“The trouble with super heroes is what to do between phone booths” – Ken Kesey
Ghostly haunting is a diffuse thing, a spirit disembodied lingering about its former stomping grounds. We live in the age in which information is king, thus a “haunting” is simply another intelligence communicating information across eternity, a ghost hunt a spectral word search on the phantasmagoric internet. For most of human history we did not speak of “hauntings” as much as being “haunted by”. There is an inevitability to a haunting, but to be haunted by is the assumption of a responsibility to atone, to avenge, to be an actor in the dialogue between the living and the dead. Perhaps the vapidness of modern ghost hunting results from this cool detachment of the post-modern world. We seek to affirm existence, rather than embrace the notion that one’s ghosts are inseparably personal. The ghost of the father demanding vengeance from the son. The ghost of the lover scorned demanding their emotional due. The ghosts of sins past, returning to remind us that our actions have consequences that echo. The ghosts of innocents demanding to understand why. Call it guilt, or conscience, or the fundamental need for some sort of cosmic absolution for the unforeseen havoc we wrought upon the world as we all too humanely stumble our way towards our ultimate end, but all the “evidence-based skeptics” and theologians, while they can rationalize the “haunting” are bereft of empathy, when faced with the far more common experience of “being haunted by”. The modernist and post-modernist ghost is a creature of theory, easily dismissed as the product of overactive imagination, insanity, or misinterpretation of natural phenomena. The ghost of human consciousness and conscience is far more pernicious, the flotsam and jetsam of our oceans of doubt. The ghost that haunts the seedy hotel in which they met their untimely demise, is a curiosity and nothing more. The ghost that demands a personal accounting puts the lie to our self-serving justifications of the things we do in the name of an abstract ideal, be it queen or country. By some account, a perfect example of this is Sir Francis Drake, England’s hero of the Elizabethan Age, who ran smack dab into the ethereal realm where the justification of one’s actions in the abstracted ether of patriotism and war are measured against the horror of unintended consequences. This shining knight of Tudor England was ultimately bedeviled, haunted by his sins, both of commission and omission. Haunted unto his death, some might say.
England’s Elizabethan Age (1558-1603 A.D.) was a time of relative internal peace and prosperity, nestled between the upheavals of the English Reformation and the English Civil War. By way of contrast, Continental Europe was mostly coming apart at the seams, with invasions of Italy by the French, Germans, and Spanish, and Protestant-Catholic religious strife in France. The English had abandoned claims on the mainland, and finally recognized that they were an island that need only build the most awesome navy to discourage foreign meddling in their affairs. The only thing left to do was fight with the Spanish, who as the story goes were almost as exceedingly displeased with the fact that England was ruled by a non-Catholic as they were that it was ruled by a woman. Consequently, the Spanish and English took pokes at each other in both Europe and the Americas, culminating in the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604, which included the attempted invasion of England in 1588 and the ignominious defeat of the Spanish Armada, considered a brilliant victory for the English in that even though they outnumbered the Spanish in terms of total naval vessels, the Spanish fleet had a great deal more firepower available (estimated at 50% more, translating into the fact that the Spanish had bigger ships with a lot more guns), and the English got to show their serious chops when it came to sailing and burning stuff. This was the time of English privateer Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596), the 2nd man to circumnavigate the globe, daring perpetrator of the raid on Cadiz, celebrated scourge of the Spanish Main (basically, the Spanish New World Empire), second in command of the English fleet when it handed the Spanish Armada its hat, and the living embodiment of the idea that one man’s patriot is another man’s pirate. The Spanish so despised Drake (referring to him as El Draque, the dragon) for his piratical predations that they ultimately decided he ought to be haunted.
While Drake was a hero to his countrymen, the Spanish took a grim view of his attacking their ships, stealing their treasure, burning their villages, and generally wreaking havoc throughout the Spanish New World possessions (although not always successfully – he often had to bury his loot and make a run for it) until his death in 1595, reputedly from dysentery off the coast of Portobelo, Panama. Now, Drake had a fairly successful career punctuated by the occasional disappointment including the Battle of San Juan, Puerto Rico and some lackluster excursions into Panama, but by and large he met his overarching goal of bloodying the Spanish. Interestingly, his final days seem to revolve around burning towns around the Rio de la Hacha, and historians drop occasional hints that there was more to Drake’s death than simple dysentery.
The War with Spain still continuing, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake proposed galling the enemy by a more formidable expedition than had ever been made to the Indies. They proposed to bear the most part of the expense themselves, and that their friends should bear a considerable share in the rest. The queen was pleased with the motion, and furnished them with a stout fleet of twenty-seven ships and barks, and two thousand five hundred men. This expedition succeeded worse than any of the former… On the thirtieth of October, Sir John Hawkins weighed from Dominica, and that evening one of the sternmost of Sir John’s ships fell in with the five fail of Spanish frigates before mentioned, and was taken, the thoughts of which threw Sir John into a fit of sickness, of which, and a broken heart, he died, the twelfth of November, 1595. At this time they were before Porto Rico, where they made a desperate attack, and destroyed many of their Shipping. From thence he proceeded and took the town of Rio de la Hacha, which he burnt all to the ground, except the church and one house. He burnt several other villages along the coast, with the famous town of Nombre de Dios, the Spaniards refusing to ransom any of those places. The twenty-ninth of December Sir Thomas Baskerville marched with seven hundred and fifty men towards Panama, but returned the second of January, without affecting anything. This disappointment threw the admiral into a lingering fever, attended with a flux, of which he died, on the twenty-eighth, though some doubts were entertained, whether bare sickness was the principal cause of his death. Thus died this great man at the age of fifty-one [sic. Actually, 55] (“Britannia Triumphant “, 1777, p57-58).
Now, as a salty Elizabethan privateer, Drake no doubt knew you win some and you lose some, and as long as you come out flush at the end, things would work out okay, but for some reason, his final voyage to harass the Spanish Main took an undue toll on his conscience.
A very strong sense of the errors committed in this expedition, threw Sir Francis Drake into a deep melancholy, and brought on a bloody flux, the natural disease of the country, which put a period to his life, on the 28th January 1596 in the fifty-fifth year of his age. His body was sunk very near the place where he first laid the foundation of his fame and fortune. Such was the end of this great man; his death was lamented by the whole nation, but more especially by those of his native place, who had great reason to love him from the circumstances of his private life (Leith, 1809, p30-31).
Experts seemed to agree that it was as much a deep, dark depression as dysentery that laid Sir Francis Drake low.
Sir Francis Drake, destroyer of many of the “invincible” ships of Spain, came to America with Sir John Hawkins, to subdue the Spanish colonies with the heaviest fleet he ever commanded. Though wrangles between the commanders made this expedition a comparative failure, still wherever the head of a don was seen, a cracking blow was struck at it. War was a crueler business then than it is today, in spite of our high explosives, our armored ships, our mighty guns, and our nimble tactics, and things were done that no captain would dare in these times; at least, no captain with a fear of the world’s rebuke, or that of his own conscience. Just before Christmas, 1594, Drake was scourging the coast of Colombia, burning houses, and shipping and despoiling the towns. The people of one village near Rio de la Hache, having been warned of his coming, buried their little property, closed their houses, put fifty of their children on a fishing smack, while they hurriedly provisioned some boats to carry all the people to a distant cape, where they would remain in hiding until after Drake had destroyed their homes and passed on. The fisherman who owned the smack set sail too soon; he was separated from the others in a gale, and Drake, who then appeared, ran between him and the shore, and with a couple of shots drove him farther into the wild sea. The smack never returned. After the English had passed, the people watched for it, and, truly, on the next day, a boat was seen beating against the gale and trying to make the pier. As it came nearer, the parents saw their children holding out their arms and laughing. Then the outlines of the hull and sail grew dim, the children’s forms drooped as if weary, and in another moment the vision had passed. Long was the grief and loud were the curses on the English. When Drake learned that he had fired on a harmless fishing vessel and driven a company of little ones away from land to be sunk in a tempest, he was filled with compunction and misgiving. The same vision that the parents had seen crossed the path of his own ships. Before every storm the boat of phantoms appeared, and when he sailed for Escudo and Porto Bello it followed him. Wearied with many wars, ill with tropical fever, repentant for this useless killing, he sank into a depression from which nothing could rouse him, and in January he died on his ship, at Nombre de Dios. His remains were consigned to a sailor’s grave-the wide ocean-and as the ship moved on her way, the crew, looking back to the place where the body had gone down, saw the phantom smack rise from the deep, rush like a wind-blown wrack across the spot, and melt into the air as it neared the shore (Skinner, 1900, p46-48).
You need not believe in gods, or angels, or any of the menagerie of divine or infernal critters to be haunted by ghosts. One only needs look at what they have written upon the world in their brief, but invariably destructive existence. Instead, we mythologize our lives, justifying our actions in the name of ideals, philosophies, and in our desire to uphold what we unshakably believe to be the right path, only to find that in our idealism and unbridled confidence, we unintentionally destroyed the world, the dreams, or the lives of others. And then we find ourselves not “haunted”, but “haunted by”. As author Walter Jon Williams once said, “I’m not afraid of werewolves or vampires or haunted hotels, I’m afraid of what real human beings to do other real human beings”.
Britannia Triumphant: Or, An Account of the Sea-fight And Victories of the English Nation, From the Earliest Times, Down to the Conclusion of the Late War ..: To Which Is Prefixed a Large Introduction, Containing the History of Navigation, From the Earliest Accounts to the Present Time; With the Lives of the Most Celebrated Admirals. A new ed. London: Sold by R. James [etc.], 1777.
Lives of the Most Eminent British Naval Heroes: Comprehending Details of Their Achievements, In Various Quarters of the Globe, Forming a Complete Naval History, From the Reign of Henry VII to the Present Time … Leith: A. Allardice, 1809.
Skinner, Charles M. 1852-1907. Myths & Legends of Our New Possessions & Protectorate. Philadelphia &: J.B. Lippincott company, 1900.