History remembers Sir Francis Drake as an English sea captain and privateer (“legal pirate”) who was also a slave trader and explorer. Drake was involved in some of the earliest English slaving voyages to Africa and was famed for his privateering against Spanish ships and possessions. He became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe in a single expedition from 1577 to 1580.
Seen as an English hero, the Queen awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581. Before his death, he served as second-in-command during the English victory over the Spanish Armada and was the most famous mariner of the Elizabethan Age. And sadly, but not surprisingly, not much is known or has been written about the escaped African slave who became his interpreter and right-hand man, helping Drake to earn his reputation as one of the most famous British explorers and adventurers ever.
The runaway slave’s name was Diego, and a detailed account of his relationship with Drake can be seen in the book ‘Sir Francis Drake Revived’, which was first published in 1593. The book was written based on notes by Drake himself and from his crew members. The following extract describes how Diego met Drake after an encounter on the shore when Drake and his company attacked the port of Nombre de Dios in Panama in 1572.
“one Diego, a negro . . . came and called to our pinnaces [light ships] to know whether they were Captain Drake’s? And upon answer received continued entreating to be taken on board, though he had first three or four shot made at him, until at length they fetched him.”
Diego had been enslaved by the Spanish. Some historians believe that he was born in Senegal, West Africa. The Spanish took him from there to Panama where his slave owner, a Spaniard, was the Captain General of a small town in Panama. Being in Panama enabled Diego to learn the languages used in Latin America. He would later learn English, and his language skills came in handy.
In 1572 when Drake and his men attacked the port of Nombre de Dios in Panama, Diego decided to escape his Spanish slaveowner to join the English, having learned that England was a land of freedom and there were no slaves there. At the time he was able to convince Drake’s men to allow him on board the ship after the encounter on the shore, Drake was already in town with his raiding party. Diego, after getting on board the ship, warned Drake’s men to let Drake and his raiding party retreat as the town was full of soldiers guarding against enemy attacks.
The men on the ship alerted Drake and his raiding party of Diego’s warning even though some accounts state that Diego lied about that story just to be able to escape Spanish enslavement and join the English onboard the ship.
“Diego then forged an alliance between the English and the local Cimarrons, Africans who had run away and established their own settlements in the Panamanian hinterlands,” writes historian Miranda Kauffman. “This resulted in a successful attack on the Spanish mule train carrying silver across the isthmus of Panama. Diego then returned to Plymouth with Drake, where he lived for the next four years,” Kauffman adds.
Diego would act as an interpreter, a guide and a go-between for Drake in his other successful raids on the Spanish, history says. Knowing that he could use Diego’s language skills, Drake hired Diego to accompany him on his circumnavigation of the globe in 1577. At the time, Diego had become fluent in English, and Drake, given his poor command of Spanish, knew that Diego could act as an interpreter in the Spanish-speaking Americas.
“He could pass as a slave and spy on the Spanish. And should Drake wish to ally with the Cimarrons, Diego could once again be the go-between,” according to Kauffman.
What’s more, Diego’s skills in local building methods turned out to be useful as he helped set up camp, lodgings and storehouses while working as Drake’s right-hand man. And despite Drake being a slave trader, there is no account stating that he enslaved Diego. It is believed that Diego was paid wages on his circumnavigation voyage with Drake.
Drake also promised Diego that if they managed to capture his old slave owner, they would make the Spaniard into a slave. But historians do not know if that happened. What they know is that Drake treated Diego well because of what he stood to benefit. The escaped slave’s skills as an interpreter and his local knowledge were of the utmost importance to Drake’s mission.