The past few years have seen a wave of changes connected to commemorations of historical figures. Perhaps most notable, within in the British context, was the dramatic toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol in 2020. The legacies of certain people have been reconsidered, leading to the renaming of streets and squares, and the removal of other physical reminders.

Within the locality of Plymouth, Devon, the name of Sir John Hawkins has been under scrutiny, leading to the suggested change of his square in the city centre. But there is one figure who remains untouchable within the locality: Sir Francis Drake. His statue remains in place on the prominent location of Plymouth Hoe, looking out to the water.

Drake is an intriguing figure: he made a name during the late 16th century as one of the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Elizabethan seadogs. He was involved in his cousin’s Hawkins’ early slave raids in Africa in the 1560s, raided Spanish gold and silver ships in the Atlantic and the Americas in the 1570s and 1580s, and became the first Englishman to successfully circumnavigate the globe between 1577 to 1580 (which even included a landing in California). His legacy as a Plymouth and national hero was cemented with his efforts in repelling the Spanish Armada in 1588, whilst he also served a local role in becoming the mayor of the city.

I recently researched and wrote about Drake in my upcoming book The Tudor Empire. Having grown up with the Drake name being synonymous with my home town of Plymouth (Drake is named after locations, shops, businesses, and clubs), I found it difficult to reappraise my understanding of him. The idea of the seadog casually playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe before heading out to sea to smash the Spanish enemy was a comforting one which gave me pride, particularly with this city playing a key role in wider national and international events.

However, there is much to criticise, particularly in terms of his actions. How about a quick, non-exhaustive summary:

  • He had no qualms about participating in early expeditions to West Africa to capture and sell people as slaves.
  • He didn’t seem to hesitate escaping battle at San Juan de Ulua in 1568, leading to accusations from his cousin Sir John Hawkins about his character.
  • He was involved in the murder of civilians whilst posted in Ireland.
  • He was punishing toward crew members during the famous circumnavigation of the globe, including executing his second-in-command, placing his chaplain in chains, and banishing others on small boats along the way.
  • He attacked Spanish settlements in the New World for plunder.

On the whole, Drake appears as a rather ugly and repellent character. However, whenever I come across his statue when walking on Plymouth Hoe I cannot help but feel positive thoughts. Perhaps this is because my upbringing has conditioned me to view Drake as a heroic figure, even despite engaging in deeper research of his conduct and character, but I think it is something more than that. Drake the man is long gone, and the statue does not really represent him as his was, but rather a symbol. This symbol isn’t tied to one man – Drake himself – but rather the spirit of a city.

Plymouth is the city that has suffered setbacks and defeats, the city that has been attacked and bombed, but yet always comes back and rebuilds. The Drake statue on Plymouth Hoe symbolises this spirit. Well, at least that is my interpretation, no matter how unconvincing it may be. There may come the time that the statue is removed, and there are many acceptable arguments as to why that will be the case.