The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan


Hawkins            One economy measure which the government has not attempted in the current economic crisis has been to rent out the Royal Navy to private shipping firms.  Most people would see this as a betrayal of a great tradition, yet this is just what the Tudor monarchs did, and they founded the Navy.  Ships were often built as dual purpose warships and merchant vessels, so that they could be rented out in time of peace,

It was often more than a simple rental.  Naval vessels were frequently let out on ‘contract leases’, in which the navy provided the ship in return for a share in the profits of the voyage.  One particular English trade which relied heavily on such contract leases was the slave trade.  Queen Elizabeth had qualms about this, describing slaving as a thing ‘which would be detestable and call down the vengeance of heaven upon the undertakers’. However she accepted the assurances of John Hawkins, the promoter of all the Elizabethan slaving voyages, that he would not take any slaves against their will.

John Hawkins was not a self-made man, like his cousin Francis Drake.  His father, William, was the mayor of Plymouth and father and son had already traded in West Africa for gold pepper and ivory.  This was illegal from the point of view of the Portuguese who had ‘discovered’ West Africa and opened it up to their trade.  They had come to Africa in search of gold and found slaves an even more profitable cargo.  The first slaves were landed in the Algarve in 1444 and they were later transported to the sugar plantations in the Atlantic islands.  When the West Indies and Central America were colonised by the Spanish they quickly became the main market for slaves.

The Spanish allowed the Portuguese a monopoly on trade with Africa in return for recognising the Spanish monopoly on trade with America.  This meant that slaves loaded in Africa were transported to Spain to be re-loaded on ships for America licensed by the Spanish authorities. This was expensive and slaves were a perishable commodity.

Hawkins saw that there was money to be made trafficking slaves directly from Africa to America and decided to put this into practice in 1562.  This first voyage was a purely private affair and returned a handsome profit, handling about 400 slaves.

Hawkins was remarkably coy about how he obtained his slaves, saying only that he had them ‘partly by the sword and partly by other means’.  According to the Portuguese he captured five or six of their ships laden with slaves and took them across the Atlantic,  Given the small size of the English crews the ‘captured’ ships must have been sailed by their own men.  It is probable that Hawkins met up with the Portuguese traders, maybe by arrangement, purchased their cargoes with trade goods from England and together they  delivered the slaves to Hispaniola.  By claiming they had been captured the Portuguese excused themselves from breaking the embargo on trade with America.

While in Hispaniola Hawkins purchased a licence from the Governor to trade in the island.  It seems that he hoped to open up America to legitimate English trade, which would have been advantageous to the Spanish colonists.  The authorities in Spain were not ready to tolerate this, however, and Hawkins’ second voyage (1564-6) met with a more mixed reception along the coasts of Venezuela and Columbia.  His usual sales technique was to put on a show of force, enough to give the colonists the excuse that they were trading under duress, and then to set up market. Occasionally he met with real resistance, in which case he moved on.

By and large Hawkins kept to his promise not to take Africans against their will, though this not entirely by choice.  His two attempts to catch his own  slaves resulted in more casualties than captives.  On another occasion he loaned his men and guns to an African king to help him subdue a neighbouring kingdom, on condition that the English kept the prisoners.  The king cheated on the deal.

The only reliable way to obtain slaves was from the Portuguese, either by trade or force.  Of course the slaves were not consulted on the matter, but the English could claim that since they were already enslaved they were not taken against their will, as they no longer had a will of their own.

This was the voyage in which the Royal Navy first became involved.  The Queen rented out the largest ship in her fleet, the Jesus of Lubeck (700 tons).  It was also the oldest ship in the fleet, purchased in 1545 by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, from the Hansa merchants of the Baltic, hence the unusual name for an English warship.  Hawkins blamed most of his later misfortunes on the poor state of the vessel, saying that her seams gaped so that there were live fish in the ballast.  The high fighting castles fore and aft made her difficult to handle in bad weather and Hawkins cut them away in a storm in the Bay of Biscay.

Nevertheless Hawkins rented the Jesus again for his third voyage (1567-9), together with a smaller naval ship, the Minion (300 tons) and three private vessels.  This was a high profile fleet for what was essentially a smuggling expedition.  Hawkins had not lost hope that the Spanish might relax their monopoly.  This was the enterprise Hawkins described, with heroic understatement, as his ‘troublesome, sorrowful voyage’.

It began well enough, trading profitably along the north coast of South America, although Hawkins still had 50-70 slaves aboard when he decided to head for home through the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Channel.  Bad weather forced the fleet to take shelter at San Juan D’Ulloa, the outport of Vera Cruz, the point of entry to New Spain, as Mexico was then known.  Unfortunately for Hawkins a large Spanish fleet arrived the next day, bringing the new Viceroy, Don Martin Enriquez de Mendoza.

Hawkins occupied the island at the mouth of the harbour to force the Spanish to trade with him to refit and reprovision his ships.  Mendoza was anxious to mark his mark as Viceroy and not be humiliated in his first week.  For three days he parlayed with the English and then launched a surprise attack.

The battle was hard fought. The Jesus was captured by the Spaniards, only to be retaken by the Minion.  Several Spanish ships were sunk but eventually only two English ships escaped.  One was the little Judith, captained by Francis Drake.  Hawkins accused him of cowardice, but Drake preferred to fight another day.  The  other was the Minion, crowded with its own crew and the survivors of the Jesus, including Hawkins himself.  The Jesus  had finally been smashed to pieces  by the guns which the English had mounted on the island and which had been seized by the Spaniards.

The Minion could never hope to cross the Atlantic with so many people aboard. After trying to land them in Florida, Hawkins marooned about 200 men on the coast of present day Mexico, between the Panuco  and Rio Grande rivers, beyond the territory settled by the Spanish.

My book Freedom’s Pilgrim tells the story of one of these men, or rather a 14 year old boy, Miles Philips,, who was later captured by the Spanish, tried and condemned by the Inquisition and then escaped to reach England 17 years later.  Four of his shipmates had a quicker but even more remarkable journey home.  They crossed the Rio Grande, walked across the present-day United States to Canada and took a lift to Europe on a French ship.

The Minion had an horrific crossing of the Atlantic, with many of the crew dying of starvation.  Remarkably the unsold slaves were still aboard and had not been stranded in the Gulf of Mexico.  In my novel the slaves had seized the ship and hoped to sail her back to Africa.  In the event the ship had no choice but to land where she could, which was Pontevedre, near Vigo in Spain.  Surprisingly the English were well received and the only casualties were from over-feeding, after prolonged privation.  Many of the crew refused to sail further with Hawkins, but with the help of sailors recruited from other English ships and a rescue expedition from Plymouth sent by his brother, the Minion reached England in February 1569.

San Juan D’Ulloa marked the beginning of the long enmity with Spain which drifted into open war  and to Spain’s attempt to crush England with the Armada.  During the Armada campaign Hawkins was knighted on deck by the Lord High Admiral.  He deserved it for his service as Treasurer of the Navy, which he had re-equipped with a radically new type of warship (memories of the Jesus?).  However, he did not forget his origins.  On his coat-of-arms was featured ‘a demi Moor in his proper colour bound in a cord as captive’.


Sources:  The principal secondary source for the life of John Hawkins is Harry Kelsey’s biography  Sir John Hawkins; Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader published in 2003 by Yale University Press.  The main primary source I have used is Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation first published in 1589 and republished in three volumes in 1600.

I have published two other background pieces to Freedom’s Pilgrim on this blog, one on the chronicler Richard Hakluyt, entitled England’s Homer, and the other on the Inquisition in the New World entitled Auto de Fe.

FreedomsPilgrim-AMAZON My next background piece will be about the long walk which four of the San Juan survivors made from Mexico to Canada, the first Europeans to cross the present day USA.









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