First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent school and non-school editions of the book. It appears in chapter VII, “The Tudors and the Awakening of England, 1485-1603”, together with the present title. The sub-titled date was added in I.V., 1919. In addition to I.V. the poem was reprinted in D.V.,1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 37. In ORG Verse I (1969) the poem is numbered 981(k). One change of punctuation was made for the Sussex, with the comma at the end of line 21 being replaced by an exclamation mark.
The poem was accompanied in A School History by one of the more dramatic of Henry Ford’s coloured plates which is also called “With Drake in the Tropics.” At the foot of the plate there is a miniature portrait of Queen Elizabeth around which are elaborately scrolled the first two lines of the poem.
We know that Kipling was keen to have this particular poem illustrated. On 22 September 1910 he wrote to Fletcher: “I see Ford’s point about the piccys. He wants to do what he wants to do and therein I sympathize with him. If he were moved to a sumptuous Drake in the tropics I’d be pleased but let him gang his ain gait [i.e. go his own way].” (Letters III, p. 450). It sounds from this as though Kipling had put forward certain suggestions about the illustrations – presumably via Fletcher - with which Ford didn’t agree. Whether or not, Kipling is certainly making clear that he would like one of the illustrations to glamorise Drake, and Ford took up the hint enthusiastically, his “Drake in the Topics” being appropriately “sumptuous.”
In a footnote to this letter, Thomas Pinney draws attention to a much earlier letter of Kipling’s, dated 10- December 1893 (Letters II, p.115), to show his long interest in Drake. Kipling had recently published “The Song of the English” in one section of which “The Song of the Dead,” Drake makes an appearance. The poem was reprinted in The Seven Seas (1896). Kipling’s continuing interest in Drake is further demonstrated by the short story “Simple Simon” and its accompanying poem “Frankie’s Trade” in Rewards and Fairies (1910).
These various items reveal clearly enough why it was that Kipling admired Drake so much. He was a self-made man, daring and adventurous, staunchly English, and, a pioneering imperialist, opening up and introducing to his fellow countrymen hitherto unknown or neglected areas of the world, much as Kipling prided himself on doing.
In A School History, p. 133, leading up to the poem, Fletcher provides a brief summary of Drake’s voyage. The tone of the passage is obviously geared to the book’s youthful readers, though at the same time the information given about Drake’s voyage serves as a necessary complement – for readers of whatever age - to Kipling’s impressionistic poem. Fletcher’s approach also manages to convey, with a fitting lightness of touch, the extraordinary mix of scientific and naval curiosity, nationalistic pride, imperial adventure, and piratical plunder that characterised the expedition:
You can imagine some simple English sailor lad, who had perhaps never done more than a few coasting voyages from one little port of Devon to another, opening his eyes to the wonders of the Tropics as he sails in Francis Drake’s great voyage in The Golden Hind, across the Atlantic, across the Equator, south and ever south till the Strait of Magellan opens the door into the Pacific; then north again, picking up here and there some rich Spanish merchant-ship as a prize; then across through innumerable spice islands to the Indian Ocean, and so round the Cape of Good Hope and home.