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Sir John Hawkins

Sir John Hawkins

The career of the English naval commander Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595) touched all aspects of the Elizabethan maritime world from the illegal and inglorious to the patriotic and profitable. His skills helped to ensure the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The second son of William Hawkins, a wealthy West Country merchant trader, John Hawkins was born at Plymouth. As a youth, he made a number of voyages to the Spanish-held Canary Islands, where he first learned of the profits to be made from selling African slaves in Spain's American colonies. In 1559 he married Katharine Gonson, the daughter of the treasurer of Queen Elizabeth I's navy. Gonson and his friends helped supply Hawkins with three ships for his first slaving voyage, in 1562.

Ignoring Portugal's nominal control over Africa, Hawkins captured several hundred people into slavery. Sailing to Cuba, he exchanged his live cargo for enough "hides, ginger, sugar, and pearls" to fill his original fleet and two more ships. By September 1563 he and three of his vessels were safely back in England; the others had been sent to Spain.

English trading rights with Spain and its possessions had been secured by treaties in the reign of Henry VII. The Spanish maintained that their American colonies were not included in these agreements and virtually prohibited foreign trade with the New World. Since Hawkins had failed to obtain a proper license, his ships which reached Spain were seized, and their rich cargoes confiscated.

Although Hawkins's efforts to regain his goods proved futile, his profits were enormous. Courtiers and nobles joined merchants and naval officials in backing a new expedition in 1564, and Elizabeth loaned Hawkins a ship, the Jesus of Lubeck. After some fighting against Africans, the slave-laden fleet made a slow passage to the Venezuelan coast. There the English found that the Spanish government, alarmed by Hawkins's earlier activities, had forbidden the colonists to trade with foreigners. To persuade them to break the law, Hawkins landed armed parties which (without actually fighting anyone) "captured" towns long enough to set up a brisk trade and to provide alibis for nervous local authorities. The profits of this voyage far exceeded those of the first, and a third expedition seemed inevitable.

Moderates on the Privy Council blocked the intended voyage for a year, during which time Hawkins's fleet, anchored in Plymouth harbor, fired on several Spanish ships which had attempted to approach too closely. By October 1567, while the Spaniards were still protesting this incident, Hawkins sailed for the west coast of Africa. With him again was the Queen's Jesus and, among some smaller ships, the Judith, commanded by his relative Francis Drake.

At first all went as before. Portuguese and Africans alike were unable to resist the English, and the Spaniards in the New World were readily coerced into illicit trade. Then, in September 1568, pleading the effects of a storm on his flotilla, Hawkins put into the Mexican port of San Juan de Ulla (Veracruz), where he hoped to sell his remaining cargo while refitting. A day later a well-armed Spanish fleet anchored in the harbor. Despite pledges of good faith, fighting broke out, and the English had the worst of it. Hawkins was forced to abandon most of his companions, goods, and ships and, after an agonizing passage, reached England in January 1569.

Forbidden to attempt the forcible release of his friends, Hawkins pretended to join the service of the King of Spain. With the approval of the Privy Council he so deceived Philip II that the King released the captives, made Hawkins a grandee, and sent him £40, 000; the voyage had finally shown a profit.

During the 1570s and 1580s Hawkins left the sea. He became member of Parliament for Plymouth, survived an attempted assassination, and succeeded his late father-in-law as treasurer and then as comptroller of the navy. Hawkins prospered in his new posts; while his ethics were certainly questionable, he made many improvements in naval construction.

When war came with Spain in 1587-1588, the English ships designed and fitted by Hawkins proved far superior to those of the enemy. As commander of the Victory (built to his specifications) and rear admiral of the fleet, Hawkins was knighted for his part in the English victory. Paradoxically, Spain's navy improved after its defeat, and Hawkins's first post-Armada venture in company with Martin Frobisher was a dismal failure.

By August 1595 Hawkins was at sea once more; as second-in-command to Drake, he went again to the West Indies on what was to prove an English disaster. Hawkins, however, died before the voyage was well under way and was buried at sea off Puerto Rico on Nov. 12, 1595. Hawkins willed a large sum of money to Elizabeth, but his most valuable legacy was to the nation as a whole: the eminently seaworthy ships he had designed and built.

Further Reading

Hawkins's A True Declaration of the Troublesome Voyage of M. John Haukins (1569) provides autobiographical information. James A. Williamson wrote two excellent biographies of Hawkins, Sir John Hawkins: The Time and the Man (1927) and Hawkins of Plymouth (1949). The achievements of the Hawkins family are dealt with in Sir Clements R. Markham, ed., The Hawkins' Voyages during the Reigns of Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, and James I (1878). Hawkins's role in the building of the British navy is discussed in James A. Williamson, Age of Drake (1938; 4th ed. 1960).

Additional Sources

Andrews, Kenneth R., The last voyage of Drake & Hawkins, Cambridge Eng. Published for the Hakluyt Society, at the University Press, 1972.

Williamson, James Alexander, Hawkins of Plymouth: a new history of Sir John Hawkins and of the other members of his family prominent in Tudor England, London: Black, 1969.

Williamson, James Alexander, Sir John Hawkins; the time and the man, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. □

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Hawkins, Sir John

Sir John Hawkins, 1532–95, English admiral. In 1562–63 and in 1564–65 he led extremely profitable expeditions that captured slaves on the W African coast, shipped them across the Atlantic, and sold them, despite Spanish prohibition, in Spanish ports in the West Indies. Hawkins set out on a similar expedition in 1567, but he fell afoul of a Spanish squadron in San Juan de Ulúa, the port of Veracruz, and barely escaped with three of his boats, one of which was commanded by his kinsman Francis Drake. Probably acting as an agent for Lord Burghley, Hawkins pretended to betray Queen Elizabeth I in offering (1571) his services to the Spanish, in order to obtain the release of prisoners and to discover plans for the proposed Spanish invasion of England. In 1571 he entered Parliament and subsequently became treasurer and comptroller of the navy. In this capacity he made a number of important improvements in ship construction and rigging. His enemies charged him with using his office to his personal financial advantage, but he was exonerated after an inquiry by a royal commission. In the great defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), Hawkins commanded the Victory and was knighted for his services. In 1595 he set out on a new expedition to the West Indies under Drake but died and was buried at sea off Puerto Rico.

See biography by J. A. Williamson (2d. ed. 1969); K. R. Andrews, ed., The Last Voyage of Drake and Hawkins (1972).

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Hawkins, Sir John

Hawkins, Sir John (1532–95). Hawkins began his career as an overseas navigator and trader as an ally of the Spanish, to whose West Indies and South American colonies he carried west African slaves in expeditions between 1562 and 1569. Drake was with him when relations with Spain became hostile on the last expedition. He was subsequently an MP and comptroller of the Navy, which he significantly developed. Further active commands followed—against the Armada, on an expedition to Portugal in the following year, and the disastrous association with Drake on the West Indies anti-Spanish expedition of 1595, when he died off Puerto Rico. Although as originator of England's long involvement in the slave trade his reputation must be to some degree dubious, Hawkins was one of the most important of the men who brought about the close involvement of the English state with overseas activity.

Roy C. Bridges

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"Hawkins, Sir John." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Hawkins, Sir John

Hawkins, Sir John (1532–95) English naval commander. With the support of Queen Elizabeth I, he led two lucrative expeditions to Africa and the West Indies (1562–63, 1564–65), but on his third expedition (1567–69) the Spanish destroyed most of his ships. He played an important role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

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