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The Second-Most Successful Pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy: Sir Francis Drake ($115 Million) – Part B

A map of Drake's route around the world.
Image from Wikipedia

Golden Age of Piracy: Top 10 Countdown Part IX-B

This is the second of two sections of the ninth installment of a series focusing upon the ten most successful pirates (as determined by the estimated total value of their combined hauls) of the Golden Age of Piracy (generally considered to have begun around 1700 and ended with the killing of Barthlomew “Black Bart” Roberts in 1722).

# 2. Sir Francis Drake: $115 million

Francis Drake embarked on a seagoing career of such magnitude that he could be considered the greatest seafarer of all time.  In the various roles of shipping merchant, naval officer, captain, privateer, slave trader, and official explorer of the Elizabethan era, Drake proved himself to be an unrivaled sea captain. 

Drake operated under legitimate circumstances until his group was attacked by the Spanish at a port in Mexico in 1568.  Coming back from shore where he had been negotiating for supplies, Drake was helpless to stop the Spanish warships from taking all but two his vessels and had to literally swim for his life.  From that point on, Sir Francis Drake maintained an intense hatred for all things Spanish.


It was another four years before he was able to wreak vengeance upon the Spaniards. Attacking the Spanish-held Isthmus of Panama in July of 1572, Drake captured the port town of Nombre de Dios, the primary junction point for the transport of gold and silver taken from the mines of Peru.  Though seriously wounded during this battle, Drake remained in the area for fifteen months, continually attacking and plundering Spanish treasure shipments all along the Panamanian coast.

The most lucrative of these operations was in March of 1573.  Drake was able to capture one of the larger Spanish mule trains, pilfering over 20 tons of gold and silver in the process.  It was this major haul that led King Phillip of Spain to label Drake a pirate – England had signed a treaty with Spain by this time – and issue the $8 million bounty on his head. 

Drake’s fame as an official explorer was solidified and ensured during this period as well.  He was supposedly the first Englishman to physically view the Pacific Ocean, having climbed a tall tree to reconnoiter the area during the Nombre de Dios raid.  It was also Drake who officially claimed what is now California for the English, thus igniting the centuries-long conflict with the Spanish throughout the southwestern segment of what is now the United States.

Despite all of his success, Sir Francis Drake’s final naval operations were to end ignominiously.  Having continued his seafaring career well into his mid-fifties, he suffered several consecutive defeats at the hands of the Spanish before dying of dysentery in January of 1596 off of Portobelo, Panama.  Asking to be buried at sea in full armor, Drake’s request was granted.  Entombed in a sealed lead-lined coffin and lowered into the ocean near the wreckage of two sunken British ships, his body has never been found. 

Sir Francis Drake can be cited as the ninth-most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy.

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