Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sir Francis Drake and the Barrel Staves

by Tim Vicary

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.
What bonfire was this, you ask? Was it one of the famous beacons on the cliffs of southern England, which were lit when the Armada appeared, passing the message from the Lizard in Cornwall to Whitehall in London that the long awaited menace, the dreaded Catholic invasion fleet, had at last arrived? No, it was none of these.
It was another bonfire, lit almost a year before, on a June evening on a beach in Spain. While English sailors lounged around, roasting meat, drinking beer, laughing and talking happily.
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.
But the key moment was when he captured a small fleet of transports loaded mostly with wood ‘about 16 or 17 hundred ton in weight.’ To a pirate like Drake, whose eyes glinted with Spanish gold, this may have seemed something of a disappointment at first. But he was smart enough, all the same, to know how important this cargo was, and exactly what to do with it.
The ships were loaded with barrel staves - the planks which coopers used to make barrels. We still have wooden barrels today, of course; they are used to contain wine, spirits and sometimes beer. The best ones are made of oak, and the wood used to make them – the oaken barrel staves – are carefully seasoned until most of the sap has gone out of them, and they are dry enough to hold their shape and make a barrel that is perfectly waterproof. Then the barrels are filled with port wine, whisky or brandy, to which the seasoned oak imparts a particular flavor which is prized by connoisseurs.
People in the sixteenth century knew all about this, of course; but they didn’t just keep wine and spirits in oak barrels.  They also used them for water, flour, dried biscuit, salt fish, salt meat – in fact every kind of food, drink and supplies which they wanted to preserve and transport. This was particularly important to sailors. Food kept in a barrel was as vital to them as tinned or frozen food is to us. Without it, sixteenth century sailors had to rely on catching fish, or butchering live animals which they took with them on board.
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.
There’s one other important difference between wood that has been left to season for a year, and fresh cut wood that still has the sap in it. As anyone who has a fire or a wood-burning stove will know, the seasoned wood burns much better. That’s what Sir Francis Drake did; he burnt the lot. ‘All of which I commanded to be consumed into smoke and ashes by fire.’ So we can imagine, perhaps, the satisfied smile on the faces of the English sailors, as they warmed themselves around the blaze of this enormous bonfire. Probably they had a barbecue, like anyone with a bonfire on a beach. They roasted meat, laughed and sang. While the poor Spanish merchants and sailors watched, full of anger and despair.
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.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating account, Tim. I think that Drake has been rather side-lined of late. He was cleary as important a naval figure in his day as Nelson was two hundred years later.

    And I think it's about time the world acknowledged that he was the first man to lead an expedition round the earth. He set out and, unlike unlucky Magellan, returned with his ship and crew.

    Martin Lake


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