Sea Dogs

For other uses, see Sea Dogs (disambiguation) and Seadog.
John Hawkins was a Sea Dog in the 1560s.

The Sea Dogs were a group of sea-raiders authorized by Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Sea Dogs also engaged in slave trade and were also known as Elizabethan Pirates.[1]

The Sea Dogs were essentially a military branch that were authorized by the Queen to attack the Spanish fleet and loot their ships in order to bring back riches and treasure. The Sea Dogs were able to do this because they carried "Letters of Marque"[2] which made their plundering of Spanish ships legal (in their home country) despite the countries not officially being at war with one another. The Sea Dogs were initially started in 1560 as a way to bridge the gap and close the difference between the Spanish Navy and the British Navy. By having a small fleet of ships that would sail around and pick off Spanish ships, risking their lives and own ships in the process, they were able to reduce the funds and size of the Spanish navy significantly. The Sea Dogs continued carrying out raids against the Spanish until 1604 when England and Spain made peace. After that, many of the Sea Dogs continued as pirates employed by the Barbary States, in what would become the Anglo-Turkish piracy or in the Caribbean.[3]

Notable Sea Dogs

Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596)

Sir Francis Drake, El Draque (The Dragon), was one of the most profitable and successful sea dogs of all time.[4] The captain of the Golden Hind, he served in the British Navy from 1563–1596 and achieved the rank of Vice Admiral. Drake was trained early on in the maritime arts by Sir John Hawkins, one of his relatives (cousin) and fellow slave traders. Drake also was the second man in history to circumnavigate the globe; robbing the Spanish fleet the whole time. Drake also had a huge range of coverage, raiding up the Spanish on the Pacific Coast all the way up to modern day San Francisco. Drake was a master pirate. Not only did he commandeer ships but he also would sail into ports in the Caribbean and put ransoms on cities. After doing this he would begin burning the city down until he received payment. Drake was awarded a knighthood in the year of 1581. He later died of dysentery after an unsuccessful attempt to take San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595)

The infamous Sir John Hawkins was born into a wealthy family with a history of going to sea.[5] His father was a very wealthy captain. As he was growing up Hawkins would sail with his father on their trading trips. Hawkins then grew up to become “England’s first slave trader”. However, even though he was called this, Hawkins was not the first person to bring back slaves to England. Hawkins was the captain of the trading vessel "Jesus of Lübeck". His first voyage took place in 1562 when he aggressively took 400 Africans from Guinea with a fleet of three ships and later sold them in the West Indies. Hawkins was only in the slave trade for about five years and made a total of three voyages to Sierra Leone and Guinea but enslaved a total of somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 African people. He would then take the slaves and sail across the Atlantic in order to sell his slaves to the Spanish. Hawkins made so much money from this business that Queen Elizabeth I gave him a special Coat of arms which prominently featured a bound slave.[6]

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)

Sir Walter Raleigh was another important Sea Dog.[7] A favorite of the queen, he received a title that allowed him to claim any land he discovered in the name of England. During an expedition to the New World he founded the colony of Roanoke. This colony however ended up disappearing mysteriously. Raleigh became infatuated with the idea of a “city of gold” in hidden somewhere in South America and set out on an expedition to find it. On his second expedition to find “El Dorado” he ended up in a bit of a predicament after men under his subordinate Lawrence Keymis looted a Spanish Outpost. After this outrage Raleigh went back to England and the Spanish were not very happy with what Raleigh's men did in violation of the extant peace treaties and in order to make things right to the Spaniards, Raleigh was executed in the reign of King James I.[8][9]

Sea Dogs and the downfall of the Spanish Armada

King Phillip II of Spain had a very large and powerful Navy. He even claimed it to be “invincible”. However, after years of picking off and looting by English Sea Dogs he decided he had enough. Phillip took his whole armada of 130 ships into the English Channel and decided to attempt to end English Piracy for good. The Spanish ships were bigger and more heavily armed but the English ships were smaller, faster, and more maneuverable. Also, there was a huge storm that came in while the Spaniards were on their way and the Spanish suffered terrible losses. They ended up retreating after losing more than half of their original ships.[10]


  1. English/British naval history to 1815: a guide to the literature Eugene L. Rasor p.247
  2. Elizabethan Sea Dogs 15601605 Angus Konstam, Angus McBride
  3. United States history to 1877 Nelson Klose, Robert F. Jones p.17
  4. Elizabethan Sea Dogs 1560-1605 Angus Konstam, Angus McBride p.3
  5. Elizabethan Sea Dogs 1560-1605 Angus Konstam, Angus McBride p.3
  6. Sick economies: drama, mercantilism, and disease in Shakespeare's England Jonathan Gil Harris p.152ff
  7. Elizabethan Sea Dogs 1560-1605 Angus Konstam, Angus McBride p.3
  8. Mimesis and Empire: The New World, Islam, and European Identities Barbara Fuchs p.121
  9. Wikipedia page on Sir Walter Raleigh
  10. Pestana, Carla (2004). The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 180. ISBN 978-0674024120.
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