Francis Drake was the first Englishman to sail around the world, completing the three-year journey in 1580. Upon returning home, his ship loaded with treasure, Drake was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I.
Decades earlier, a Portuguese crew under Ferdinand Magellan became the first one ever to circle the globe. Yet Magellan died along the way in the Philippines in 1521.
Drake (1540-96) survived the punishing voyage to earn his courageous place in nautical history. He was a skillful navigator who beat back the Spanish fleet over many expeditions in the late 16th century.
"Drake was considered either a great privateer or a great pirate, depending on which side you were on," said William Cogar, CEO of The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., and a former history professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
British history often portrays Drake as a brave leader who extended the nautical reach of Elizabethan England against its colonial rivals Spain, France and Portugal. Drake clearly overcame many hardships, from raging storms and mutinies to plain starvation and illness.
To Spaniards, Drake was a rogue buccaneer who attacked their undefended vessels and looted hard-won riches. They called him El Draque, or Draco the Dragon. Some saw him as a wizard with devilish powers.
So many fantastic myths grew up around Drake's legend that scholars find it hard to separate facts from folklore, says Jennifer McNabb, a history professor at Western Illinois University.
"Drake was certainly an accomplished sailor and strategist and politician. At the same time, it's hard to escape the sense that he was a plunderer," she told IBD. "As for whether he was a scoundrel or a hero, he seems to have been a bit of both."