Sir Francis Drake: The Queens Pirate

Harry Kelsey, Author Yale University Press $60 (592p) ISBN 978-0-300-07182-5
As a pirate he was a fearless improviser. In naval engagements, he tended to hang back and look out for number one. Widely despised by his shipmates, he fascinated his queen and countrymen as the first Englishman to sail around the world. Drake emerges from Kelsey's biography as a paranoid bully who by luck and bluff succeeded in an age that was hungry for heroes. It's too bad that this demythologized Drake is denied a gripping narrative. We too often see him through the squint of a historiographer, as when he's stalled for pages in the Straits of Magellan while Kelsey compares theories on how he got around Cape Horn. When Drake does get moving, his itinerary of raids reads more like a police blotter than a saga. Fittingly, this determinedly unromantic, Dragnet approach works best when Drake is at his worst, as during the summary execution of his partner, Thomas Doughty. And it's useful to doubt such ill-supported myths as Drake's supposed landfall in California. But there should be more attention to the big picture, such as painting Spain and Portugal's relationship before following Drake on his ill-fated expedition to Lisbon--whose outcome Kelsey gives away too soon, for the sake of another statistic. Kelsey's Drake may be truer than others', but he needs more wind in his sails than the ""pirate's progress"" summations at the end of each chapter. 30 b&w illustrations. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/10/1998
Release date: 08/01/1998
Paperback - 566 pages - 978-0-300-08463-4
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