*Note: This is the second lecture in my historical series Good Thing, Bad Thing. For those who may have missed my first, it should remain available on this internet publication until I find an agreeable alternative. At such time, mark my words, I will dedicate the entirety of my considerable resources to the total financial ruin of this publication.
Now, I'm sure the most any of you youngsters know about piracy on the high seas was from that third-rate cinematic abortion – which I will not mention – starring Johnny “out of his” Depp and some other cabbage-headed starlet whose name I forget. I suppose it’s too much to ask you’ve ever seen a REAL pirate movie, such as 1935's Captain Blood featuring the immortal Errol Flynn and a jaw-dropping Olivia de Havilland.
No, of course not. Why experience a thrilling masterpiece when you can microwave your brains with flashy “special effects” and moronic balderdash? But I digress.
Let me pose a question instead. How sizable would your stones have to be in order to board a rickety ship, sail for months across a perilous ocean towards some place that may not even exist, fight your way through murderous rivals and bloodthirsty natives, and then somehow survive a return voyage while your crew drops like flies from disease and malnutrition? Trick question, of course. None of you youngsters have any stones.
Thankfully for civilization there were men who did. Swaggering swashbuckling scallywags who walked bow-legged not from years of life at sea, but from hauling around the most colossal boulders I've ever encountered in all my decades of historical research. Let me tell you about the Age of Discovery, those glorious days when men were MEN, and the modern world was birthed screaming from the womb of ignorance and barbarity.
Let me tell you about Sir Francis Drake.
First of all, any man who wears a ruffle around his neck either has an affinity for the theater or is a stone-cold psychopath. Drake was decidedly the latter. He was what the English called a “privateer”, and the Spaniards called a “pirate”, and what posterity remembers as a goddamn legend. The man swore revenge on a daily basis. He urinated where he pleased, when he pleased, on whom he pleased. He was El Draque, scourge of the Spanish, anathematized by the Catholic Church, forsaken by God Himself. These are historical facts.
Probably born in 1541, Drake first put to sea in his boyhood and swiftly rose up the ranks to become master of his own ship. For a period between 1563 to 1577, he and his cousin (and fellow maniac) John Hawkins wrought havoc up and down the Spanish Main with the aim of severing the vital silver shipments upon with the Spanish Empire depended.
The amount of mischief these rascals got-up-to beggars belief. They lived a life’s worth of adventures every five minutes. Raiding party, sea battle, ally with Natives, kill Spaniards, steal treasure, betray Natives, bury treasure, betray each other, reclaim treasure, more murder, more larceny, go home and get knighted by the Queen. I know this is supposed to be a “humorous” publication, but I am, if anything, under-selling the insanity.
Here’s a story: Once in Panama, while on the run from both the Spaniards and the Natives – for completely separate reasons – Drake climbed a palm tree to hide. As he waited for his pursuers to pass, he looked to the west and saw something shining in the distance, something no Englishman had ever laid eyes on. It was the Pacific Ocean. Let that sink in. Drake discovered the Pacific Ocean completely by accident in the midst of a madcap clusterfuck.
If only to convey a sense of how ludicrous that was, imagine that after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, they were instantly attacked by moon aliens. Then, while they’re dealing with that problem, the Soviets show up out of the blue and start shooting at them from the Russian moon-lander, which would of course look like this:
So, Armstrong and Aldrin – like the goddamn American heroes they are – start shooting back, obliterating the Russkis and smoking a whole slew of moon aliens in the process. Then they rush back into their lander, fly home in triumph, and thank a certain history professor for his service to the nation. This might have been a dream I had, or it might be the perfect analogy for the experiences of Drake and his boys – or it could just be both.
Here's another story: Once in 1577 Drake grew bored, so he decided to – oh, I don’t know – sail around the goddamn world. He was the second man ever to do it. Part of the way, his second-in-command threw a hissy fit and tried to “cancel” Drake’s voyage. Drake executed him on the spot. Then the ship’s chaplain charged Drake with blasphemy – otherwise known as “hate speech” – and Drake executed him on the spot. Today, I'd settle for making them all cry as we point and laugh.
By the mid 1580’s, the freshly knighted Sir Drake had mellowed out somewhat, but the high-stakes game of world empire was still afoot. King Phillip II of Spain had had quite enough of Drake’s “el shenaniganos” by that time and made ready to crush the upstart English once and for all. In ports across Spain and Portugal, a massive fleet was forming: an armada the likes of which the world had never seen.
The English fleet, by contrast, amounted to a few dozen ships at most, many of them private ships owned by their captains, such as Drake's Revenge. Nearly every “expert” observer concluded the Spaniards would mop the floor with the ragtag English sea-dogs. But as with most things, the “experts” were wrong. The Spanish, indeed the world, had not quite reckoned with what sort of baffling people the English were (and remain).
Let me tell you about the English.
Now, I openly confess. For the first sixty years or so of my life, I thought all Englishmen had what we used to call the “sickness”. You know, the unmentionable one. But after the Falklands War, I gained newfound respect for the limeys. Who’d have guessed that the Englishman with the heftiest pair since Churchill wouldn’t have been an English-“man” at all. Then again, judging from the portrait below, I’m not entirely convinced Margaret Thatcher wasn’t born “Michael” Thatcher – if you know what I mean.
And this brings us along to another hideous English hag, her serene highness, Queen Elizabeth I. Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, who hasn’t done jack-shit since she assassinated that daffy tart Diana, Queen Elizabeth I began her reign with murder and never once looked back. Supported the Pope? Burned at the stake. Challenged her authority? Beheaded in the tower. Refused to tickle her fancy? You get the idea.
Queen Elizabeth may have lacked the equipment, but she figuratively had the brass England needed at a crucial juncture in history. Hard to imagine now, but from Roman times until the Elizabethan Age, Britain had lain at the fringes of the known world: a remote, gray, gloomy island, shrouded in mystery and haunted by legend.
But that all changed during the Age of Discovery. All of a sudden, with the surging importance of transoceanic sea routes, England found herself in a position of incomparable advantage. True, Spain and Portugal had taken the lead in the race for world empire, but with the strategic location of the British Isles and her frothing pack of sea-dogs ready for action, Elizabeth I was determined to not only catch up but surpass. In other words, the Spanish Armada was sailing into a trap.
In May of 1588, King Phillip II unleashed his forces and afterwards retired for lengthy prayer - like a pussy. Sir Francis Drake, meanwhile, was drinking and wenching and bowling on Plymouth Sound. When a messenger brought him word the armada had been sighted, he turned and announced with a grin, “One more game, I think, then off for a good fucking with the Spanish devil.” These are incontestably his exact words.
The Spanish Armada, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, a lifelong pencil-pusher, entered the English Channel in their trademark crescent formation. Despite their extraordinary numbers, their whole thinking on naval warfare was wrong. The Spaniards viewed their galleons as mere platforms from which to launch boarding parties. The English, on the other hand, favored their cannons – their very large and very hard cannons.
Their aim was to maneuver just out of reach and rake the Spanish with gunfire, wearing the crescent down until a handful of ships remained. It was brilliant strategy, but did not work out so well in practice. Naval gunnery was still a new science then. The English had the right idea, but were a bit like you youngsters, I'd expect – full of enthusiastic effort, but lacking any kind of discipline (not to mention fire control).
Still, Drake, Hawkins, and the other sea-dogs inflicted enough damage and sowed enough chaos that the Spanish Armada broke apart from its tight formation. It was blown off course, all the way north of Britain and back around Ireland, where a storm ripped it to pieces in August 1588. Against all odds, the English had thwarted their hated foes. The Spanish Armada was no more.
So, then. The Spanish Armada. Good Thing, Bad Thing?
Overwhelmingly good thing. After the downfall of the Spanish Armada – as well as subsequent less dramatic armadas – England found herself invincible at sea. More and more, she began to look away from squalid continental affairs and towards the wider world: towards India, the Far East, the Caribbean, Africa, and (as we all know) North America. In 1707, after the Acts of Union, it was not merely England, but the rising British Empire.
To my mind, the global impact of the British Empire was like what happens when a sultry old minx gets her claws into a young buck and give him his first “go around the horn”.
At the time, you feel thrilled and exhilarated, a little later you feel shaken and abused, but sometime after that, you begin to appreciate just what she did for you. She opened your eyes to a whole universe of tantalizing possibilities. She laid the groundwork for the rest of your sexual career, so that when you do find that special one – and don’t give up all you youngsters, it’ll happen for you yet! – you’ll know just where, when, and how.
Great Britain did the same thing in a political-historical sense. Lady Britannia took us skittish young pups by the hand, led us to the backseat of a car or disreputable hotel room, and showed us how to do the rule of law, and constitutional government, and so many other nifty tricks. By any objective measure, her former colonies are far and away among the most stable, prosperous, and laudable nations of the modern world. One country in particular has risen to become the greatest nation in all of human history, and in my humble opinion, we Americans owe the old gal - toothless though she is these days - a debt of gratitude.
And if one wishes to point in time when this beautiful lioness first awoke and began to prowl the earth, one could do no better than Drake’s victory over the Spanish Armada. Just like dear old Mrs Mayfair once did for a scrawny jittery James O’Flannery, Lady Britannia taught all of us to hold our heads high, to stand-up straight and meet the world with a steady manful confidence.
Rule Britannia, they used to sing, Britannia rule the waves. You keep at it, darling. You keep at it.
That’s all for this week, class.
Do your reading,