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The Invincible Armada

Costa rica osa peninsula walking along coast to drake bay c matt power

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich by a couple of clients (thanks again Andrew & Kim!). The reason was to have a look at the archives to find out what we could about the story behind Drake Bay on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula.

Being able to look at hand painted atlases and coastal drawings from the 17th century was treat enough but being in the company of the museum’s curator of naval history, James Davey, was just brilliant.

As it turns out, there is relatively very little known about Francis Drake’s South American exploits of the late 1500s. Being such a sensitive time in Anglo-Spanish relations, Elizabeth I had to be somewhat cautious about supporting the buccaneering exploits of Drake. So much so that the ships logs from his circumnavigation of 1577 - 1580 were hidden or destroyed by the crown.

What we do know is that he set fire to Valparaiso in Chile, terrorised the locals generally and stole a huge amount from the Spanish, who had only just stolen it themselves.

I have always found it striking that, in England at least, Drake is portrayed as a great naval hero whereas in Spain and Latin America he is known as a terrible pirate. Indeed, there are places in Latin America where the bogeyman is known as ‘El Draque’.

I vaguely remember history lessons where Drake sailed the high seas and then that time when the cheeky Spaniards sent a few ships to attack England but were repelled by the sanguine Francis Drake with little more than a bowling ball on Plymouth Hoe.

I hadn’t really grasped that it was precisely the activity of Drake and his cohorts, supported by the English crown, which was behind the ‘Invincible Armada’ of 1588. James Davey also rather put me straight on just how enormous an event the Armada was, and what a huge role fate, and weather played in England’s lucky escape.

Here is my recollection of our conversation, with apologies if I’ve got anything wrong!

Spain was absolutely the global power at this point in history. England was an annoying mosquito on the high seas which was to be finally stopped with an invasion force of some 130 ships and an army of over 50,000 from the Spanish Netherlands.

However, the sheer firepower of the Armada was not a match for the disruptive, guerrilla type tactics of the English fleet. That, and Drake’s lack of self-control…

When the Spanish ship Rosario was damaged and separated from the Armada, Drake couldn’t resist peeling out of the battle to fill his pockets. As it turned out, the ship contained not only plenty of booty but also the Spanish battle plans for the campaign.

The plan was to collect the Duke of Parma’s army from near Calais but lines had got crossed and the army was not ready. The Armada had to moor up to wait. It was while they were docked here that weather took over and unseasonal cold northerly winds started blowing (it was high summer).

With the Armada pinned against the coast, the English launched fireships into their midst. Fireships were just that, old boats and ships stuffed with pitch, brimstone tar and a bit of gunpowder, set on fire and set adrift. They were utterly indiscriminate and often counter-productive. In this instance though, the winds blew the fireships into the midst of the Spanish ships causing little physical damage but spreading panic very effectively.

Where the tightly configured Armada had been near impossible to attack effectively on its way up to France, the individual ships fleeing the coast of Calais were much easier to pick off as they tried to set off into the channel against the wind. Even now the English only managed to actually destroy five of the Spanish ships and had little powder or shot left with which to fight.

The following day the winds switched to southerly, blowing the Armada north, pursued by the English ships as far as Edinburgh. With the plans in disarray, the Armada decided to beat a retreat by sailing around the north of Scotland and back around to the Atlantic and home. What could possibly go wrong? It was August after all.

The Gulf Stream pushed the Armada off course but with no means of measuring longitude, they were unaware of this. When they turned south, they did so not into the open Atlantic but instead into the perilous waters of the west coast. To add to the mix, that year there were massive summer storms.

Dozens of Spanish ships sank against the rocks of Scotland and Ireland. Being close to land, some thousands of the Spanish mariners actually survived the shipwrecks. Unfortunately, the welcome they received from the locals was less than friendly meaning that they were either killed or left to starve.

Apparently Philip II’s reaction to the disaster was: “I send the Armada against men, not God’s winds and waves.” He had a point…

Thanks again to Andrew and Kim for inviting me to join you at the Royal Maritime Museum.

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The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

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