Perhaps unlike any other pirate in history, Sir Francis Drake enjoys a near sterling reputation. A British national hero as well as skilled navigator and explorer, it’s easy to see why Drake is difficult to place in the same category as the likes of Blackbeard, Kidd, or the Lafittes. That he sat rather comfortably beneath the umbrella of “privateer” rather than overt piracy only keeps the tarnish off his name all the more.
Author Stephen Coote follows Drake from his early years serving under John Hawkins, through his circumnavigation of the globe aboard the “Golden Hind,” his famous knighting, and on to his eventual death. Drake’s life is already a thoroughly written subject, and as such few major points will be new to the well-read pirate-enthusiast, although Coote does go to great lengths to clarify myths and misconceptions, as well as exploring many finer details which serve to paint a more complete picture of Drake. His raw ambition, bitter hatred of the Spanish, and strong leadership skills all served to propel him to legendary status, and Coote covers these characteristics in detail. But he also addresses some of Drake’s lesser known (and frequently less admirable) traits – his years as a slave trader, for example, as well as his quasi-legal trial and execution of his shipmate Thomas Doughty.
Sir Francis Drake is truly one of the “greats” in the pirate world, and his story is a fascinating one. But unfortunately Coote’s retelling, while extensively researched, keeps us at an arm’s distance. Much like reading an extensive encyclopedia entry, we observe Drake and his contemporaries from a distance, never being truly immersed in their adventures, nor getting to know them “up close and personal.” As such, while the material is both interesting and educational, it fails to draw the reader in as it otherwise might. “Drake: The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero” is a highly informative, but not always exciting read. It covers a great deal of territory, but leaves the reader hungry for a more first-hand experience with the famous sea dog.