An hour before he died Sir Francis Drake rose up and armed himself to meet Death (as he said) like a man. But his sad and prudent friends made him behave and lie down again so he died, after 13 days of grievous flux aboard his ship off the coast of Panama.
But not before he had commanded his little Golden Hind around the world, the first man to do that, and not before assisting his sovereign, Elizabeth, to that preeminence of judgment and policy which has earned her the general awe of the world ever since.
And Drake did not die without helping substantially to set the Spanish Empire on its too-long-delayed course of collapse. And he did not die before adding himself to the brief list of immortals from which boys draw their heroes.
In a pluralistic society, in a mixed society of many nations, many wonderful strains of humanity -- and one of my own forebears was a woman of Genoa unexplainably in Bristol, though I was told this 17th-century person was not to be confused with some of the other Italian ladies of that seaport town -- it is hard to speak of Drake without seeming to harbor some unworthy prejudice against the prancing Spaniards or that intolerable ass. Pius V, who excommunicated Elizabeth (much good that it did him) or others of sorry ilk.
But the plain chronicle of the hero sea dog speaks for itself. Though it necessarily offends or shames some.
Now the Library of Congress, itself a magical and heroic place, rightly approached by its Neptune fountains with the horses equipped with dolphin tails and cataracts of foam among their manes, has acquired a major Drake collection as gift of Hans P. Kraus, noted bibliophile and book dealer and publisher.
It's astonishing, library officials said, that such a collection on books, manuscripts, maps, medals, protraits, relating to Drake could be accumulated by one man so late in the 20th century.
They celebrated the acquisition with a lunch honoring Kraus, and librarian Dan Boorstin, in whose mouth butter would not melt, began by saying the library is not in competition with anybody -- if great collections are left to Harvard, say, Boorstin rejoices as if they had come to the Library of Congress. How petty (his implication is) to vie for collections.
So every time a great collection comes to the Library of congress, Boorstin has a lunch, complete with scholars and 10 microphones to record the comments as oral history, and indirectly he points out the Library of Congress is the fitting repository for virtually everything except bad checks.
A catalogue of the collection, itself a masterpiece of sorts, has an introduction co-authored by Lt. Cmdr. David W. Waters, formerly of the maritime museum at Greenwich. He said Kraus asked him to name a fee and then said:
"I'm sorry, I cannot possibly pay you that."
As Waters' heart sank a little, he said, Kraus continued:
"But if you would accept twice that amount, I'd be pleased."
"Hear, hear!" cried a guest, not a scholar nor a bookman, who thought it was the most beautiful sayin he ever heard.
An unusual and touching aspect of the lunch was a series of comments that booksellers (ever when they charge those outrageous prices) contribute enormously to great libraries. Their knowledge, their industry (greed, in the common parlance) lead them to assemble precious documents otherwise lost.
Kraus knew (here's a typical example) of a silver disc struck shortly after Drake sailed around the earth, engraved or stamped with a map of the world and dots showing Drake's route. Eight or nine of these silver maps are known to exist, but most of them are in museums. Kraus knew of one in a private collection in Argentina. He went there, negotiated his heart out and bought it. Later he bought a second one (for more than $30,000) engraved with the name of the maker, Michael Mercator (grandson of the great mapmaker).
I asked Kraus how he got interested in rare books. He was born in Austria (he came to America in 1939 and is an American citizen) and often went with his father, who used to buy antiques, visiting farms. In a barn loft he came across an old atlas and was enchanted. The farmer wouldn't sell it to him:
"That atlas is out of date. Everything in it is wrong. You'd get bad marks in school if you relied on it."
He wouldn't sell it, but he gave it to young Hans.It proved to be a rare Mercator atlas, and Hans sold it for enough to pay for a six-week trip to Italy.
"At this point a rare book dealer was born," he said.
Accompanied by his wife, herself a book nut with an ifallible memory, Kraus said he first became interested in Drake when he read somewhere that one of his trips raiding Spanish gold produced a return of 4,600 percent. t
Sure enough. This was true. Elizabeth paid off all of her foreign debts and kept a fortune from the proceeds of one such expedition.
The collection, not yet on display, is composed of books and objects designed to show Drake as his own age saw him; that is, as a hero and a strong arm against the machinations and trickeries of the depraved Sp--a hero. s
It's hard to remember, in our age when we look back to Elizabeth's reign as a golden age, that it was as confused, as blundering, as bitter as our own; and it's almost impossible to remember the truth, that her reign began in near disaster. The catalogue of the collection includes a contemporary comment:
"The queen poor, the realm exhausted, good captains and soldiers wanting, the people out of order. If God start not forth to the helm, we be at the gretest point of misery that can happen to any people, which is to become thrall to a foreign nation."
From such dumps of near despair Elizabeth raised the kingdom (queendom?) to heights of confidence, new learning, new vigor, new faith, unsurpassed in the history of the English-speaking world. She could not have done this without sea dogs of courage and intelligence ("genius" is the plain word used in the catalogue), and first among them was Drake. Without him and men like Hawkins, say, and other great sailors, England would have been frozen out of the New World, as the Spaniards did their damnedest to accomplish, and there would hardly have been a Jamestown, let alone an American republic. Without Drake, the Invincible Armada (as the English-speaking love to refer to King Philip II's naval expedition against the island) might have indeed proved victorious, and the Dutch might well have lost their nation, to the seemingly overwhelming Spanish power. England except for Drake and Elizabeth might have become a Catholic country, and while that does not seem horrible to some, it did to England.
There was, of course, the small question whether a pirate can be a hero worth a nation's deepest love, but the questin has not arisen since Drake. God was, needles to say, forth at the helm so the day was of course saved, Drake being a major angel of his agency, despite his sturdy Devon frame and temporary absence of lilies and haloes.
He was committed to the sea off Panama in a lead coffin, the Rev. Mr. Bride preaching an admirable sermon on this occasion to all the captains of the fleet. And it is good to have part of him, an immortal part, in the town's main library.