As part of the research for Nobody’s Slave, in which the young Francis Drake is a minor character, I read The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, by Garrett Mattingley. One of the many fascinating details in this classic book is the tale of how Sir Francis, instead of pursuing treasure as he normally did, changed the course of history by lighting a bonfire on a beach.
In 1587 Drake left Plymouth, in command of a large fleet, to carry the war into Spanish waters. The Armada was known to be gathering in Spanish ports, and his mission was to cripple it by sinking, burning or destroying as many ships as he could, before they ever left harbor. He was moderately successful at this. He raided Cadiz, where he sank or burnt about 30 Spanish ships. Then he sailed on to Portugal, where he captured the castle of Sagres where Henry the Navigator had once made his maps and planned the early voyages of discovery. Here at Sagres the men were sent ashore and the ships were ‘cleaned, fumigated and rummaged’ to make them more healthy.
So all these barrel staves which Sir Francis Drake had captured were vital supplies for the Spanish Armada. They couldn’t easily be replaced. It takes many months, even in the warmth of Spain, for oak to season properly, and this cargo was nearly a year’s supply, from the whole of southern Spain and Portugal. And you can’t make good barrels out of unseasoned oak. If you try, the green wood is likely to crack or split, so that the contents leak out, or the air gets in and starts fungus, mould and decay.
The Armada still sailed, of course. But much later than King Philip had intended. And even then, many of the barrels on its ships were made of green, half-seasoned wood. Barrels which split and cracked and leaked, so that when the tired, hungry sailors opened them, the contents were damp, moldy or rotten. But the sailors had nothing else, so they had eat it, or go without. And if you eat moldy food, you get sick.
So as the Armada sailed through the storms of the Bay of Biscay, up the channel to their failed rendezvous with Parma, and then away around the north of Scotland and wild Atlantic Irish coast towards home, the poor starving Spanish sailors, increasingly sick and hungry, had yet another reason to curse the one Englishman whom they loathed above all others – Sir Francis Drake. El Draque.
And all because he lit a bonfire on a summer’s beach, a year before!
Tim's book featuring Francis Drake, Nobody's Slave, is available on Amazon UK, Amazon US , and Smashwords. Other books on Tim's website
All images from Wikimedia Commons.