If you’ll allow me, I’d like to go a little bit sci-fi here for a moment. I want to create a ‘what-if’ scenario.
Imagine for a moment that Communism never fell. There was no Peristroika, no tearing down of the Berlin Wall, no collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, in our alternate reality, the USSR flourishes. Russia does so well that it takes on America’s star wars challenge (you remember that program when the Americans tried to bankrupt Russia by creating an arms race in space).
Putting weapons in space is so prohibitively expensive that neither country can handle the financial pressures. They are both haemorrhaging money. And that’s the whole idea. The first one to collapse loses. Then Russia makes a discovery. They uncover valuable minerals on the moon. Energy deposits. Perhaps a hydrogen source that can supply their latest powerplants. America realizes that if it’s to survive, they must have access to these minerals. So ships are launched by both countries to the moon, en mass. Inevitably, there is conflict, and soon these ships are armed with weapons. Some of the ships are lightly armed transport vessels, and others are deadly war ships, like nuclear submarines in space.
You can just imagine the scale and intensity of a cold war like this. It’s one of those historical moments that, while it seems horrible and costly, it nevertheless brings about a massive technological shift and shoots us into the next Age. And here’s the thing about this new Age in humanity: it’s an exclusive club. There’s only room for the first, the biggest and the best. And these positions are taken up by two countries, Russia, and America.
Now here’s the next twist in our story. After about a century of conflict with massive wins and losses and huge technological leaps, America loses the war. Despite having a large fleet of space destroyers, the Russians manage to defeat America on the home front. The US is incorporated into Russia and her fleet is annexed. Russia doubles in size and wealth over night.
You might think at this stage that that’s it for international competition. Russia is simply too powerful. There’s nothing any other country can do, and they’re all doomed to fall into a world empire. But how this little story turns out, you’d be wrong in assuming this. England, although it relied perhaps too heavily on the might of the US for its defence, has built up at least a small fleet of space ships. Of course they have nothing to match the colossus of the combined Russia and USA, but that doesn’t stop one brave captain from deciding that he wants a piece of this galactic pie.
So he engages in a private war, funded by private investors in England, against Russia. He takes a small fleet out, sneaks his way to the moon, and attacks Russian bases. He is counter-attacked by the Russians everywhere he goes, and looses almost all of his men and ships. But he returns with a cargo of such wealth, enough to pay for the entire English armed forces for a year, that all the people of England are amazed.
Parliment decides that they must have access to this wealth somehow. They send him out again this time with a government funded fleet to explore the moon and perhaps lay a claim to some of its wealth. So off he goes once more. On his way, he chances upon a Russian transport laden with riches. He sacks it and continues to the moon. But the transport managed to send word back to Russia about the attack and soon the entire Russian space fleet is after him. He races to the moon, desperately trying to evade the fleet, plants a flag for Britain, then dashes off.
The Russian fleet is hot on his tail. There is no way for him to go back to earth the way he came. So what does he do? He flies off into the solar system.
After months of travel, he comes to Mars. The last time a mars mission was attempted, some 60 years earlier by a Russian cosmonaut, only a handful of dying men returned, warning that it should never be done again. It wasn’t just the trip to Mars, but the trip back that killed them. Lack of oxygen, lack of spare parts to repair engines that are put under too much strain, peoples’ nerves shattered by the incredible dangers and long distances… and then there was the war with America on top of that. After years of travel, one Russian craft, out of a party of 5 ships, returned looking like a death ship. And now, 60 years later, this English captain finds himself on the same deadly trail.
Circling around Mars to gain momentum, he fires off into the inky blackness. Another year passes as he floats through space, waiting for the Earth to revolve around the sun until he is aligned with it once more. The closer he gets to Earth, the more dangerous it becomes as he enters Russian territory once more. Yet he manages to evade the enemy and returns to England with only one ship, after spending almost 3 years in space.
This English captain becomes an instant hero.
But if you think the story ends here, you’re wrong. Russia is enraged. They demand that England should pay for the transport that was plundered. They demand the captain’s head. The price for failure: war.
And does parliament concede? No. They ask the captain instead to go on a special mission. They send him out to space where the Russians are massing their fleet for a grand assault. The English captain puts a bomb on one of his ships, fires off in a capsule and launches the massive bomb into their midst with a Russian flag strapped on the side. In one huge explosion, England, which had never been a contender for space, wins star wars. From then on, the underdog England becomes the empire in a solar system where the sun never sets.
And that’s how our little sci-fi story ends.
The reason why I have told this story is because I wanted to put into perspective just how absolutely incredible was Sir Francis Drake, and how unlikely was his contribution to history. The odds of him surviving any one of his missions were astoundingly bad, and yet he returned to sea, year after year and kept bringing back wealth and victory. He gave England a map of the world. He showed them that a small country could pit itself against a juggernaut and win. And ultimately, he defeated this juggernaut so badly that within decades of his own death, it began to collapse.
With Sir Francis Drake, we see the rise of England as a maritime power. And soon this little island would have an empire that encompassed the world. Next, Sir Francis Drake’s World…