Thomas Cavendish – The Third Circumnavigator of the Earth

Map of Thomas Cavendish


Sir Thomas Cavendish, also spelled Candish, was an English explorer baptized on September 19, 1560 at Trimley St. Martin, Suffolk, England and died c. May 1592 in the North Atlantic. Cavendish was a privateer known as “The Navigator”. He accompanied Sir Richard Grenville’s voyage to America (1585) and, upon returning to England, undertook an elaborate imitation of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation, raiding Spanish towns and ships in the Pacific and returned by circumnavigating the globe. He was the leader of the third circumnavigation of the Earth.

On July 21, 1586, he sailed from Plymouth with 123 men in three vessels. He reached the Patagonian coast of South America, where he discovered Port Desire, now Puerto Deseado, Arg., his only significant contribution to geographical knowledge. After passing through the Strait of Magellan, he attacked Spanish settlements and shipping from South America to Mexico. From a captured pilot, a Marseillais who hated Spaniards, he obtained valuable information about the movements of the galleons returning to Mexico from Manila, and on Oct. 14, he stationed himself off Cape San Lucas at the tip of Lower California to await one expected shortly.

On Nov. 14, 1587, the big galleon Santa Ana came lumbering along. Taken by surprise, with all her heavy ordnance in the hold, she was the underdog in this fight. Santa Ana repelled the Englishmen’s first attempt to board but after that repulse, Cavendish changed his tactics and pounded Santa Ana with heavy guns for five or six hours. Her captain then displayed a white flag, struck all sails, and came on board Desire, Cavendish flagship, to surrender. She yielded more plunder than Drake’s Cacafuego: 122,000 gold pesos, each worth eight shillings, a quantity of pearls, and all manner of Chinese silks and damasks. The royal treasurer at Manila estimated that the whole represented an investment of a million pesos, worth double in Europe.

Interesting passengers taken on board Cavendish’s flagship were two Japanese young men, a Portuguese who had been in China, and Santa Ana’s Spanish pilot. This man amiably piloted Desire as far as the Philippines, where Cavendish had him hanged from the yardarm for trying to communicate with Manila. Touching at northeastern Samar on the 14th of January 1588, Desire passed through narrow San Bernardino Strait into the Sibuyan Sea, then sailed south to Panay. This foray into Philippine waters was great fun for the English, and irritating as well as mortifying to the Spanish authorities; Bishop Salazar of the Philippines complained in a letter to King Philip II that “an English youth at about 22 years, with a wretched little vessel of about 100 tuns, 40 to 50 companions” raided his villa on an island, boasted of the damage he had wrought, and went away laughing. But Cavendish did miss a great opportunity to destroy a new Manila galleon on the stocks; the builders’ gang drove away his landing party.

Cavendish returned to England around the world; and like Drake obtained sufficient provisions as he went along to keep his men fairly well and happy. Desire sailed on Mar 16, 1588, from a port in Java where Cavendish had been conversing with a friendly rajah. Desire made the coast of Africa in two months, called at St. Helena, and suffered her last storm in the chops of the Channel, losing most of her threadbare sails. But on Sept. 9, 1588, she managed to dock into Plymouth, where he had departed two years and a month earlier, with only one of his ships, the “Desire,” and much plunder, Cavendish was still only twenty-eight years old.

On his second American-Pacific venture, undertaken in 1591, his fleet failed to traverse the Strait of Magellan against monstrous storm. Many of his men died with famine and miserable cold. One sailor even had his frozen nose drop off when he tried to blow it with his fingers. Sails and lines were rotting, and victuals so very short, that he accepted the plea of his officers to return to Brazil and refit. At São Vicente, Cavendish encouraged his now almost starving men to raid local plantations for food but they were attacked by the Portuguese settlers who did not appreciate the burning of their town by the English before. After other mishaps and losing more men, he expressed a desire to return to the Strait but his crew absolutely refused to consider it. He then compromised by sailing for the Island of St. Helena but missed it. Turning north to look for Ascension Island, he missed that too. This was the last straw. He made his will and wrote his own version of the voyage for the eyes of his cousin, Tristram Gorgas; then he lay down and died. Where he was buried at sea and on what date and cause of his death, we do not know. It must have been around May 20-25, 1592. He was only thirty-one or thirty-two years old.



The European Discovery of America – The Southern Voyages 1492-1616 by Samuel Eliot Morison


7 thoughts on “Thomas Cavendish – The Third Circumnavigator of the Earth

  1. Thanks GP. Mom is okay. The earthquake was too far from where she lives. That was the island I blogged last week. Between the harsh weather and now the earthquake, I’m very sorry for the residents of Batanes.

    Liked by 1 person

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