Thomas Cavendish – Pirate or Privateer?

While Sir Thomas Cavendish, also known as “The Navigator”, was an accomplished explorer and privateer, his traveling exploits prove he was essentially a pirate. He is well-known as the first man to deliberately circumnavigate the Earth, surpassing the objectives of his predecessors (Magellan, Drake and Loyola) whose expeditions circumnavigated the globe unintentionally. However, he is arguably much more infamous for emulating Sir Francis Drake as he raided Spanish ships and settlements on his path, determined to amass a great fortune along his way.

En English Gentleman?

Born in 1560 at Trimley St. Martin, Suffolk, England, he inherited his father’s wealth at age 12 and his sudden fortune gave him a taste for the finer things in life. He joined Sir Richard Grenville’s expedition to America in 1585, and upon returning to England, he began plotting his own circumnavigation of the globe, designing a voyage inspired by Sir Francis Drake.

Spanish Armada

England and Spain were at war by July of 1586, which would come to a head with the Spanish Armada. Cavendish gained permission to raid the Spanish ports and ships in the Pacific, just as Drake had done. He built a 120-ton ship named Desire, which was accompanied by the Content (60 ton) and the Hugh Gallant (40 ton). He set sail in 1586, commanding the three vessels from England to the Strait of Magellan, then on to the Pacific where they sailed up the coast of South America. It was there that he looted a handful of towns for treasure as well as food and supplies, and sank or captured 9 Spanish ships. He chose to sink the Hugh Gallant to use its men to replenish the dwindling crews on his other ships.

The Santa Ana

His most impressive collection of treasure came courtesy of the 600-ton Manila galleon Santa Ana, which he captured off of the Baja Peninsula after he was tipped off about its impending arrival. Because it was carrying a year’s worth of expensive accumulated goods (including gold, silver, silk, spices and wine) from the Philippines, the Santa Ana had no cannons on board in order to carry extra cargo and was overtaken by the English ships and ultimately was surrendered when it began to sink. Due to the difference in size, the rich contents of the Santa Ana had to be sorted through and assessed for value as the much smaller Desire and Content couldn’t possibly carry it all. Once they transferred the goods deemed most valuable, they set fire to the Santa Ana and began their voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

A Knighthood for a Pirate

While the Content disappeared from the expedition, the Desire chose to avoid conflict for the rest of the journey. After making stops in Guam, the Philippines and Java, they crossed the Indian Ocean and returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope in 1588. While only one ship made it through the entire journey, it contained a bevy of treasure resulting in great wealth for Cavendish. His success wasn’t merely financial, however, as he circumnavigated the globe in little over two years, topping Drake by nine months. He had also gathered new information regarding the coasts of Japan and China, hoping to use it for a future expedition. He was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth I of England, who attended a dinner aboard the Desire. Although he did embark on another circumnavigation journey, it ended in tragedy with his death at the age of 31.