URSABLOG: Handsome Returns

I’ll concede that one of my initial draws to the maritime industry was its geographical element. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by maps, nations, seas, rivers and mountain ranges. I find it pleasing to watch a map as it’s filled in to highlight diverse features such as national boundaries, terrain details like mountains and valleys, cities, various landforms, weather patterns, population density, agricultural production, and so on. What truly engages me about geography is the influence of Earth’s features on human history and the growth of civilisations, and the subsequent profound effect on economic development. In my view, this is the most significant influence. It’s often remarked that chess is a game where strategy and implementation occur concurrently. Similarly, maps are examples of the convergence of art and science. Traditional map-making has a certain elegance and artistic quality that may be missing from Google Maps, but technological progress has made maps and geographic data widely and freely available, whilst maintaining the ability for personalisation in the way one wishes to present their maps.

To understand trade and, subsequently, shipping, a map is the most straightforward tool. It’s usual for new team members in our office to sit next to a seasoned colleague to learn the job, whilst also engaging in discussions with others to get a feel for the markets we target. These conversations often involve the technicalities of the job, such as software usage, networking in the industry, drafting circulars and replies, among other things. We had a similar occurrence recently in our office. Beyond these technicalities, I got the chance to talk about maritime geography. The chat eventually drifted towards history and shipping lanes, and the reasons a ship would opt to pass through the Strait of Magellan, a navigable waterway in southern Chile separating mainland South America to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south, instead of going around Cape Horn and Drake’s Passage, a stretch of water located between the southernmost point of South America at Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, which links the south-western part of the Atlantic Ocean with the south-eastern part of the Pacific Ocean.

Both the Strait of Magellan and Drake’s Passage are named after two eminent explorers from the Age of Discovery. Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480–1521) was a Portuguese explorer renowned for orchestrating the expedition that resulted in the world’s first circumnavigation. Although he didn’t complete the whole trip himself, having been killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines, his voyage was the first practical proof that the world was round. Magellan also discovered what we now know as the Strait of Magellan. Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596) was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, enslaver, and politician of the Elizabethan era. He led the second expedition to successfully circumnavigate the globe, after Magellan. Drake also participated in various battles and raids against the Spanish, leading to his reputation as a pirate among the Spanish and a hero amongst his English peers. Intriguingly, it’s worth noting that Drake never actually navigated through the passage that bears his name due to weather conditions.

After a work discussion that rekindled memories of past explorers, I decided to brush up on their history and accomplishments online. I found the Wikipedia page on the Golden Hind to be quite engaging. The Golden Hind was the English galleon captained by Sir Francis Drake during his global circumnavigation between 1577 and 1580. Originally named the Pelican, Drake changed the ship’s name midway through the journey in 1578, to honour his sponsor, Sir Christopher Hatton, whose family crest was a golden ‘hind’ (a female red deer). Hatton was one of the main financiers of Drake’s expedition.

The Golden Hind was relatively small, measuring about 31 metres long on deck and a tonnage of approximately 100 to 150 tons. Despite its size, it proved to be robust and agile, weathering many challenges throughout the famed journey. So, what was the journey like for the second global circumnavigation?

On the 13th of December 1577, Drake set off on a journey to the New World from Plymouth, leading a fleet of five ships with a crew of 164 men. During the trip, Drake’s fleet captured several Spanish and Portuguese ships, including a Portuguese navigator familiar with the South American coastline who became their guide. After a gruelling 63-day crossing of the Atlantic without any sight of land, Drake and his crew eventually reached the coast of Brazil. They then braved turbulent seas to arrive at Puerto San Julian, in today’s Argentina, by June, where they decided to wait out the winter storms.

Interestingly, this location is where Magellan, the leader of the world’s first and only circumnavigating expedition at the time, had spent the winter 58 years earlier. Drake’s crew even stumbled upon the grim remains of the men Magellan had executed for mutiny. Similarly, Drake held a trial for one of his leading officers, Thomas Doughty, at this location, finding him guilty of attempting to undermine the expedition. Doughty was subsequently executed. Despite these challenges, Drake, now leading just three ships, continued south.

Drake successfully navigated the Strait of Magellan in just 16 days. During this time, he renamed his flagship, the Pelican, to the Golden Hind, honouring Sir Christopher Hatton. In September, Drake and his crew became the first Englishmen to reach the Pacific. However, they were met by 52 days of hurricane winds and towering seas, which drove them further south. One of the ships, the Marigold, was lost with all hands. Another ship, the Elizabeth, retreated through the strait and headed for home. Only the Golden Hind remained, pushed south towards Cape Horn and into the world’s roughest seas.

Contrary to the European belief of a ‘Great Southern Continent’ in this area, Drake found nothing but ocean. There was no southern continent, but he discovered an open sea route around the tip of America, a route that would later carry his name. The winds eventually calmed, and Drake sailed north, intending to trade for supplies with local tribes on Mocha Island, in present-day Chile. However, the locals mistook Drake’s men for the hated Spanish and attacked them, resulting in two casualties and Drake himself being seriously injured.

Despite this setback, Drake had now reached the virtually undefended Spanish Pacific coast, which had received no warning of his approach. This marked the beginning of one of the most substantial looting sprees in history. Drake first targeted the Spanish port of Valparaíso, where he seized Chilean gold and wine. He then moved on to Arica, where he took 40 bars of silver. Nonetheless, the most valuable intelligence he procured during his raids of the Chilean coastline was that the Spanish treasure ship, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, had set sail northward merely a fortnight prior. Drake pursued and caught up with the Spanish galleon off the coast of Ecuador.

The Spanish crew, with no reason to fear an English pirate in the Pacific – an unheard-of concept at the time – were taken completely off guard when the Golden Hind opened fire. They quickly surrendered. In the galleon’s hold, Drake’s men found 36 kilos of gold, 26 tons of silver, 13 chests of silver coin, jewels, and a golden crucifix. The Golden Hind, now using Peruvian silver for ballast, continued up the coast, stopping to raid Huatulco, in present-day Mexico, for supplies.

For the past few months, Drake had been hoping to reunite with the Marigold, unaware of its destruction in the Southern Ocean. He eventually had to accept the loss of the ship and his comrades, and he proceeded up the Pacific coast, hoping to find a theoretical Northwest Passage back to the Atlantic and England. Drake might have ventured as far north as Vancouver Island before giving up and returning to land in California, which he named Nova Albion – New Britain – and claimed on behalf of Queen Elizabeth.

The local Miwok Native Americans welcomed the English. The Englishmen believed they were being hailed as gods, but it’s plausible that the Miwok, noticing their pale faces, mistook them for ancient spirits returned from the dead. Drake’s crew spent five weeks repairing the Golden Hind, as they realised that there was only one way home. The Spanish in South America were on high alert, and if a Northwest passage did exist, Drake had failed to find it. Therefore, he decided to sail west, across the vast Pacific Ocean, and circumnavigate the earth to return home.

Drake set sail on 23rd July 1579 from California. After 68 days without sight of land, they finally reached Palau, and then the Philippines. They sailed onto the Spice, or Maluku Islands, and added valuable cloves to a cargo that was already worth a fortune. However, disaster struck as the Golden Hind set off for home. Beyond sight of land, in deep water, the ship suddenly hit a reef and was stuck fast. The sailors, believing they were doomed, threw cannon and some of their priceless cargo overboard to lighten the ship, and prayed. Twenty hours later, in what seemed to Drake’s men a miracle, winds and tide lifted them off the reef.

The Golden Hind continued to navigate its way through the islands of Indonesia, and after a two-week stop in Java, Drake set sail across the Indian Ocean. In June, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and stopped at Sierra Leone for fresh supplies. Without further incident, he reached Plymouth on 26th September 1580, with 59 surviving crew members.

Returning to the Wikipedia article about the Golden Hind mentioned earlier, when the ship reached Plymouth, the ship was unloaded at nearby Trematon Castle, supervised by the Queen’s guards. Elizabeth herself went aboard the Golden Hind, where she cunningly asked the French ambassador to bestow a knighthood on Drake. Over half of the proceeds went to the crown – her share of the treasure totalled at least £160,000: “enough to pay off her entire government debt and still have £40,000 left over to invest in a new trading company for the Levant. Her return, and that of other investors, was more than £47 for every £1 invested, or 4,600%.”

That’s an impressively lucrative return on investment, regardless of how you view it. This is, of course, taking into account the voyage’s associated considerable hardships, tragedies, and loss of life. Contemporary shipping might not expect to see similar ROI figures, and our world today hardly echoes the adventurous exploits of the 16th century. Nevertheless, the risk-reward ratio remains pertinent for any type of investment, albeit within a significantly different context these days. What we may learn from Francis Drake’s global voyage is that when we examine a map – and by extension, the history of humanity and, for better or worse, its actions – we are also looking at our collective innate, deeply entrenched curiosity for a planet and oceans so awe-inspiring. A curiosity and love for action that we would be fortunate to guide us in our professional lives as well.

Dionysios Tsilioris