Did a Cocktail Change Naval History and the History of England

Published: 08th July 2010
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The Spanish Armada of 1588 is described as the invasion that nearly succeeded - the Army of Flanders almost conquered England. Without Sir Francis Drake and his ships, the history of England would have been changed forever.

In 1586, Sir Francis Drake and his fleet sailed to sack Havana, but then suffered an epidemic and his men were too weak to fight. A medicinal cocktail of aquardiente de cana, mint, lime and sugarcane juice was made and proved effective. The implications of the weakened fleet not having made this cocktail / medicinal remedy are examined.

In 1586 a huge fleet commanded by Sir Francis Drake wreaked havoc and collected quantities of Spanish booty. Before returning to England it planned to raid one more Spanish town, Havana. However there was an epidemic on-board the ships and the men were in no fit condition for any fighting and the fleet went into hiding on the 4th June.

It was known that medicines based on aquardiente de cana could be used for dysentery (Appendix 1) and Richard Drake then made a medicine using aguardiente de cana, mint, limes and sugarcane juice to make it more palatable. In South America, mint is known as hierbabuena, literally, good herb.

Scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency, and would have been cured by drinking lime juice. In the 1700's English sailors were called limeys, because of the use of limes in their rations. It is recorded that this medicinal mix (subsequently called El Draque) was taken during cholera epidemics: On one occasion, during one of the worst epidemics of cholera to attack the population of Havana, the narrator Ramon de Paula describes: "Every day at eleven o'clock, I consume a little Draque made from aquardiente and I am doing very well.

This medicinal mix was then administered using a large wooden spoon with a cocktails handle. The epidemic ceased, the fleet raided (plundered) more one place, St Augustine's watchtower and then returned home.

What would have been the result if this remedy had not worked?

If the epidemic had not been stopped it would have killed many if not most of the men on the ships. One of the sicknesses the cocktail El Draque would have cured was dysentery. During the American Civil War, dysentery killed more Union soldiers than the Confederacy did.

Scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency and would have been cured by the lime juice. Later on limes and a tot of rum were regular rations for the British Navy, which is why sailors were called Limeys.

On a long voyage, scurvy could kill most of ships crew. Magellan, for example, lost eighty percent of the sailors on his Pacific voyage, and survivors described how to chew their rations, they had to keep slicing the swollen tissue of their gums away. Descriptions of scurvy-afflicted explorers are truly horrifying. A translation from French is shown as appendix 2) and was written in 1613

Conclusion: Had the epidemic not been stopped, then it is possible that the fleet would have had to come out of hiding in weakened condition, and would not have been able to successfully plunder the one last place (St Augustines) before the long journey home.

Therefore there are a number of scenarios all of which would have caused the loss of the fleet and the subsequent success of the Spanish Armada 2 years later, and the fall on England to the Spanish.

Appendix 1) The bark of a tree chuchuhuasi is soaked in aguardiente and its properties include anti dysenteric, digestive stimulant, febrifuge (reduces fever) rain-tree.com/chuchuhuasi.htm Please note there are aguardiente is sometimes spelt aquardiente.

Appendix 2) There developed in the mouths of those who had it, large pieces of excess fungus flesh which caused a great rot. Their teeth barely held in place, and could be removed with the fingers without causing pain. Afterward, severe pain developed in the arms and legs, which became swollen and very hard and covered with spots like fleabites. Consequently, they had almost no strength and suffered unbearable pain. They also had severe cramps in the loins, stomach and bowels, together with a very bad cough and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, we could find no remedy with which to cure these symptoms. (Samuel de Champlain, 1613)

From vol.1 of Champlain Society's 1971 ed., of Champlain's 1613 ed., Voyages du Sieur de Champlain. The 17th century French has been transcribed into modern usage.

Addendum: The authentic Drakes cocktail (El Draque) can still be found in London bars near the site of the old Tudor shipbuilding yard by the River Thames. One such bar is aptly named The Sugarcane.

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