Books: The unsinkable myth will survive

So the Armada hero was a deceitful thug? No problem, says Felipe Fernndez-Armesto. The English like their icons rough
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Francis Drake: the Queen's pirate

by Harry Kelsey

Yale University Press, pounds 22.50, 592pp

Drake used to be part of every schoolboy's dream of the perfect Englishman. Gifted amateurism, pluck in adversity, coolness in crisis and effortless superiority over foreigners were all epitomised in that game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe in 1588. The Spanish Armada was getting close but Drake had "time to finish the game and thrash the Spaniards too".

The story, like almost everything the English believe about Drake, is false. But it has a hallowed place in mythic history. The reeling, rolling road of English identity leads from Plymouth Hoe, via the playing fields of Eton, to the towers of Wembley and the beaches of Dunkirk. In his day, however, Drake hardly seemed a potential culture-hero: he was dogged by sleaze and accused of cowardice, corruption and cruelty.

To victims of his campaigns, he was a pirate and terrorist. His raids on Spanish and American coasts were marked by burning villages, wrecked churches and sacked towns. His ravages against "civilian targets" were so terrible that mothers in Venezuela still tell bawling infants, "Drake will get you if you don't pipe down". Some of his violence was licensed by the English crown, but most of his operations were outside the law, and therefore war-crimes.

Not all his victims were enemies of England: he got his way with shipmates by a mixture of charisma and savagery. In Patagonia in 1578, on his way round the world, Drake accused his commander of witchcraft and had his head chopped off after a show trial. He cheated his sister-in-law of her inheritance. In his sideline as a trader in black slaves, he exceeded the inhumanity of his time. Contemporaries were shocked when he abandoned a black woman whom he and his crew had abused and left pregnant on a desert island.

On his first independent command, as part of a slaving expedition in 1568, he acquired a reputation for shiftless unreliability by forsaking the fleet in the face of attackers. Sponsors of colonisation in Virginia blamed their failure on his bungled "help". Disobeying orders during the Armada, Drake abandoned his post under cover of night to claim, for his own benefit, the only valuable prize-vessel the English captured.

A few days later, his ship disappeared from the fight without leave or explanation. Drake's talent for self-service when England's safety was at stake infuriated fellow officers. His enrichment with booty excited envy. A colleague denounced him for a craven, "cozening cheat".

Rather than by mere greed, as his enemies claimed, Drake was driven by a mixture of vices. Social ambition was vital to this tenant-farmer's son, who suffered the childhood humiliation of destitution. He had "an insatiable desire of honour beyond reason". He was bent on making a fortune, building a house, founding a dynasty, though he had no children of his own. He invented noble ancestors and affected a coat of arms.

His lordly notion of himself inspired some of his best gestures. Prisoners acknowledge his magnanimity. His generosity was commended by Spanish balladeers. Aboard ship, with a natural aristocrat's indifference to other men's rank, he "made the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner and the mariner with the gentleman".

The evil he did, he did well. He was an able pirate. The Spaniards said he must have a magic mirror though which he could glimpse vulnerable ships across vast expanses of ocean. His nickname - Draco, the Dragon - was apt; he could slink unseen, serpent-like, between the waves and strike unexpectedly.

Yet his reputation as a sea-dog is exaggerated. He made no undisputed discoveries. He did not defeat the Spanish Armada. By his mid-fifties he was a burnt-out-case, wayward, confused and indecisive.

For over 400 years, he has lain in his sea-grave, "slung 'atween the round-shot" and "dreamin' all the time o' Plymouth Hoe". Until now, every biographer has banged Drake's drum. Harry Kelsey, however, has two qualities which all academics need and few reputations can survive: critical acumen and uncompromising scholarship. He has written the best available life; insightful, enthralling and generally well paced, though a few longueurs intrude when the author's meticulous work among the sources is supported by his deep knowledge.

The conclusions are devastating. Drake's aims were not religious warfare, exploration, colonisation or - for most of the time - honest trade. He was a pirate through and through. Most of the indictment is fair; only in his denunciation of Drake for religious humbug does the author go too far, discounting evidence that the pirate was genuinely committed to Protestantism. The picture might be perfected by even deeper investigation of Drake's financial dealings, home life, and partisans and enemies at court, though no previous book has as much information on these matters.

So how did this vicious, greedy thug get to be cast as an exemplary schoolboy hero? According to Kelsey, royal patronage made him - for the queen loved rogues, and her meretricious streak was gratified by the Spanish gold Drake captured. He spent lavishly on buying friends and employed ghost- writers. Above all, his reputation was boosted by his enemies abroad, who saw him as embodying the menace of Albion.

The scholarly world will find Kelsey's case convincing, but Drake's status in English myth is unlikely to suffer. Although sleaze can wreck the careers of ordinary public figures, the English do not expect their heroes to be morally perfect. Many are spotted with sexual naughtiness (like Nelson), drink (like Gordon), arrogance (like Churchill), instability (like Wolfe), mendacity (like Lawrence of Arabia) or incompetence (like Captain Scott). What all have in common are the rogue virtues which Drake abundantly shared: improvising genius and irrepressible individualism, which will break orders and cock a snook at conformity. The English always suspected these qualities in peacetime and relied on them in war.

Many pirates had a hand in founding great empires. The truth about Drake does nothing to diminish his importance. In any case, history is influenced less by the facts by the falsehoods people believe. Legends can acquire, with long use, a kind of poetic truth. So Drake swings on, unassailably, between the roundshot. And despite the brilliance of his book, I fear that Harry Kelsey is doomed to be another don drummed up the Channel by the sticks of myth.