ALMOST a century after Columbus claimed the ``New World'' for Spain, Sir Francis Drake set about plundering the Spanish plunderers. He terrorized the frontier cities of the Spanish Main, which were only feebly defended. He intercepted the burro trains that brought Incan gold across the Isthmus of Panama. Drake even threw in a circumnavigation of the globe after his raids against the Spaniards had taken him up the West Coast of the Americas. These exploits made the English seafarer a mythic figure among his contemporaries - particularly among the victimized subjects of King Philip of Spain. And the myth grew over the centuries. Legends multiplied. Some have kernels of truth;, but other Drakean tidbits were probably yarn-tellers' embellishments.
Chief among the latter was Drake's famous coolness in the face of King Philip's approaching Armada. Engaged in a game of bowls, the admiral was said to have quipped that ``there is plenty of time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too.'' Biographer John Sugden explains that it wasn't until 36 years after the Armada's 1588 advance on England that any evidence for that charming story surfaced in the historical record.
Apocryphal episodes aside, Drake's real life didn't lack for drama. His forays into the Caribbean in the 1570s matched anything Hollywood might have dreamed up for Errol Flynn. The Spaniards were hoodwinked at every turn as Drake did the unexpected, like joining forces with the black ex-slaves, the cimarrones, who lived in the jungles of Central America and held a hatred for Spain that nearly matched Drake's own.
But Drake was more than a dashing privateer who pillaged at the whim of a cautious, yet greedy Queen Elizabeth. Sugden takes pains to explore the motivations behind Drake's exploits against Roman Catholic Spain. He argues that the Englishman's ``profound faith,'' having been raised in a vigorously Protestant family, was ``the mainspring of his tempestuous career.... Those who have portrayed him purely as an avaricious freebooter have underestimated both the religious climate of the day and Drake's own i ntense piety.''
Perhaps that same faith gave him the compassion to treat prisoners with much more kindness than was common in that age. The Spaniards themselves often noted the captain's good manners and restraint. But those manners sometimes failed Drake, as in the 1579 incident when he had a Spaniard dangled over the sea to extract information about hidden gold. Drake could be just as brutal when his own men - notably fellow officers - challenged his authority.
Sugden spends pages detailing Drake's personal life, his acquisition of property near his hometown of Plymouth in the south of England, and his collection of titles and governmental posts. This material can be tedious, but it helps fill in the picture of a man whose life as an Elizabethan notable was often much more routine than legend would have us hope.
Nor was Drake always the clever leader of men. His fight against the Armada was largely a victory of technology - faster, smaller, better designed vessels - rather than a triumph of good strategy. And his last assault against Spain, in 1589, was a complete disaster.
Drake's burst across the screen of history ended in 1595 in the midst of another failed mission - one last sweep through the Spanish Main. The Spaniards were on to him this time, and his verve and physical vigor of 20 years earlier had deserted him.
Sugden's book is more tightly packed chronology than fast-paced narrative. But readers with a taste for history will savor its sympathetic, yet hard-eyed picture of a man who established British supremacy on the seas and thus set the stage for the centuries of empire and conquest ahead.