Portuguese ship loaded with Brazilian sugar en route to Newfoundland and returned home with his prize. Drake continued to the fishery, where he warned English sailors to avoid Spanish ports. He then commenced his assault, but he did not act alone. The Lion under Captain George Raymond, along with the ship Dorothy and possibly a few other vessels from Grenville's flotilla joined Drake in his assault. Raymond and his crew may have simply happened upon Drake after sailing for Newfoundland to acquire fish for the nascent Roanoke colony or for their homeward voyage. Based upon the queen's instructions for Drake, however, it seems more likely that she and Ralegh had instructed Grenville's men to make an attack in the area. Indeed, it seems quite a coincidence that Raymond and Drake both reached Newfoundland at the same time to conduct the first documented assault on the fishery. Together, the captains took several Portuguese fishing ships, as well as a few Spanish vessels, and they dispatched the majority of their prizes to England (Whitbourne B4; Purchas 4:1831-2). The fleet continued on to the Azores, where they captured four more Iberian ships along with one French vessel laden with gold, before they finally sailed homeward.

In all, the Englishmen likely confiscated more than twenty ships, made a profit of more than six hundred percent, and captured over six hundred men. Their attack netted upwards of 60,000 quintals of the dried fish, which would have otherwise been used to feed the Spanish navy and merchant marine. Just one year after the assault, the Spanish government issued an edict that prohibited their ships from sailing to Newfoundland, and in the following decades Spanish ships congregated mainly along the southern coast of the island away from the English (CSPD 2:302). The Portuguese fishery at the Grand Banks never recovered, and by 1590 foreign suppliers provided all of Portugal's cod, since their own fishermen no longer sailed to Newfoundland. For his efforts, Elizabeth knighted Drake on January 9, 1586, just months before he died of a strange illness along with many of his Iberian captives. (10) Though the assault ultimately cost Drake his life, it proved even easier and more profitable than Gilbert had imagined.

The last phase of Elizabeth's plan, the coup de grace of her assault on New Spain, would be by far the largest and most elaborate expedition of the three, and the largest English sea expedition up to that time. Since returning from his circumnavigation, Francis Drake had been preparing for another voyage to the West Indies, but throughout the summer of 1585 Elizabeth refused to let him sail. Alternatively; she and Ralegh, along with Dudley, Christopher Hatton, and John and William Hawkins, wanted Drake to lead a fleet of more than thirty vessels and 1600 men into the Moluccas. Drake received his commission to sail on Christmas Eve 1584, but his plans changed when word of the Spanish embargo reached England. Just as she had diverted Bernard Drake, she ordered Francis Drake to sail to Vigo and free the commandeered English ships and their crews before making his way southwest to intercept the returning Spanish treasure fleet. If this task proved impossible, Drake was to continue to the West Indies and raid Cartagena, Santo Domingo, and possibly Panama. It also appears that Drake intended to occupy Cuba with a portion of his men, while he would continue on. The queen had the right to disavow Drake's actions altogether should she need to do so, and, in fact, after Drake's return she tried to appease Philip by claiming that her corsair had overstepped his bounds (Corbett 73-4; Wright 123; Kelsey 239-42).

Drake's immense expedition consisted of twenty-five ships and 2300 men captained by some of England's most renowned sailors, including Sir Martin Frobisher, Thomas Fenner, and Francis Knollys. Elizabeth personally designated Frobisher as vice admiral, recalled Christopher Carleill from Ireland to serve as military commander, and invested 10,000 [pound sterling] and the royal galleons Elizabeth Bonaventure and Ayd of 600 and 250 tons respectively. (11) According to both Drake's count and the royal estimate, the queen's ships, accoutrements, and monetary contribution equaled an investment of 20,000 [pound sterling], the exact figure that Gilbert had suggested would be required for an assault on the West Indies (Keeler 54; Corbett 94). In the midst of their hurried preparations, Elizabeth also signed the Treaty of Nonsuch, pledging her support to the United Provinces in their increasingly bloody sectarian conflict with Philip's military expert, the Duke of Parma, in the Spanish Netherlands. Parma had conquered Northwest Europe's financial capital Antwerp in August, prompting Elizabeth to pledge her support to the Dutch within days. Dudley would not arrive in the Low Countries with his English soldiers until December, however, making Drake's assault the first official act of war.

Drake initially intended to sail on the heels of Preston and Bernard Drake in July, but he did not depart until September 14, 1585, and even then the expedition left with only meager supplies and half-empty water casks over fear that Elizabeth would again vacillate and recall them. Though Richard Hakluyt wrote from Paris that the mere preparations of Drake did "much vex the spaniards" (SP 15/29/12), they were ill prepared to resist him at Vigo or Bayona. Drake managed to free the English prisoners, loot Vigo, and take on provisions, but he failed to intercept the Vera Cruz and Cartagena treasure fleets, which had reached Spain before he had even departed England. After stopping in the Cape Verde Islands, he continued on to Santo Domingo, but his previous raids had given the town warning, so they were prepared for his attack. Drake succeeded in taking the settlement, however, by landing a large force of 1000 men on the island instead of the smaller forces typically sent ashore, while freed slaves also aided him. Such innovations, which were alluded to by Gilbert, helped Drake ransom the town for the paltry sum of 25,000 ducats (Quinn, Roanoke, 2:748-9; Wright 35, 193; Keeler 195).

Drake continued on to Cartagena with several commandeered Spanish vessels, and he reached the mainland on February 9, 1586. He initially intended to hold Cartagena as a base from which to attack the plate fleets, even taking measurements of the settlement and examining the defenses of the fort (Wright 193). The poor state of his crew, now decimated by disease, and the doubt of any reinforcements in the near future made the chance of success unlikely, however. Even with a weakened crew, Drake battered the town into submission and received 107,000 ducats to leave. By the time he departed the ruined city on April 18, only 700 men of his original crew of 2300 remained able to fight. (12) This deficiency forced Drake to abandon his "intended enterprise, to goe with Nombre de Dios and so overland to Panama" (Bigges 36), so he headed for Cuba instead.

Drake considered attacking Havana and leaving men on the island to intercept the following year's treasure fleet, but with few men remaining and having heard rumors of a Spanish attack on Ralegh's piracy base, he decided to make a preemptive strike on the small Spanish fort at San Augustin in Florida. (13) The defenders deserted the fort with their valuables upon his approach, so Drake simply burned the entire complex. He then sailed to Roanoke and gave Lane and his men various supplies, but the combination of a fierce storm and the potential for an Algonquian attack in response to an earlier English ambush ultimately induced Lane, Drake, and their men to return to England.

Though this phase of the plan largely failed to produce the great profit hoped for by Elizabeth and her fellow investors, Drake's assault on the Spanish colonies left them in utter disarray, while also wreaking havoc on Spanish banking and nearly breaking Philip's main creditors in Venice, thus slowing his preparations for the Armada and his war in the Low Countries (BL Stowe MS 177/85-6; CSPD 2:327). The inhabitants of New Spain often dealt with French and English corsairs, but they were ill prepared to fend off a full-fledged war fleet. In response to the attacks, Philip built new forts and constructed new galleons to defend the Caribbean, and he equipped his treasure fleet with swift, heavily armed warships known as galizabras. The cost of such improvements forced him to drastically raise the averia, a tax on cargoes, and further diverted his resources from the Dutch war (Andrews 153-5). Just as Gilbert had predicted, the Spanish outposts were only sparsely defended; and though the Council of the Indies requested aid from the Spanish crown, the immensity of Spain's empire made the quick dispatch of reinforcements impossible and such calls went unanswered for months (BL Add. MS 36315/82-103). Much like the initial establishment of Ralegh's piracy base, Grenville's privateering, and the attack at Newfoundland, Drake's assault on the West Indies did considerable damage to the Spanish Empire.

Even though Elizabeth deemed Sir Humphrey Gilbert "a man noted of not good hap by sea" (qtd. in Rowse 212), she could not deny the brilliance of his ideas in using English sea power to weaken Iberia's strangle-hold on America and its vast resources. In all likelihood, Gilbert intended to implement his agenda for Spanish America during his own voyages, but various factors led to their failure and his own death. Ralegh's Roanoke settlement ultimately failed as both a privateering base and an agrarian colony as well, but the creation of his colony in 1585, which was to resemble Gilbert's blueprint, began England's attempt to challenge Spain's control of the Americas. When Elizabeth needed an answer for Philip's aggression, she quickly turned to Gilbert's tracts on Spain and actively saw that they be enacted, even if her role remained hidden to outsiders. The Drakes revealed the value of Gilbert's visions during their expeditions to the West Indies and Newfoundland. Their actions devastated the Iberian fishery at the Grand Banks and severely damaged Spain's colonial outposts in the West Indies. Though the soldiers and sailors who enacted these raids must be credited for their duty, so should the man who envisioned these raids and the queen who had the foresight to execute them.

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Cell, Gillian Townsend. English Enterprise in Newfoundland 1577-1660. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1969. Print.

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(1.) Several authors have briefly mentioned a possible link between Gilbert's ideas and events in 1585. They include Andrews 149; Parry 2; Shammas 154; Cell, English, 38-9; Horn 59.

(2.) Though much quality work on Elizabethan piracy has been published in the last decade, it has largely downplayed or discounted Gilbert's association with the queen and his influence on piracy and expansion. Among these still excellent works are those by Ronald, Kelsey, and Snyder.

(3.) Gilbert's requests can be found in BL, Add. MS 4159/175 and SP 12/42/53. Though written in 1566, Gilbert's Discourse was not published for another ten years, when it was utilized to promote Martin Frobisher's upcoming expedition. Richard Hakluyt printed it again in his 1589 Principal Navigations.

(4.) These conclusions are supported by Chidsey 113 and Quinn, Voyages, 1:175.

(5.) By early May Gilbert had amassed numerous ships, even though his letters patent were not officially issued until June 11, 1578, a delay which suggests that Elizabeth had made her decision very early. See Quinn, Voyages, 1:186.

(6.) Hakluyt's Discourse survives in a single manuscript at the New York Public Library. For information on Walsingham and Dudley, see "the twenty several titles or heads of the chapters contained in the book of Sir Walter Raleigh's voyage to the West Indies," in SP 12/195/212-3.

(7.) CSPD 2:295. On Elizabeth's support for Ralegh, see Kupperman 16; Durant 22; Horn 64-5.

(8.) On Gilbert at Hispaniola, see Hakluyt 734-5; Wright 9-10; Quinn, Roanoke, 2:742.

(9.) For Gilbert's relationship with Drake, see PC 2/12/95; CPR 7:13, 57; CPR 9:50; CPR, 6:463.

(10.) On the Portuguese fishery, see Abreu-Ferreira 108; Cell, "Bernard Drake," 857-8. For Drake's death, see Holinshed 1547-8.

(11.) On Elizabeth's involvement in the expedition and for specifics concerning the voyage, see Bigges 1-2 (Lieutenant Cripps finished this account following Captain Bigges' death during the voyage); Corbett 28-9; McDermott 298-9; Keeler 15.

(12.) According to Spanish officials in the Caribbean, Drake held a conference among his men regarding the likely approach of a Spanish relief armada. Evidently they agreed that the risk of an approaching fleet outweighed the benefit of holding Cartagena, and on April 24 the Englishmen departed. See Wright 145; Loades 235.

(13.) For Drake's actions in Cuba consult Wright 136, 145; Quinn, New American, 3:309; Corbett 69-74.
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Author:Probasco, Nate
Publication:Explorations in Renaissance Culture
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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