Sir Francis Drake

by E. F. Benson. New York: Harper & Bros. 1927. 8vo. xvi + 305 pp. $4.00.
DRAKE’S drum beats bravely through the biography of Sir Francis Drake by E. F. Benson. He took with him, says his biographer, ‘on his voyage round the world, in 1577, a smart new drum. When he returned from that voyage three years later, and was knighted by Elizabeth, he had his new coat-of-arms painted on that drum which had been round the world with him: perhaps it was to him what we now call a “mascot.”But before the drum took material shape it was beating in his brain. It sounded there as he navigated homeward the solitary little Judith,’ — returning from the early adventure in which he acquired a lasting personal enmity toward Spain, — ‘and the drum-taps were the music to which he marched henceforth in his lifelong war against the chiefest and most damnable of all Christian countries. It beat death to Spain, but to Drake an invincible gayety of resourcefulness.’ He took it with him, no doubt, on his last voyage, in 1595; but the drum had lost its customary rhythm. King Philip’s beard for once escaped being singed — but that, after all, was a small matter, since earlier singeings had left so little of it.
One may reasonably wonder what would have become of Britain without Drake — not because of any aggrandizement by his biographer, but because Mr. Benson’s presentation of the historic background shows Britain in a precarious situation from which the singeing of Philip’s beard by Elizabeth’s ’little pirate’ seems to have been about the only way out. The tight little island was rather a terrified little island, excommunicated by the Pope, who had pretty well divided the rest of the known world, and what might yet be discovered, between Spain and Portugal, and menaced by a sea power which, as soon as it got a little bigger, Elizabeth’s ‘brother’ Philip meant to use in taking her realm away from her. Nominally there was peace, but practically the policy of Spain and Portugal outlawed England from foreign trade, and the policy of England unofficially encouraged piracy against Spain and Portugal. ‘Her only principle,’ says Mr. Benson of Elizabeth, ‘was to pilfer and pillage as much as she could without provoking Philip to war.’ Por pursuit of this principle Drake was highly important; and when Philip was at last ready, and put to sea his Invincible Armada, it seems highly probable, with anybody but Drake in command of the English fleet, that the Armada would have justified its title.
However that may be, Mr. Benson has written an admirable book, with an impressive bibliography at the end and a good index. One gets to know the Drake in the book, and may well believe that he is a good deal like the Drake who, in 1577, bought a smart new drum as part of his equipment for sailing round the world, emptying Spanish treasure ships and otherwise singeing King Philip’s beard as he went. And now his drum inspires his biographer. The book is illustrated with old prints, among them a portrait of Drake in what looks like a very stylish and uncomfortable suit of clothes; and the reader may follow him round the world on a map of 1595, when cartographers enriched their toil with ships and sea monsters.