One of the most interesting stories from the early days of West Indian history concerns the brilliant, daring, and wildly successful English corsair Sir Francis Drake. He spent a good part of his career in the Caribbean, made his fortune there and died there. One of the lesser-known details about Drake was the evolution of his respect for Africans he met in the New World.
He didn’t start that way. His first trip to the West Indies was a slaving voyage made in company with Sir John Hawkins, a sleazebag who organized the expedition and invited the young Francis Drake along as captain of one of the smaller ships of the flotilla. They sailed past Cape Verde into the delta area of the St. Louis and the Gambia rivers, and allied themselves with a king who wanted to conquer a neighboring tribe. With the help of guns and surprise, the allies succeeded. A plentiful supply of slaves was theirs at small cost (depending…what price a man’s soul?) They captured them on river expeditions, raiding unsuspecting villages at night, shooting the surprised villagers as they ran out of their dwellings.
It was wicked business—kidnap and murder—which the perpetrators knew was wrong, but the English were strong—and shameless—and disgustingly hypocritical to make such a big deal about being Christians and stipulating that each ship hold prayers and devotions regularly. (Author’s note: the more things change the more they stay the same. To be Christian is to strive to be Christ like—and who could possibly imagine Jesus leading a slave raid—or invading Iraq?)
They arrived in the West Indies where John Hawkins committed one of the foulest deeds done in an already sorry and stained land. The English were anchored on the Venezuelan coast besieging a town ashore without success until a black man, a slave of the Spaniards, managed to get away from his masters and presented himself to Hawkins, offering to lead them by a secret passage into the town. That accomplished, the Spaniards fled into the hills and still refused to trade with the English…unless the English surrendered up the slave who had showed them the hidden path. Well, Hawkins was getting eager to get rid of his slaves for leather and tobacco and silver and so he handed over the poor runaway to what undoubtedly was a horrific death.
It is tempting to think that Drake may have been repelled by the perfidiousness of his commander, as well as seeing at first hand how useful the local knowledge of the new world Africans could be. That the voyage ended in disaster when a Spanish fleet caught the English unawares in Vera Cruz, Drake and Hawkins escaping by the skin of their teeth, may have been interpreted in the deep recesses of a guilty heart as God’s vengeance on the English act of treachery.
At any rate Drake never did another slave run. But he did return to the West Indies with a brilliant plan – to hook up with the Cimarrons for local knowledge and extra muscle in an effort to hijack the annual mule train of silver, gold, and jewels that wended its way across the jungled Darien Isthmus. This fabulous outpouring of wealth from Peru was collected at Panama on the Pacific, then sent overland from Panama City to a port on the Atlantic, Nombre de Dios, from where it rendezvoused with other treasure ships in Havana.
The Cimmarons were a loose "tribe" of black people who lived in the jungle of Panama and were implacable enemies of the Spaniards. There was report of them from as early as 1514 when they refused to let Balboa pass through their territory on his way to the "discovery" of the Pacific. The most likely explanation of their presence right there on the Atlantic is that one of the very first slave ships must have missed its destination in Hispaniola and wrecked on the Atlantic coast of Central America. Their presence was a refuge in the jungle for runaways from slavery in Panama City, and the drain of slaves from Panama to the Cimmarons was a continual complaint in Spanish documents of the time, especially as they grew stronger.
Drake made contact with them guided by a certain Diego, a black man who presented himself to Drake asking to be a member of The English party. This Diego proved invaluable on land and by sea. He knew the coasts and the anchorages, how to forage off the land, how to build, cultivate, swim, and fight. It might have been Diego’s idea to hook up with the Cimmarons. At any rate he led the English to them and a joint action against the Spaniards—hijacking the mule train loaded with silver—was planned.
The Cimmarons had an elaborate intelligence network within Panama City, knew the jungle like the back of their hand, and were motivated, formidable warriors. Drake himself declared the operation would never have succeeded without their participation. As it turned out the combined English, French (a last minute addition), and Cimarrons won huge wealth.
Drake was so grateful that when he was ready to set sail, he brought the Cimarron leaders into the great cabin at the stern of the ship where the treasure lay gleaming and bid them take anything they wished and he would not refuse them, except for something he needed to sail his ship back to England. The warriors had gold to their satisfaction and for which they had little use. But Pedro, the Cimarron king chose the most spectacular weapon there, a fine blade of Damascene steel whose hilt was encrusted with jewels. It had once belonged to the king of France. He hesitated to ask because he knew Drake loved it as much.
Drake was sorry, but he wished to please Pedro who had done so well, so he gave it to him with many good words. Drake also gave the Cimmarons an old ship to burn for the iron fastenings, which was a metal they could better use than the gold.
It is clear in retrospect that the characters of Diego and Pedro were dear to Drake. He put his life in their hands, they fought together, and bonded over tribulation and victory. Their bravery and loyalty deeply impressed Drake and all the English.
"Thus with good love and liking, we took our leave of that people," said an eyewitness.
Just how deep Drake felt can be inferred from the incident during the siege of Santo Domingo years later when Drake sent a black youth who was his personal aide across from the English to the Spanish soldiers lines for a parley. For an answer one of the soldiers callously shot the boy who nonetheless managed to make his way back to English lines where he delivered the Spanish message—and died in Drake’s arms.
Infuriated and grieving, Drake informed the Spanish that they must hang with their own hands on a gallows in plain sight of the English the soldier responsible for his aide’s death. In the meantime, while they thought about it, he would hang two priests for every day they delayed. Hang them he did, to the consternation of the Spanish forces, and before the next day was out the Spanish culprit was swinging from the gallows.