Home » Blog » Articles » Thomas Cavendish Pirate or Privateer? (Grasson)

Thomas Cavendish Pirate or Privateer? (Grasson)


Thomas Cavendish and his ship Desire. Courtesy of Flickr.com

One of the the least told stories about the Lost Ship, concerns a British privateer named Thomas Cavendish and the possibility of a mutinied treasure ship. Thomas Cavendish had a “privileged youth” to say the least, he was born in 1560 at the small village of Trimley St. Martin in England, Just northeast of London. He comes from a long line of wealth and prestige, at the young age of 12 he inherited a fortune after his father William passed away. His family includes Dukes, famous navigators, one sister married famed geographer/writer Richard Hakluyt, and his other sister, became a Lady in Waiting with the court of Queen Elizabeth. He became friends with some of the most influential people of the British court, including George Clifford, the most active aristocratic privateer of the day. On April 9th 1585, he sailed a ship named the Elizabeth under the command of Richard Grenville to Puerto Rico. There were a total of three ships in this fleet, but bad weather sunk one ship and separated the remaining two. Grenville made it safely, but it was nearly a month later before Cavendish finally showed up. During their time in the Caribbean, Grenville and Cavendish captured several Spanish ships, this appeased Cavendish more than colonization. In late June they both arrived at Wococon Inlet, near Roanoke Island, at present day North Carolina. However a few days later Grenville’s ship ran aground and lost most of it’s cargo, which was devastating to the young colonists.

There were two notables on this voyage, famed colonist/governor/artist John White who’s painting are considered some of the earliest of the New World. White was also played a part in the Lost Colony of Roanoke and his daughter Elinor dare gave birth to Virginia dare, the very first English child born in America. The other notable was explorer, scientist, mathematician, astronomer Thomas Hariot. Sir Walter Raleigh could not make the voyage, and appointed Hariot as his representative. To say this was an important expedition would be a huge understatement, and Cavendish was in the middle of it all. But not all was going well for Thomas, after the voyage was finished Grenville complained about Cavendish’s attitude, something that would follow him at a later date.


Thomas Cavendish Courtesy of Wikiwand

Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman and the second person to circumnavigate the globe, but from the onset, that was not his intention.  Cavendish is considered the first person to set out and complete a planned circumnavigation of the globe, just six years after Drake’s return, Thomas had assembled 123 men and a fleet of three ships, the flagship Desire was 120 ton and equipped with 18 cannon , followed by the 60 ton, 10 cannon Content, and the 40 ton Hugh Gallant. Also at this time England and Spain were at war, that meant that Cavendish could take pleasure in capturing Spanish ships and towns along the way, he was a true privateer.

He entered the Pacific ocean through the Magellan Strait and along the way he captured 9 ships and ransacked multiple towns, supplying his fleet with plenty of provisions and treasure. However he did not come out unscathed, he had to repair his ships and eventually burn the Hugh Gallant, due to a lack of crew to sail her. Luck did present itself in the way of a captured pilot, he had explained to Cavendish that a treasure galleon returning from the Philippines was expected in either within a couple of months, near Cabo San Lucas. Cavendish was very aware that the Spanish government only allowed two ships a year to make such a voyage, and they usually carried a full years worth of wealth on each ship. Treasure that would include, gold, silver, jewels, spices, silk, damask, wines and other materials. They sailed to Cabo San Lucas and laid in wait for the incoming galleon, and on November 4th 1587 the Santa Ana, piloted by Tomas de Alzola, was spotted by a lookout.  A small chase ensued and when he came along side the Santa Ana to battle, he noticed the ship did not carry any cannons. The battle only lasted a few hours before the Santa Ana struck her colors, and surrendered. On board were 100 Spaniards, 60 “people of color,” famed explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, along with pilots, Alonzo de Valladolid and Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño.

The Santa Ana was brought back to San Lucas Bay and Cavendish was stunned at amount of treasure that lay before them, it would be legendary. The was so much treasure that he had to pick and choose what to take, due to the size difference between the Desire and Content, and that literally took days to accomplish. The Santa Ana was capable of handling 700 tons worth of cargo, while the combined carrying weight between the Desire and Content was only 180 ton. Think about how much treasure was wasted, burned or destroyed. Cavendish’s reported inventory included 100 troy pounds of gold, silver, musks used in perfumes, silks, spices, satin, and pearls today worth nearly $4 million dollars today. Each side claiming an enormous amount of wealth or loss depending on which side you listen to, but the true number will never be known.


The Desire firing their cannons at the Santa Ana. Courtesy filanaval.blogspot.com/


This is also possibly where dissension within his crew may have begun, normally the crew would get a percentage of the booty. But before they left England each crew member had agreed to a particular “salary” for the voyage. Imagine if you were on the crew, and there before you lay a lifetime worth of wealth, but you were not entitled to any of it… You basically signed up for a bit more than minimum wage.

Cavendish left survivors with food and materials to survive, they did manage to get by and eventually floated what was left of the Santa Ana back to Acapulco. Meanwhile, on November 17th Cavendish and the two fully loaded ships sailed west crossing the Pacific. Except that shortly after leaving, the Content was never seen again. Was this because the ship was so overloaded it sank? It has been rumored that Cavendish did not trust the complaining crew of the Content and may have sabotaged their ship. Personally, I can’t see why he would sink more treasure just to teach the crew a lesson, there are other ways to handle that. Or could it be that the crew thought that they had enough of Cavendish’s gruff persona and thought they could make a getaway and split the booty among them? After all, they had more than 100 times their pay aboard the ship.

If the crew did mutiny and decided to take their chances alone, they would not have followed Cavendish to the Philippines. They may have tried for the fabled Straits of Anian reportedly somewhere near the north end of the Sea of Cortez. Now I personally believe that a galleon would not have been able to sail through a waterway and into Lake Cahuilla, but this is not a normal galleon, in fact it’s kinda small, comparatively speaking. Remember the Santa Ana was 700 ton, while the Content was only 60.

The real question is just how much water would be needed for a fully loaded 60 ton galleon to sail, up a river? I have heard quite a few answers from 10 ft to 20 feet, depending on water kind of water and conditions they were sailing in, choppy water, storm or no storm, high winds, no winds etc. The other thing that keeps nagging at me is just how soft the surrounding cliffs near the waterway would be, and would that cause the ship to get stuck on the inbound route. History tells us that the Colorado River was known for the multitude of sand bars, and how this caused many small draft side wheel river boats to get stuck..

Then again, if you allow yourself to think that this 60 ton galleon made it in, via a tidal bore of course, then it could stand to reason that this is the type of ship that would surely become mired in the soft sands of Lake Cahuilla. And if found, what a grand treasure it would be, could this have been the treasure that Jacobsen located and Carver was able to see… We will have to wait until it is found before we will know….




Similar posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *