Sir Francis Drake and Music


I became interested in Sir Francis Drake because it was mentioned to me that he carried a viol consort on board his ship during his voyage around the world. Since this was, I believe, only the second European expedition to reach California, the first being that of Cabrillo, it is quite possible that this was the first European music ever heard in California. I will have to look up information about Cabrillo also.

During my research, I discovered a few other events that I found worth noting—such as what probably was the first gamelan music ever heard by Englishmen. They seem to have enjoyed it.

While Drake led a very interesting life, I include some material about his career in Ireland to show that he might not be regarded as a great hero when considered in modern terms. In fact, some of his actions were questioned in his own time. However, I am focusing on musical topics, which most historians would probably consider peripheral to the main events of his life.



Drake in Ireland

There is some doubt about his movements during the next two years [after 1573]. He may quite likely have helped to escort a vast convoy to Hamburg. But certainly he found employment for himself and his ships in ferrying the Queen's soldiers to places in Ireland, 'the last of the daughters of Europe … to be reclaimed from desolation' (Francis Bacon), where they were badly needed.

That kingdom was afflicted just then by one of its periodic outbreaks of tribal warfare, which, if it showed any signs of dying down, was instantly rekindled by a new incursion of Redshanks from the Hebrides or Argyll, Gaelic-speaking descendants of Vikings or Celts, hungry warriors, who thought not only that fighting was the most agreeable form of commerce but also that it was the only form permissible to men of gentle blood who combined in themselves the proclivities of these two warlike stocks. The Redshanks were not always lucky. The Queen's government in Dublin was notably blind to the distinction between those well-born mercenaries from Scotland and the native Irish peasants. The one, like the other, should be suitably punished in the names of good order, civilisation, military necessity and so forth. Thus, one day in July 1575, a dreadful massacre occurred on Rathlin Island, where a Scottish force had taken refuge. An English force of frigates put a party of troops ashore. The Scots surrendered and were massacred to a man, woman and child. An unpleasant episode, although characteristic of the warfare of the age, and worthy of note here because, it seems, Drake was in command of the escorting flotilla. The massacre itself was directed by John Norreys, a competent commander in an age when the military genius of the English was temporarily somewhat in abeyance. A glowing picture of this cruel event was conveyed to the Queen by the Earl of Essex, a nobleman to whom she had farmed out the task and profits of the Irish 'purification'.


Drake's life on board ship

Now he, Francis Drake, once the penniless younker on a half-derelict coaster, was going to play the part of an admiral of the Queen! He had her commission or, at any rate, an imposing parchment which at appropriate times he flourished, declaring that it was his brief of authority given by the sovereign. It was fitting, then, that he should have fine furniture in his cabin and silver dishes to eat from, musicians to play trumpets and viols during the long days of sailing.

Neither had he omitted to make provision also for ornament and delight, carrying to this purpose with him expert musicians, rich furniture (all the vessels for his table, yea, many belonging even to the cook-room being of pure silver), and divers other shows of all sorts of curious workmanship, whereby the civility and magnificence of his native country, might, amongst all nations whithersoever he should come, be the more admired.

The astonished Portuguese observed how Drake dined in state, to the sound of trumpets and viols, from silver plates rimmed with gold, and garlanded with his arms.

He is served on silver dishes with gold borders and gilded garlands, in which are his arms. He carries all possible dainties and perfumed waters …

He dines and sups to the music of viols…

Drake then led his prisoner to a cabin below deck where an old man was sitting. 'Who is this man?' said Drake. Zarate said he had no idea. 'That,' said Drake, 'is the pilot Colchero whom the Viceroy was sending to Panama to take Don Gonzalvo to China.' Whereupon he invited both Spaniards to dine with him. It was a stately meal, accompanied by music and, in the course of it, Zarate heard, to his relief and amazement, that his life and property were safe.

Later on, the factor was present at prayers on the ship when Drake knelt on a cushion and recited the psalms in English for about an hour, after which four men played viols as an accompaniment to hymns. When the service was over, Drake ordered a page to dance 'in the English fashion'.


Drake in California, 1579

By June, the Golden Hind was at 42ºN which, if the observation was exact, as Drake's usually was, meant that the ship was just opposite the state-line dividing Oregon from California, where the Smith River runs into the sea. Already they were farther north on the American coast than any European had ever reached before. The northernmost point of any previous recorded navigation was Cape Mendocino (40º) in California, where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had turned south in 1542.

At that point in the voyage the weather changed abruptly for the worse. The thermometer fell sharply [or would have, had it been invented at that time], hail came; ropes grew stiff with frost, and after three days of wild north-west winds they anchored close to land and rode out a succession of bitter squalls, interspersed with thick fog. They were, they believed, at 48º, which would mean that they were just south of Vancouver Island. … He found shelter for his ship after a fortnight, seven hundred miles to the south at 38º 30' N, in other words on the Californian coast a little to the north of San Francisco. Today a lagoon inside Point Reyes is named Drake's Bay. It was probably here that Drake paused.

In the meantime the women, as if they had been desperate, used unnatural violence against themselves, crying and shrieking piteously, tearing their flesh with their nails from their cheeks in a monstrous manner, the blood streaming down along their breasts … A thing more grievous for us to see or suffer, could we have holp it, than trouble to them (as it seemed) to do it. This bloody sacrifice (against our wills) being thus performed, our general with his company in the presence of those strangers fell to prayers; and by signs in lifting up our eyes and hands to heaven, signified unto them that that God whom we did serve, and whom they ought to worship, was above: beseeching God, if it were His good pleasure, to open by some means their blinded eyes, that they might in due time be called to the knowledge of Him,, the true and ever-living God, and of Jesus Christ whom He hath sent, the salvation of the Gentiles. In the time of which prayers, singing of Psalms, and reading of certain chapters in the Bible, they sat very attentively: and observing the end of every pause, with one voice cried, 'Oh', greatly rejoicing in our exercises. Yea, they took such pleasure in our singing of Psalms, that whensoever they resorted to us, their first request was commonly this, 'Gnaah', by which they entreated that we would sing.

So ended the first contact of Englishmen and the Indians of Western America as the visitors saw and remembered it. As might be expected, the record is a mixture of exact observations, very creditable to the explorers, and wild misunderstanding of what was going on. The houses, sleeping arrangements, costumes and money which Drake and his companions found all survive among the Coast Miwok of California, tribes of whom a scattered handful survives. … The wailings and lacerations with which the white men were greeted were probably not the salutations to gods that the visitors supposed them to be. It is much more likely that the Indians thought that the men who had come from the sea were their own dead come back to them. Hence the painful searching of the faces of the younger and, presumably, beardless seamen. Hence, too, the extraordinary sorrow at the moment of parting.

One feature of Drake's stay on the north-west coast remains puzzling. The account of frightful cold, of snow-clad mountains and skin-clad Indians is hard to reconcile with the climate of California or Oregon in the months of early summer. But Drake was celebrated for his exact observations. He was, after all, one of the most renowned navigators of his time. On the other hand, it is unlikely that a false account of the weather off the Californian coast would be given. It is, however, possible that Drake pushed his search for the Strait of Anian [the North-West Passage] farther north than Vancouver Island and that he was forbidden to disclose the exact truth about what he had discovered.

It is characteristic of summer weather on the California coast that hot weather inland brings in sea air cooled by the Alaska Current, causing cool, damp, foggy weather on the coast. But the coastal mountains are not high enough for snow during the summer. On the other hand, Drake lived during the period known as the "Little Ice Age", when temperatures in Europe were much cooler than today. For example, the river Thames regularly froze over and was used for ice skating, which would be a rare occurrence in this century.

There is a large Celtic cross erected in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park which commemorates the "first Christian service in the English tongue on our coast", "first use of the Book of Common Prayer in our country" and "one of the first recorded missionary prayers on our continent". Drake seems not to have noticed San Francisco Bay, probably because it was hidden by the fog so common in the summer months.


Drake visits Sultan Baber of Ternate in the Spice Islands (Moluccas), 1579

The king himself was not far behind, but he also with 6 grave and ancient fathers in his canoe approaching, did at once, together with them, yield us a reverend kind of obeisance …

Whose coming, as it was to our general, no small cause of good liking, so was he received in the best manner we could, answerable unto his state; our ordnance thundered, which we mixed with great store of small shot, among which sounding our trumpets and other instruments of music, both of still and loud noise; wherewith he was so much delighted, that requesting our music to come into the boat, he joined his canoe to the same, and was towed at least a whole hour together, with the boat at the stern of our ship.


Drake visits Raja Donan of Java, 1580

The 13 March, our general himself with many of his gentlemen and others, went to shore, and presented the king (of whom he was joyfully and lovingly received) with his music, and showed him the manner of our use of arms, by training his men with their pikes and other weapons which they had, before him …

One day amongst the rest, viz., March 21, Raja Donan coming aboard us, in requital of our music which was made to him, presented our general with his country music, which though it were of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightful …


At some moment after Drake's return Elizabeth had decided that she could risk offending the King of Spain. For a time, her councillors had talked of a compromise: if Spain gave up her intervention in Ireland, the syndicate which had financed Drake's voyage would be content with a mere hundred per cent profit. At that moment the Spanish troops in Ireland were massacred and the notion was forgotten.


Drake's raid on the West Indies, 1586

From a Portuguese pilot, faithless to the Spaniards as were so many of his kind, he picked up useful information: the Spaniards had established a base at San Agustin in Florida at the place where Jean Ribault's Huguenots had been massacred. Drake resolved to find it and attack it. The first clue to its position was given when a beacon was seen from the sea standing high on four masts. Drake put a party ashore and marched inland with them along the bank of a river. Carleill, Morgan and Sampson went on reconaissance in a rowing skiff. They could find no trace of the Spaniards. Then they heard a sound which arrested every movement and caught every breath short. Someone was playing on a fife a tune they knew, the tune which every good Protestant in Europe called 'William of Nassau'—the Prince of Orange's song. Solemn and heavily charged with emotion, the notes, to which Sainte Aldegonde's poem of patriotic defiance of Spain had been set, were eerily arresting and meaningful beside that creek in Florida. It was the most anti-Spanish air in the world … Somewhere close by was a friend.

Following the sound, they tracked the fife-player down. He was Nicholas Borgoignon, a French prisoner, who had spent six years in Spanish hands. He had exciting tales to tell of the gold, rubies and diamonds which could be found in the Appalachian mountains by those who, at the price of hatchets presented to the Indians, were permitted to look for them.


The Lisbon Expedition, 1589

In the end he sailed out of Plymouth with a fleet comparable in numbers to that which had fought the Armada and carrying far more soldiers. There were 8 ships of the Navy, 77 armed merchantmen and 60 Dutch flyboats. They had on board 3,000 English and 900 Dutch sailors. In addition, they carried 11,000 soldiers of whom a thousand were volunteers. These adventurous souls might have only a modest experience of war but they were expected to make up for it in spirit. Among them were the Norwich city waits, whose services Drake had begged from the Mayor. These musicians, five in number, unanimously volunteered to go. They were fitted out with stannel cloaks and given a wagon to carry themselves and their instruments to the ships. Three new hautbois and a treble recorder were bought (£5) and Peter Spratt needed a new case for his sackbut (10s.). Alas, only two of these gallant minstrels returned to Norwich.



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