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Elizabeth, Trade, and Sir Francis Drake, Episode 5 - 30/09/05


Replica of Drakes' ship the Golden Hind (Getty Images)

Replica of Drakes' ship the Golden Hind
(Getty Images)
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By the time of the Elizabethans (1558), the English (we talk about the British only after 1603) were starting to get into the business, not of Empire, but trading posts. There was still no imperial policy. That did not come for another two centuries. Elizabeth inherited an almost bankrupt throne so every exploration had to be self-financing. Moreover, the British Isles were constantly threatened with invasion (the Armada came in 1588), so insecurity as well as poor opportunity had much to do with the early Elizabethan reluctance to invest in overseas resources.

However, the English wanted what the Spanish and the Portuguese had: gold from El Dorado and spices from the Indies - the land east of the Indus. Henry VIII had commissioned Sir Thomas Pert and Sebastian Cabot to search for land in Brazil, but it was never to be a successful voyage. Pert was no hero and empire-building needed heroes. The City investors saw better opportunities and fewer risks in trading in northern latitudes so, in 1555, the Muscovy Company was established, which lasted until the 1917 Revolution.

Piracy against the Spanish galleons brought gold and trading in the Levant produced spices. The British were happy with this arrangement until the war with Spain ended and the price of pepper rocketed. The great secret of the Indies was navigation and Drake made that easier during his circumnavigation of the globe (1577-1580) when he attacked a Portuguese ship and stole her charts.

Explorations were commercial expeditions and often strategical planning was poor. When John Newbery, for example, headed east, he had letters of introduction to the emperors of India and China from Elizabeth. Apart from asking them to protect her subject, Elizabeth's main message outlined the commercial benefits to be gained by co-operation between the two thrones. Elizabeth's letters to foreign princes were models for economic tutorials on the laws of supply and demand.

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Historical Figure

Sir Francis Drake(Getty Images)

Sir Francis Drake
(Getty Images)
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Sir Francis Drake, c. 1540-1596

Drake spent his early seafaring as a cross-Channel pirate and then sailed west for the richer pickings of the Spanish Main (Caribbean coast of the Spanish Empire in mainland Central and South America). In 1572, he sighted the Pacific from the Panamanian Isthmus. He sailed in 1577 for the Pacific, rounded the Horn and famously changed his ship's name to the Golden Hind. He continued north and then west and returned to England via the East Indies and the Cape of Good Hope, so becoming the first Englishman to complete a circumnavigation of the globe.

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Did You Know...

Drake claimed California for Elizabeth I, calling it New Albion.

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the Americas region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the Americas

Claudia, GA
I have really enjoyed the whole series so far and look forward to listening each day. Juliet Stevenson is the perfect narrator! Thank you!

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Contemporary Sources

Richard Eden on Sir Thomas Pert, explorer
In 1516, Henry VIII sent Sir Thomas Pert off to search for land in Brazil and Puerto Rico. Pert was, according to Richard Eden who recorded that voyage, a man in "want of stomack".

"Our sovereign lord, king Henry the Eighth, furnished and sent out certain ships under the governance of Sebastian Cabot yet living, and one Sir Thomas Pert, whose faint heart was the cause of the voyage took none effect; if I say manly courage…had not at that time been wanting it might have happily come to pass that the rich treasury called Perularia which is now in Spain might long since have been in the Tower of London to the king's great honour and wealth of this realm."

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