Cavendish was born in 1560 at Trimley St. Martin near Ipswich, Suffolk, England. His father was William Cavendish; he was a descendant of Roger Cavendish, brother to Sir John Cavendish from whom the Dukes of Devonshire and the Dukes of Newcastle derive their family name of Cavendish.
When Cavendish was 12 he inherited a fortune from his deceased father William. After leaving school at age 17, he spent most of the next 8 years or so on luxurious living. At the age of 15 he attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University for two years, but did not take a degree. He was a member of the Parliament for Shaftesbury, Dorset, in 1584. In 1585 he sailed with Sir Richard Grenville to Virginia, gaining much valuable experience but losing money on his investments. He was a member of Parliament for Wilton, 1586.
By July 1586 Spain and England were in a war which would culminate with the Spanish Armada and its threatened invasion of England in 1588. Thomas Cavendish determined to follow Sir Francis Drake by raiding the Spanish ports and ships in the Pacific and circumnavigating the globe. After getting permission for his proposed raids Cavendish built a larger 120 ton sailing ship, with 18 cannons, named the Desire. He was joined by the 60 ton, 10 cannon, ship Content, and the 40 ton ship Hugh Gallant.
Departure and Atlantic crossingEdit
With his three ships and 123 men he set out from Plymouth, England on 21 July 1586 and reached the Strait of Magellan on 6 January 1587.
He anchored first at the island of Santa Magdalena near present day Punta Arenas, Chile. There, in two hours, they killed and salted two barrels-full of penguins for food. After extensive exploration of the many inlets, labyrinths, and intricate channels of the islands and broken lands of Tierra del Fuego and its environs they emerged from the strait into the Pacific on 24 February and sailed up the coast of South America.
Exploring and raiding off the west coast of South AmericaEdit
There on the Pacific coast he sank or captured 9 Spanish ships and looted several towns of quantities of fresh food, supplies and treasure while intentionally sinking the ship Hugh Gallant to use her crew to replace crew members lost on his other ships.
Capturing a Manila galleonEdit
One of the captured Spanish ships' pilots revealed that a Manila galleon was expected in October or November 1587 and usually stopped at Cape San Lucas on the Baja California peninsula before going on to Acapulco. The Manila galleons were restricted by the Spanish Monarch to one or two ships/year and typically carried all the goods accumulated in the Philippines in a year's worth of trading silver, from the Mints in Peru and Mexico, with the Chinese and others, for spices, silk, gold and other expensive goods. In 1587 there were two Manila galleons: the San Francisco and the Santa Ana. Unfortunately both encountered a typhoon on leaving the Philippines and were wrecked on the coast of Japan. Only the Santa Ana was salvageable and after repairs resumed her voyage.
Upon reaching the Gulf of California in October 1587 Cavendish and his two ships put in at an island above Mazatlan where they careened their ships to clean their bottoms and made general repairs. They had to dig wells for water. They sailed for Cape San Lucas on the Baja Peninsula and set up patrols to see if they could spot the Manila galleon. Early on 4 November 1587 one of Cavendish's lookouts spotted the 600 ton galleon manned with over 200 men. After a several hour chase the English ships overhauled the Santa Ana--which conveniently had no cannons on board to allow more cargo. After several hours of battle during which Cavendish used his cannon to fire ball and grape shot into the galleon while the Spanish tried to fight back with small arms, the Santa Ana, now starting to sink, finally struck her colours and surrendered.
Because of the great disparity in size the Content and Desire had to pick and choose what rich cargo they wanted to transfer to their ships from the much larger Santa Ana. One hundred and ninety Spaniards (including Sebastián Vizcaíno (1548–1624), later explorer of the California coast), and Filipino crewmen, were set ashore with food and some weapons in a location where they had water and food available. Cavendish kept with him two Japanese sailors, three boys from Manila, a Portuguese traveler familiar with China and a Spanish pilot (navigator). They loaded all the gold (about 100 troy pounds or 122,000 pesos worth) and then picked through the silks, damasks, musks (used in perfume manufacture), spices, wines, and ship's supplies for what they could carry. Some in Mexico claimed that the total value of the cargo was about 2,000,000 pesos. After setting fire to the Santa Ana, the Desire and Content sailed away on 17 November 1587 to begin their voyage across the Pacific Ocean.
While burning, the Santa Ana drifted onto the coast where the Spanish survivors extinguished the flames, re-floated the ship and limped into Acapulco.
The Content was never heard from again. The Desire tried to avoid conflict for the rest of her voyage.
Crossing the Pacific Ocean and exploring the islands of South-east AsiaEdit
After crossing the Pacific Ocean, Cavendish and the Desire arrived at the island of Guam on 3 January 1588. There he traded iron tools for fresh supplies, water and wood, supplied by the natives. On further landings in the Philippines, Java and other islands he traded some of his captured linen and other goods for fresh supplies, water and wood, and collected information about the Chinese and Japanese coasts. He hoped to use this information to augment existing English knowledge of the area and for a possible second voyage. His crew of about 48 men replaced their worn out clothing and bedding with uniforms made out of silken damask.
Return to EnglandEdit
By 14 May 1588 he reached the coast of Africa and returned home by way of the Cape of Good Hope, stopping at the island of Saint Helena for fresh supplies.
On 9 September 1588 the Desire sailed into the harbor at Plymouth, England. Later she paraded up the River Thames through London, displaying her new sails of blue damask.