Myth Busting! 8 things you thought you knew about the Golden Hinde

6th March 2019
Myth Busting! 8 things you thought you knew about the Golden Hinde


1) Everyone was really short!

Everyone who visits the ship comments on the cramped living conditions and wonders why the ship was built that way. Surely Elizabethan sailors must have been really short? After all, people in the past were much shorter, right?

Sort of. A combination of factors meant that the average height of an Elizabethan man was around 5' 6" (around three inches shorter than the average height of a man in modern Britain), but that wouldn't have made much of a difference on the Golden Hinde's 3' 6" gun deck.

In truth, the Golden Hinde was built low to make her faster, more nimble and more stable. She is an example of a race-built galleon, which were the mainstay of the Elizabethan fighting fleet.

2) Drake is a pirate. He must have drunk a lot of rum!

Nope! Nearly 200 years separate Francis Drake and the rum swilling pirates akin to Jack Sparrow. A lot changed over those two centuries.

The production of rum in the Caribbean didn't begin until the 17th Century when slaves working on the sugarcane plantations realised that molasses could be fermented into alcohol.

There would have been plenty of alcohol on the Golden Hinde, only in the form of beer or captured Spanish wine.

3) Pirate? I think you mean privateer!

Well, if you want to get technical…

A privateer is private person with permission from their government to attack (and plunder) enemy shipping. Drake was given permission from Queen Elizabeth to attack the Spanish, so that makes him a privateer, right?

Well, Drake had been attacking Spanish shipping well before his meeting with Queen Elizabeth…

And his first capture during his 1577 circumnavigation was actually a Portuguese Ship, not a Spanish one…

Not to mention the fact that we sort of have to take Drake's word for it that Queen Elizabeth I gave him her blessing to 'seek revenge' on the Spanish crown and raid Spanish ships, although many historians do think that considering her response to his amassed loot, she more than likely did give him unwritten permission.

After all, Elizabeth I affectionately called Drake, 'My Pirate'.

It's fair to say that for Drake, as for many others, the boundary between pirate and privateer was often blurred.

4) Need to lookout? Better head up to the Crow's Nest.

The baskets on the foremast and mainmast sure look like Crow's Nests, but they actually served a very different purpose. They're called 'Fighting Tops', and archers and crossbowmen would fire down on neighbouring ships from these elevated platforms.

There was nothing anywhere near as safe for the lookouts. They would climb right to the top of the masts to stand on small, black planks which looked a bit like hash-tags. These were called cross-trees. It would have been pretty precarious up there but there were rewards aplenty if you spotted something worthwhile.

5) No-one would choose to sail on a ship like that! They must have been press ganged.

All the men on the Golden Hinde were volunteers. Impressment didn't begin until 1664, nearly 100 years after Drake's voyage. The preserve of the Royal Navy, its purpose was to ensure that there were enough men to crew the growing number of Navy ships.

That being said, many of the crew of the Golden Hinde hadn't entirely consented to the voyage to the New World and likely none of them realised they were about to embark on a three year circumnavigation. To avoid alerting the Spanish, whose spies would have noticed the Golden Hinde being provisioned and wondered about her purpose, the mission was publicly described as a trading voyage to Alexandria, Egypt. It must have come as quite a shock when they set out across the Atlantic.

6) There were never any women on the Golden Hinde whilst she was at sea. Women were considered bad luck.

It's true that women were considered bad luck on ships and, as far as we know, there were no women in the crew when the Golden Hinde left Plymouth.

We do know about one woman who sailed on the Golden Hinde for a few months whilst Drake raided the Pacific Coast. She was an African woman called Maria, who was taken from a Spanish ship and was almost certainly treated appallingly.

Maria fell pregnant on the Golden Hinde and was put ashore 9 months later, just before she gave birth. More than likely she was marooned. Even many of Drake's contemporaries recognised this as a particularly cruel act on his part.

7) The Golden Hinde was steered using a ship's wheel on the Half-Deck.

If you're talking about the reconstructed Golden Hinde, then you'd be right! The ship currently berthed in St. Mary Overie Dock in London was steered with wheel during its voyages in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, ship's wheels weren't invented until the 18th Century, long after Drake's voyages. Drake's Golden Hinde would have had a whipstaff, which was a vertical stick attached to the tiller and operated on the deck below where the wheel on the reconstruction.

Using a whipstaff is very difficult and potentially dangerous, and it was decided that a wheel was better suited to a circumnavigation in the 20th century.

8) Living conditions were appalling! Sailors were underfed, unwashed and wracked with disease!

This isn't a total myth. When you visit The Golden Hinde it's immediately clear that cramming eighty men onto such a small ship with little to no privacy, no beds, no proper toilets and no washing facilities wouldn't have been particularly comfortable or sanitary. Not to mention the fact that they were sharing the space with farmyard animals and rats.

Storing food which wouldn't rot was hard and the crew of The Golden Hinde were at sea for weeks at a time without seeing land. Many of the men got scurvy more than once and a fair few did die from disease.

However, it's unfair to think of Elizabethan sailors as totally uneducated about the importance of cleanliness and nutrition. Scurvy was a well known affliction and Drake, like many sailors of the time, sought ways to overcome it and ensure his men are as well fed as possible. It is reported, that upon the recommendation of an Italian friend, he even took pasta!

As a rule, conditions on privateering ships in this period were better than on Royal Navy ones, not least because experienced privateering captains like Drake knew the importance of keeping their ships clean and their sailors healthy.


Image of The Golden Hinde by Joel Rogers.

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