In any objective assessment of Sir Francis Drake one question inevitably comes to the fore. Did Drake commit murder when he executed Thomas Doughty at Port Julián? Thomas Doughty was charged with "plotting to overthrow the voyage" of the circumnavigation - 1577-80. He was tried and executed. It does appear however, that although there was very little written or codified maritime law, Drake conducted the trial according to contemporary English judicial law.
Notwithstanding, Thomas Doughty's brother John, who also sailed on the voyage, tried on his return to England to indict Drake for murder in the "Earl Marshall's Court". Drake never actually stood trial, some hand, perhaps the Queen's, stayed the proceedings; and the matter rested. Rested yes! Forgotten no!
The entire matter has left historians with a tantalising question; provided Drake's many and constant detractors with "mud to sling"; caused embarrassment to his equally numerous adherents; and above all, cast a shadow upon Drake's character.
With hindsight, it might have been better for Francis Drake's own sake, if the trial had proceeded and a definite verdict reached. However, one can appreciate the resultant embarrassment and the political implications, if England's hero and newly made knight, had to stand trial for murder. Perhaps Drake would have been judged guilty or not guilty, and this is the crux of the problem.
Eradicating once and for all the biggest "blot" upon his character, Drake's first serious biographer, Sir Julian Corbett so aptly wrote, "The tragedy of Port St. Julián has always been a blot upon his reputation and of this charge, as far as possible with the scantily and contradictory evidence that remains, it is time he were finally condemned or acquitted."
Port St Julián, Argentina
© Michael Turner 1997-2008
Quite so Sir Julian! More than time! Thus let us do just that, condemn or acquit Sir Francis Drake once and for all! Let us imagine that the proceedings did go forward, and that Sir Francis Drake stood trial for murder. The trial is nearly over and Drake's lawyer is embarking upon his final speech for the defence.
"Gentlemen of the Jury, Master John Doughty has accused my client Sir Francis Drake of murder. He has openly stated that, when the Queen did knight Drake, she did then knight the arrantest knave, the vilest villain, the falsest thief and the cruelest murderer that was ever born."
"But leaving Master Doughty's natural brotherly feelings apart, does he have ample grounds for such an accusation?"
"Undoubtedly Master Doughty worked against my client, what you must consider my masters is, whether Doughty's crimes of 'plotting to overthrow the voyage' and general 'subversion' were worthy of death. I will say, at this juncture good sirs, that Drake's commission, whatever other powers it might have given him, did not give him any powers of life and death over the other members of his expedition. However, the question of a commission is surely irrelevant here, Drake may not have had the requisite authority, but the ultimate responsibility for the expedition rested with him and, although an open mutiny never actually occurred, it would have only been a matter of time if Doughty had not been stopped. It could be said that Doughty forced Drake's hand, and that my client took an extreme measure out of sheer desperation. Circumstances forced Sir Francis to act as he did - in killing Doughty to quell a potential mutiny. Doughty's trial was as fair Drake could make it and as near, in form to an equivalent in England as was possible."
"May I remind young Master Doughty that, although it was my client who pronounced the death sentence, his brother was found guilty by a jury of forty men, comprising sailors and gentlemen. He was damned by the weight of evidence, both by sailors and gentlemen. His own actions caused his death: not Francis Drake!"
"So 'Gentlemen of the Jury' let us examine this weight of evidence. It seems that right from the start of the voyage, Doughty was bent upon causing trouble for Drake. Why? - we do not know; possibly there was an element of pure and simple jealousy and also a sense of class-conscienceless was involved. I think that we can discount any contention that Doughty was an agent for Spain, or that he betrayed Drake's plans to any Spaniard, or to any supporter of the Spanish cause. If the Spaniards had been aware of the true purpose and the destination of the voyage, they would have found a far more effective way of stopping Drake. Likewise, I think that we can discount any idea that Doughty was working on the instructions of Lord Burghley. It is a possibility that Doughty thought to gain Burghley's favour by wrecking the voyage; but if it had been Lord Burghley's intention to frustrate Drake's plans, then he would have found both a more effective way and instrument."
"Undoubtedly Doughty betrayed the real aims of the voyage to Lord Burghley - aims which the latter was possibly aware of anyway. He admitted as much at the trial: an action that Drake construed as treason. However, this was a secondary indictment, which only surfaced during the course of the trial, when that gentleman had already been charged with the crime for which he was executed - 'plotting the overthrow of the voyage.' Yes my masters, it was trouble wherever Thomas was: right from the start. He began trouble-making even before the fleet left Plymouth. Mariner Edward Bright, giving evidence at Doughty's trial, maintained that Master Doughty had stated in Drake's garden in Plymouth, that they would be better welcomed if they returned with gold."
"An innocent enough remark, say you good sirs? But reflect upon this gentlemen, was Doughty not giving a hint here of other aims and destinations? Remember sirs, that to allay Spanish suspicions, it was given out that Drake was voyaging to Alexandria to purchase currants."
"Probably the sailors hoped for a 'little comfortable dew from heaven' knowing their Drake, but it was not for Doughty to hint that this might be so. Such talk was not what one would expect from a loyal and responsible officer. Off the island of Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, Drake had captured a Portuguese vessel, which he re-named the Mary to be commanded by Doughty. Drake's first real inkling of trouble came when his fleet was watering on nearby Brava Island."
"However, according to Drake's trumpeter Master Brewer, Doughty abused his command by pilfering from the 'common stock' - thus robbing all the participants in the voyage. A heinous crime good sirs, on a venture such as this, where officers and crews were paid according to the profits. Such a charge master Doughty naturally denied, admittedly he had a few coins, a few items of jewellery and some gloves in his possession, but he maintained that these were personal gifts and goods for which he had exchanged items urgently needed by the Portuguese captives."
"A feasible contention gentlemen, and one that Drake was prepared to accept. However, it does rather seem as though there were some element of truth in Brewer's accusation; unless Brewer was trying to indirectly draw Drake's attention to some deeper ill, such as mutinous talk. Since Doughty tried to bluster his way out of the situation by accusing Drake's brother Thomas, who was also aboard the Mary of the crime. Such an accusation was only blatantly false, but was also an indirect disparagement of Drake himself - as the latter furiously pointed out. Hot words were exchanged but a reconciliation was affected by Leonard Vicary, a lawyer friend of Master Doughty. Drake in a typically generous gesture, gave Doughty virtual command of the flagship, the Pelican, while he himself remained aboard the Mary."
"Now 'Gentlemen of the Jury' this hardly reveals Sir Francis as a black hearted villain does it? Surely it more reveals an adroit tolerant handling of a difficult situation in the most tactful way possible. Consequently, Drake probably hoped to avert trouble by allowing Doughty to play the 'Grand Captain' aboard the Pelican. A vain hope good sirs, Doughty set to cause dissension aboard the Pelican with a right good will. Matters came to a head when Drake sent John Brewer across to the Pelican with a routine message."
"Once aboard the Pelican Brewer was subjected to a cobbey. This sailors' horseplay involved holding Brewer over a gun barrel, while Doughty, the gentlemen and every crew member struck his bare buttocks. This my masters, could hardly be described as suitable behaviour for ship's officers, or suitable conduct towards the Admiral's accredited representative. In fact, gentlemen, this was an insult to Drake himself. Doughty was hitting at Drake's authority and Drake was justifiably incensed, yet Drake's wrath and his subsequent action of sending Thomas Doughty in public disgrace to the Swan. Even allowing for Drake's notoriously short temper, this was somewhat out of proportion to the event. This implies that something more than Drake's dignity and his disapproval of Thomas Doughty's sense of humour was involved, and this was not so!"
"It seems 'Gentlemen of the Jury', that instead of controlling his motley band of gentlemen adventurers, and efficiently commanding the Pelican, Master Doughty behaved as a swaggering braggart. He openly scoffed at the low-born sailors in whose number he included Drake, and he lost no opportunity to disparage his Admiral, hinting that he knew certain things about Drake which the latter would not like revealed. Hence, out of loyalty and for Drake's own sake, Thomas Doughty would keep his lips sealed."
"To go about hinting that the Admiral had some murky secrets in his past, was little short of pure and simple undermining of Drake's authority and hardly the act of the good honest Christian gentleman, and true comrade which Parson Fletcher maintained Doughty to be. Depend upon it my masters, had Doughty known anything detrimental about my client, then he would not have hesitated to broadcast it to the entire fleet: with suitable embellishment, no doubt. Master Doughty openly boasted of his own importance to the voyage, of his vital role in the planning of the expedition, and of his role in obtaining backing for it at court."
"All lies good sirs. Drake was backed by the War Party at court, and he was introduced to them by John Hawkins and the Earl of Essex. Drake owed his command to the good offices of the War Party, to the Queen and not to any machinations of Thomas Doughty. The latter may have guided an ignorant Drake through the intricacies of court etiquette, but that was about the extent of his use to Drake, apart from friendship. Furthermore, Doughty was soon to disillusion Drake on that score! Aye my good sirs, there were no lack of witnesses to disillusion Drake, to tell of Doughty's seditious words, his attempts at bribery, his threats and accusations. Ned Bright came forward to tell how Doughty had declared that he was more entitled to the position of command than Drake, who was of little consequence. Furthermore, Doughty wished that he had undertook the voyage himself. However, that if a time should come when he, Thomas Doughty, would have to assert his leadership, then he would see to it, that any who supported him, would be well rewarded. To further underline his supposed authority, Doughty emphasised his connections with Lord Burghley."
"And what was this good sirs, but another open invitation to mutiny. Doughty taunted Drake himself with the words, 'when back in England you will need me more than you will need any reward from this voyage.' When transferred to the Swan, Doughty caused dissension and preached sedition, but Captain Chester, an officer John Saracold and the Swan's Master Gregory had Thomas Doughty's measure. Captain Chester refused to get involved with Doughty, even though Doughty offered to 'put the sword into his hands and give him the government.' Also he would not be drawn into giving Doughty any scope to provoke any large scale conflict aboard his ship."
"However, Doughty did provoke conflict. Saracold became so disgusted with Master Doughty's talk and behaviour, that he furiously suggested that Drake would do well to deal with traitors such as Doughty as Magellan did, to 'hang them up as examples to the rest.' And even here my masters, Doughty had to denigrate my client with his comment of, 'Nay softly, his authority is not as great as Magellan's. I know his authority as well as he does himself and it does not extend to hanging.' Doughty's activities also infuriated Master Gregory who refused to eat with such a man and henceforth 'messed with the crew.' And even here, Doughty aggravated the whole situation by claiming that his share in the adventure entitled him to be used as well as any other man. He was accusing Gregory of giving the crew the better rations, whereupon Gregory told him to go and 'eat the throle pins from the boats' if he did not like his rations, 'since anything was good enough for the likes of him.' Doughty even implied that he and his brother were proficient in the black arts, which is a tangible reality to superstitious seamen. This was an attempt to frighten Drake's men into subversion, since bribery and corruption were not working. Well might Master Gregory have said, 'If you come safe home at the end of this venture, I'll be hanged, you are the foulest traitor that ever cursed a ship.' So it would seem my good masters, that whatever ship Doughty was aboard, there would eventually be the sort of friction which could ultimately ignite into mutiny."
"Even when the ships having finally reached the coast of South America, Doughty was transferred back to the Pelican to be under Drake's direct supervision. He was still bent upon challenging the Admiral's authority. He headed a deputation which demanded that Drake appoint a deputy to assume command should Drake perish. However, Drake was not giving Doughty the chance to use a vice admiral to cause any schism in the fleet. Hence, he wisely ignored the matter and ignored Doughty until the latter provoked a minor confrontation, by openly soliciting the men in front of Drake. By good sirs, Master Doughty was very sure of himself: causing the irate Admiral to have Doughty tied to the Pelican's mainmast, in the vain hope of keeping him out of trouble. Doughty was then shipped aboard the Christopher."
"Here Doughty made his last bid to flout Drake's authority by trying to bribe various members of the crew. He offered Henry Spindelay fifty pounds and Thomas Cuttill one hundred pounds if they would follow him instead of Drake. Thus 'Gentlemen of the Jury,' you can see that Doughty was a threat to the whole venture. It would only be a matter of time before he spilt the fleet asunder with sedition. In short good sirs, Doughty was nothing else but a trouble maker and faced with such sedition, what else could Drake do? He had tried humiliating Doughty and social convention de-barred him from using any of the accepted maritime punishments such as flogging, which Captain General Drake does not approve or use - but apply the death penalty. Master Doughty was plotting mutiny. Such a crime, when in the service of her gracious majesty, be worthy of death and Doughty was found guilty, in a fair trial, under her majesty's laws. Yes sirs, it was either Drake or Doughty! Drake had to kill Doughty to save his venture, his men, and ultimately himself. Believe me good sirs, if Drake had not done so, Doughty would surely have killed him. I venture to suggest, in no quick gentlemanly manner either. Gentlemen, Drake was no murderer. If he was, does young Master Doughty imagine, that he would ever have been allowed to live to return to England, to cast this slur of murder upon my client's character? I doubt it good sirs, I doubt it indeed! So 'Gentlemen of the Jury' I ask you to consider your verdict very carefully and find my client Sir Francis Drake not guilty! Gentlemen he could do no other."
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