Newfoundland expedition (1585)


Newfoundland Expedition (1585)
Part of the Anglo–Spanish War
1563 lazaro luis 04 atlantic nord.jpg
A 1563 map of the North Atlantic with Newfoundland top center
DateJuly to 10 October 1585

English victory[1][2][3]

  • Decline of Spanish & Portuguese fishing industry[4][5]
  • Establishment of English domination in North America[5][6]


England England
Commanders and leaders
Unknown Bernard Drake
Numerous Spanish & Portuguese ships[7] 10 ships
Casualties and losses
23 ships captured, burned, or sunk[7]
~600 prisoners[8]

The Newfoundland Expedition also known as Bernard Drake's Newfoundland Expedition was an English naval expedition that took place during the beginning of the declared Anglo-Spanish War in the North Atlantic during summer and autumn of 1585.[9] The area of conflict was situated mainly in an area known as the Grand Banks off present day Newfoundland.[6] The aim of the expedition was to capture the Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleets.[4] The expedition was a huge military and financial success and virtually removed the Spanish and Portuguese from these waters.[10] In addition the raid had large consequences in terms of English colonial expansion and settlement.[7][11]


War had already been declared by Philip II of Spain after the Treaty of Nonsuch in which Queen Elizabeth I had offered her support to the rebellious Protestant Dutch rebels.[12] On 26 May the Spanish enforced an embargo on English shipping in Bilbao harbour, and then all over Spain. The armed merchant ship Primrose fought her way clear and brought the news to London.[13] English anger responded with the release of a large number of privateers in reprisal and took precautions against other merchant ships’ being caught in Spain.[12] The Queen through Francis Walsingham at the same time had also ordered Sir Francis Drake to lead an expedition to attack the Spanish New World in a kind of preemptive strike.[10]

Sir Humphrey Gilbert, provided with patent letters from the Queen had landed in St John's in August 1583, and formally took possession of Newfoundland for England[14][15] Bernard Drake (distant kinsman of Sir Francis Drake), had become associated with Gilbert, through his relatives Richard Grenville and Walter Raleigh.[16] In 1585, Drake had joined with Raleigh and Gilbert’s brother, John, in activities connected with the Roanoke Island Colony, in present-day North Carolina.[16]

On 10 June Raleigh was authorized by the privy council to press ships for a voyage to be made to the Newfoundland fishing grounds.[9] The expedition was to warn English fishing vessels there not to take fish direct to Spain or Portugal (trade being already well established), and to seize any vessels belonging to subjects of the king of Spain they could find.[9] Commissions to lead such expeditions were issued to Carew Raleigh and to Bernard Drake on 20 June, and the latter was ordered about 27 June to launch an expedition against the Newfoundland fisheries.[17] They dropped plans for a privateering voyage to the West Indies en route for Roanoke, where a colony was to be settled by Sir Richard Grenville who had left Plymouth in April.[7]

Drake's sweep

Drake left Plymouth for Newfoundland in July with a fleet of ten ships, including his flagship Golden Riall. Many of the ships were funded by investors hoping to receive a share of any plunder.[18] The venture soon hit success with the capture of a large Portuguese ship laden with Brazilian sugar and other commodities.[3]

Bernard Drake

Drake arrived off Newfoundland in early mid-August, and landed at Saint Johns, re-establishing England's claim on the country. St. Johns became a base for his operations, where his ships gathered supplies and fresh water.[19] While there, he alerted the English fishermen to the danger of heading directly to markets in Spain and Portugal. Instead of heading home, many of them joined their ranks and Drake's ships soon increased in number to ten, many of them armed. As the English then established themselves they then intercepted, captured, plundered, and even burned many Spanish and Portuguese fishing ships.[3][11] A few armed flyboats protecting them met the same fate. Small in number, they were no match for the heavily armed English ships, and most either fled or were captured.[20]

As news spread of the raid, Spanish fishing ships then tended to frequent the island’s south coast, mainly on the Avalon peninsula, away from the English area of dominance. By the end of September, Drake had cleared this area of any Spanish and Portuguese ships and then sent some of his own ships back to England escorting the prizes.[6] His force raided a Spanish whaling and fishing base on the Burin Peninsula, capturing or burning all the stores. Other smaller locations in Placentia Bay were destroyed too.[20] Soon the lack of prizes in the region became more apparent and Drake met up and joined forces with another of Raleigh’s associates, George Raymond in the Red Lion, who had sailed with Grenville on the way to Roanoke.[21] Leaving Newfoundland, the force then headed to the Azores in the hope of seizing Spanish ships from the West Indies.[7] More success followed with captures of ships with cargos of sugar, wine, and ivory, and a French ship carrying some gold. With disease starting to take its toll, Drake's ships headed home, but not before running into a storm that caused the loss of two prizes.[20]

In all they probably took more than twenty ships, though not all reached England safely; many of the prizes were sunk in storms, burned, or destroyed in battle.[10]


The voyage was both successful and profitable,[5] in addition the result of depriving the Spanish navy and merchant marine of 60,000 quintals or 3,000 tons of the dried fish so important to the victualling of ocean-going ships.[7][21] In all 600 Spanish and Portuguese prisoners were taken and many were taken back to England to be interned in retaliation for the Spanish doing the same to English ships in Spain.[4][8] Estimates of the value of the prizes vary but the voyage likely returned a profit of at least 600 per cent.[21] As their share, Drake and his eldest son, John, were given four of the most valuable ships by Raleigh and Sir John Gilbert.[7]

On 9 January 1586, Drake was knighted by Elizabeth at Greenwich in recognition of his success.[11] A couple of months later, the surviving Portuguese prisoners, whom Drake had had imprisoned in Exeter, were put on trial, the charge perhaps being mutiny.[3] The trial during the notorious Black Assize of Exeter from 14 March 1586 was held at Exeter Castle. Within little more than three weeks, many of the men of the trial succumbed to disease, as they had been exposed to the Portuguese prisoners, who also succumbed.[22] Bernard Drake died too in Crediton on 10 April 1586, and was buried two days later while his son John inherited the profits of the Newfoundland voyage.[22]


In a precautionary move, the following year, the Spanish government forbade ships to sail to Newfoundland.[4] In the aftermath of the Spanish armada however which resulted in the loss of many ships and with increased English activity over the next century Spanish activity then heavily waned.[17][23] Drake's raid had thus done serious and lasting damage to the Spanish and Portuguese fishing industries.[21][24] The Portuguese fishery in particular on the other hand never recovered.[25] As a result of Drake's huge success and the impact it had, this enabled the establishment of English and French (Basque) domination in North America and therefore colonial settlement in the early part of the 17th century.[5][6]


  1. ^ Bicheno p 180 having done serious & lasting damage to the Spanish and Portuguese fishing industries
  2. ^ Carrington, Charles (1950). The British Overseas: Exploits of a Nation of Shopkeepers. CUP Archive. p. 19. b.
  3. ^ a b c d Quinn p 130-31
  4. ^ a b c d Davis p 13-14
  5. ^ a b c d Naylor pp 26-27
  6. ^ a b c d Hornsby pp 16-18
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Prowse pp 78-81
  8. ^ a b Hart p 211
  9. ^ a b c Childs p 128-30
  10. ^ a b c Clarke p 25
  11. ^ a b c McDermott p 156
  12. ^ a b R. B Wernham (1966). Before the Armada: The growth of English foreign policy 1485–1588. J. Cape. pp. 371.
  13. ^ Konstam p. 61
  14. ^ Brian Cuthbertson, "John Cabot and His Historians: Years of Controversy." Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society 1998 1: 16–35. ISSN 1486-5920
  15. ^ See Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971)
  16. ^ a b Loker p 78
  17. ^ a b Holly p 59
  18. ^ Andrews p 192
  19. ^ Chartrand p. 9
  20. ^ a b c Cell pp 47-48
  21. ^ a b c d Bicheno p 180
  22. ^ a b Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present, 2008, p.122 [1]
  23. ^ Pope p 178-18
  24. ^ Pringler, Heather. "Cabot, cod and the colonists" (PDF). Canadian Geographic. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 December 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  25. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


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