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Sir Francis Drake

In this lively and engaging new biography, Harry Kelsey shatters the familiar image of Sir Francis Drake. The Drake of legend was a pious, brave, and just seaman who initiated the move to make England a great naval power and whose acts of pirac against his country's enemies earned him a knighthood for patriotism. Kelsey paints a different and far more interesting picture of Drake as an amoral privateer at least as interested in lining his pockets with Spanish booty as in forwarding the political goals of his country, a man who became a captain general of the English navy but never waged traditional warfare with any success. Drawing on much new evidence, Kelsey describes Drake's early life as the son of a poor family in sixteenth-century England. He explains how Drake dabbled in piracy, gained modest success as a merchant, and then took advantage of the hostility between Spain and England to embark on a series of daring pirate raids on undefended Spanish ships and ports, preempting Spanish demands for punishment by sharing much of the his booty with the Queen and her councillors. Elizabeth I liked Drake because he was a charming rogue, and she made him an integral part of her war plans against Spain and its armada, but she quickly learned not to trust him with an important command: he was unable to handle a large fleet, was suspicious almost to the point of paranoia, and had no understanding of personal loyalty. For Drake, the mark of success was to amass great wealth---preferably by taking it from someone else---and the primary purpose of warfare was to afford him the opportunity to accomplish this.
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As a pirate he was a fearless improviser. In naval engagements, he tended to hang back and look out for number one. Widely despised by his shipmates, he fascinated his queen and countrymen as the first Englishman to sail around the world. Drake emerges from Kelsey's biography as a paranoid bully who by luck and bluff succeeded in an age that was hungry for heroes. It's too bad that this demythologized Drake is denied a gripping narrative. We too often see him through the squint of a historiographer, as when he's stalled for pages in the Straits of Magellan while Kelsey compares theories on how he got around Cape Horn. When Drake does get moving, his itinerary of raids reads more like a police blotter than a saga. Fittingly, this determinedly unromantic, Dragnet approach works best when Drake is at his worst, as during the summary execution of his partner, Thomas Doughty. And it's useful to doubt such ill-supported myths as Drake's supposed landfall in California. But there should be more attention to the big picture, such as painting Spain and Portugal's relationship before following Drake on his ill-fated expedition to Lisbon‘whose outcome Kelsey gives away too soon, for the sake of another statistic. Kelsey's Drake may be truer than others', but he needs more wind in his sails than the "pirate's progress" summations at the end of each chapter. 30 b&w illustrations. (Sept.)

With 13 Drake biographies currently in print, presenting almost as many differing historical opinions, Kelsey embarks bravely upon a scholarly treatment of a man he calls "a rogue, an able seaman, and a pirate." Strong words indeed for a man who, in popular legend, discovered California for England, circumnavigated the globe, and helped defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Tracing Drake's family lineage and early childhood in a seafaring family, Kelsey does a creditable job of drawing Drake's character and the influences that molded him. A natural sailor, fearless, ambitious, and tenacious, Drake was also lacking in family attachment, covetous, and devoid of moral scruples. Kelsey's command of the sources is excellent; the notes are a treasure trove of information on 16th-century exploration, and the bibliography is exhaustive. This work will long stand as the definitive scholarly study of the most famous sea captain and pirate of the era of Good Queen Bess. Recommended for academic and larger public library collections.‘Harold N. Boyer, Florence Cty. Lib., SC

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