Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

16 August 2009

Elizabethan Principles Now

It was at a Sunday-noon-for-drinks party that I found myself in conversation with a some time Spanish diplomat. Perhaps through unconscious impishness on my part we landed upon the subject of Sir Francis Drake.

‘One of my boyhood heroes.’ I claimed.
‘A piratical thug!’ rejoined the Spaniard; his eyes flashing.

Sir Francis Drake
His comment stopped me in my tracks. I’d never considered an alternative point of view. What we loved about Drake was that he did to the Spanish what we should have done to the Nazis in the mid-1930s; he launched pre-emptive strikes.

With seventeen big ships he sailed from Plymouth on All Fool’s Day 1587, without royal permission (although four of those ships belonged to Queen Elizabeth) and made a bee-line for Cadiz, the Spanish harbour near Cape Trafalgar, which, intelligence had advised him, was crammed with ships being readied for an armada against England, a fleet which constituted, to him, a sixteenth-century equivalent of weapons of mass destruction; smoking guns backed by papal power against that intolerable protestant Tudor queen.

Deceiving the shore batteries by sailing under false colours, his ships entered Cadiz’s narrow harbour, then, having hoisted St. George’s Cross, ghosted into the large inner basin and with stunning efficiency, clobbered the majority of sixty of King Philip’s military and mercantile fleet as they lay victualling. English broadsides further crippled ten galleys whose crews had tried to put up a fight. A 40-gun Italian merchantman was sunk (known these days as collateral damage) and then Drake and his captains, with the sort of Errol Flynn impudence that brought tears of joy to a small boy’s heart, dropped anchor in Cadiz harbour overnight while the pride of the Spanish navy, rudderless and with bewildered crews, lit up the night with explosions, flames and sparks.
Next day Drake returned to the inner harbour in his flagship Elizabeth Bonaventure where he looted and burned a magnificent galleon owned by the Marquis of Santa Cruz before shoving off out to sea. His losses - wait for it - were one master gunner wounded with a broken leg, and five sailors captured by the enemy.
With typical English modesty Drake dismissed the episode as ‘the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard’ - oh how that phrase rang in our hearts all those years later!

Raleigh and Essex’s Cadiz raid of 1596 - nine years after Drake’s assault

Thereafter Drake, the great achiever, (who in 1577 had already been the first man to have sailed around the world) made life a misery for Spain culminating in his part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The retreat of what was left of 130 warships took many of their tattered remnants around the north of Scotland to leave wrecks on the western shores of Britain where, even to this day, there are a few brown-eyed descendants with Spanish or Moorish DNA in their bones. Thereafter Spain has never threatened England or Britain.
No wonder Drake was, and still is, my hero. But I can quite see how a Spanish diplomat might have grown up in the Iberian school system seeing him as a piratical thug.
What gives me pause in today’s circumstances is the perhaps tenuous parallel between Drake’s behaviour and that of Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’. Both indulged in legally inexcusable, morally indefensible but practically wholly understandable pre-emption. In the words of one of those American cop soaps ‘Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.’ As a child of the second world war I deeply believe in that principle although I’m saddened that Bush and Blair didn’t have the guts to say outright: ‘Never mind W.M.Ds, we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein’.

Interestingly it was stated by that master of political power and paragon of loyalty, Lord Burghley who, ennobled by Elizabeth from his position as her Principal Secretary in 1571, and who served her for almost all of her reign, wrote to her a memorandum which became - with some regrettable exceptions - the basic tenet of British defence policy. It said, in effect, that attack is the best form of defence. War was imminent in 1585 between England and Spain, Elizabeth, through her advisers, effected the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of Greenwich with the objective of fighting the Spaniards on somebody else’s territory - the Netherlands. The memorandum read:

‘Although Her Majesty should… enter in a war presently, yet were she better to do it now, while she may make the same outside of her realm, having the help of the people of Holland and before the King of Spain shall have consummated his conquests.’
I imagine the corridors of power in today’s Ministry of Defence and Pentagon to be trod by many Lord Burghleys attempting pre-emptively to secure a safer future for our world; even though they have not, as did Drake, had the comfort of the discovery of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

© DON DONOVAN text only

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By Don Donovan