top of page
  • Writer's pictureHabranthus

Under Drake's Flag: A Tale of the Spanish Main

Updated: Jul 4

G.A. Henty


Hurst & Company, New York

331 slightly biased pages of history.


One young man's adventures sailing with the great English explorer Sir Francis Drake.


Ned Hearne is a young man who lives near the port town of Plymouth, England in the year 1572. Due to fortuitous circumstances, he gains employment as an apprentice sailor aboard Sir Francis Drake's fleet. The fleet is bound for the South Seas where they are to engage with the Spanish ships who dominate the region. The objective of Drake's venture is to raid and loot Spanish ships and ports, mainly for silver and gold. During several of their conquests, Ned and a few of his shipmates are separated from the rest of the crew and, along with natives and escaped slaves, must survive in the wild Americas until they are able to return to England. After many adventures, Ned retires to the countryside. However, he soon finds himself appointed Captain of his own ship for the fight against the Spanish Armada that comes to attack England. After a successful defense of his country, Ned permanently retires from life at sea.


What we have here, in the guise of a historical adventure novel, is an English reprimand of the Spaniards. The adventures of the hero Ned are set up around Sir Drake's expedition to attack and raid vessels and settlements of the Spanish Main, where the raiding and pillaging is condoned as justification for the Spanish treatment of the indigenous tribes. The story takes every opportunity to point out the abuse, exploitation and death experienced by the natives at the hands of the Spaniards. This is high comedy, of course, considering the number the English did on North American Indians, and any other indigenous people that came across their path of imperialism. Nevertheless, The English explorers are appalled at how the natives are treated. Sir Drake even excuses their attack on his own men as simply misunderstanding them to be Spanish.

Additionally, the story recounts the practices of the Inquisition, which was at the time operating in the new world controlled by Spain. In this version, the Inquisition was primarily concerned with every person converting to Catholicism, in particular the native peoples and imported African slaves. Basically, either you converted of your own free will, or they tortured you until you changed your mind or died. This practice, a true account for the most part, also horrified the English, and was considered serious motivation to fight until the death against the Spaniards, lest you be taken and tortured. The English being primarily proud Protestants. The author doesn't seem to be biased to one religion or the other, but expresses the tension between the two.

The writing is well done, though occasionally a little disjointed. Henty does a nice job of setting up characters and events, and adds good description sufficient to set the scene without bogging down the action. Little of the story takes place aboard any ship, and Sir Drake himself makes few appearances. The bulk of of the narrative relates how the protagonist Ned finds himself stranded and must fight with body and mind to survive - he has a knack for getting out of hopeless situations. Ned is a strong and stout young man and makes a fine hero. He is brave, intelligent, hard working and honest. To cap it off, he is very modest.

Henty wrote many novels for youth, and I assume this is one of them. It is well suited for young readers with its adolescent, coming-of-age hero, its emphasis on adventure and a simple narrative.

Note: During this time of essentially warfare on the seas, England and Spain were at peace, politically speaking. The two monarchs looked the other way. By the end of the book, this peace is tossed aside and the two countries resume their mutual hatred. It's true history that King Philip II sent his 130-ship Spanish Armada to England to assist the Protestant Queen Elizabeth down from the thrown, but it didn't go well for the Spaniards and they limped home the long way. Then the Queen tried the same, sending her armada, led by the great Sir Drake himself, on a failed mission to subdue Spain. Afterwards, King Philip II tried again with a new armada to beat those damned English Protestants, but to no avail. Eventually, the two side gave up and took their hatred elsewhere.

To the Author's credit:

Mr. Henty must have done his research. You can plot the course of Sir Drake's expeditions through the various ports of call, and he name-drops real ships, people and aspects of native America throughout. Aside from the negative bias toward the Spaniards, the book feels authentic enough considering he is writing 300 years after the fact. He also gives an exciting, and I think accurate, portrayal of the Spanish Armada's failed attempt to attack England's mainland.

To the Author's discredit:

First, the negative bias really sticks out in his portrayal of Sir Drake's raiding of the Spaniards. Essentially, the English soldiers have such a fierce reputation for fighting that the Spanish soldiers give up easily and basically run away. In the story, most of the loot is taken easily: So mightily were the Spaniards amazed by the valor and boldness of the English that they fought but feebly, jumping over for the most part or making their way in their boats to shore.

Second, and this is comical, somewhere in the interior of the South American continent, the hero Ned encounters a tribe that has "never seen a fire before." He shows them how to make the fire, keep the fire, transport the fire, and cook food on the fire. They are so in awe that they consider him a god (a recuring theme in the story). I will give Mr. Henty the benefit of the doubt and assume he just threw that in his book as a prank to the young boys reading his novel.

Old words...English words...or my English just ain't so good?

dominie - a schoolmaster or clergyman

tome - a scholarly book

quay - a structure built parallel to the bank of a waterway for use as a landing place

burgher - an inhabitant of a town

stalwart - marked by outstanding strength and vigor of body, mind, or spirit

despotic - tyrannical

bark - a type of sailing vessel with three or more masts

assiduous - showing great care, attention, and effort

pike - a sharp point or spike

litter - a covered and curtained couch with shafts for carrying a single passenger

glade - an open space surrounded by woods

cacique - a native Indian chief in areas dominated primarily by a Spanish culture

cairn - a heap of stones piled up as a memorial or as a landmark

bivouac - a usually temporary encampment under little or no shelter

arquebus - a form of long gun invented in the 15th century

proselytize - to induce someone to convert to one's faith


carry-tale - tattletale

pecuniary gain

swarthy ruffian

yesternight - instead of 'last night'.

Best Line:

Sir Drake, after being struck by a musket ball and seriously wounded:

Tush, my is a scratch; say nothing of it. Now, forward to the treasury.


My copy of the book isn't dated, but must have been published in the early 1900's. The pages are very brittle indeed. Little pieces were breaking off constantly as I read through.

14 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


a shout out to writers long gone

Antique Book Review

bottom of page