Thursday, July 26, 2012

'Carrying Away the Booty' - Drake's attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train'

by Jenny Barden

In April 1573 Francis Drake attacked the Spanish 'Silver Train' near Nombre de Dios in Panama; this was the mule train loaded with bullion from Peru en route to King Philip II's treasury in Spain. The attack was a success, a triumph after almost a year of failed attempts in an enterprise that had been beset by disease and misfortune, including the loss of Drake's two younger brothers and over a third of his crew. With the exception of the fatal wounding of Drake's ally, the Huguenot Captain Le Testu, Drake suffered very few casualties and the Spanish put up little resistance. Effectively they ran away, leaving Drake and his motley band of pirates, black runaway slaves (the Cimaroons), and French privateers in possession of the equivalent in gold and silver of about a fifth of Elizabeth I's annual revenue.(*1)

El Camino Real - the Royal Road 

But what to do with so much bullion? This is where the story of Drake's first great enterprise becomes particularly fascinating because he was left with so great a weight in treasure that he and his men could not carry it all away. Historians continue to debate over exactly how much was involved. In Sir Francis Drake Revived, the best English account of the raid (one which Drake presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1593), the weight of silver seized is stated to have been 'near thirty tons'. There were 190 mules in total each carrying the standard load of 300 pounds. But the mules were also carrying much more valuable gold which the Spanish, smarting from the humiliation of the raid and no doubt wishing to play down the loss, put at 'more than 100,000 pesos' including 18,363 pesos of fine gold from Popayan 'consigned to your majesty.'(*2) This weight in gold alone would have been close to half a ton and most of it would have been in the form of unminted gold discs or 'quoits'.

Spanish gold 'quoit'
Drake had fifteen men with him on the raid, including twenty French corsairs and maybe forty Cimaroons. They had attacked the Silver Train about two miles from Nombre de Dios along the Camino Real - the 'Royal Road' by which Spanish bullion was carried from the Pacific to the Caribbean - and their boats had been left 'seven leagues' away at the Rio Francisco (probably the modern-day Rio Cuango twelve miles to the east). Michael Turner of the Drake Exploration Society has done some excellent research in retracing the route they would probably have taken and calculates that the most they could have carried was sixty pounds each.(*3) So of the thirty tons of treasure, Drake's men could only have taken away just over two tons - and they had to march through a storm that night. Imagine what those men must have gone through, burdened with as much as they could possibly carry, sure that the Spanish soldiers from Nombre de Dios would be in hot pursuit, scrambling along a difficult trail, through thick rainforest known only to the Cimaroons, in the dark, lashed by a tropical storm and without any sleep. Then when they arrived back at the Rio Francisco they discovered that the boats which should have been waiting to take them to safety were nowhere to be seen.

San Blas island shore
With typical undaunted panache, Drake improvised a raft out of driftwood left by the storm, with a biscuit sack for a sail, and set off by sea for his ships moored at a hideout in the Cativas (the modern-day San Blas islands), only to come across the pinnaces intended for the getaway at the mainland point (Punta San Blas). The boats had been driven back by the storm, but that night they returned for the rest of Drake's men and the bulk of the booty. What happened to most of the silver which they had been unable to carry? In desperate haste, in the immediate aftermath of the raid, all the treasure that could not be carried had been buried under fallen trees, in the sand and gravel of the shallow islands of the Rio Nombre de Dios, and in the burrows of giant land crabs. A vast number of silver bars, each weighing between 35 and 40 pounds, were simply popped into crab holes. A few days later, a small party of Drake's men returned to the scene of the ambush intent on retrieving this treasure, but they only recovered thirteen bars of silver and a few quoits of gold. The Spanish had found and decapitated Captain Le Testu then tortured one of the two Frenchmen left with him into revealing where the bullion had been hidden. According to the Spanish, all the buried treasure was recovered, but plainly Drake's men were able to find some that they had missed. Perhaps there is more still waiting to be unearthed...

The story of Drake's first great enterprise forms the backdrop to Mistress of the Sea due to be released on 30 August in hardback with the paperback to follow

The book is available for pre-order here:

'Beautifully written and researched, this tale of desire, revenge, piracy and valour is so evocative we can taste salt on our skin and hear the swoop of sails overhead as we're swept up into a high-stakes adventure unlike any we've read before.' - C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

*1 John Sugden Sir Francis Drake Pimlico (2006) Ch 6 p 73
*2 Report of the Royal Officials of Panama to the Crown 9 May 1573
*3 Michael Turner In Drake's Wake Paul Mould (2005) Ch5 p150