Hawkins, John

views updated

John Hawkins

BORN: 1532 • Plymouth, England

DIED: November 12, 1595 • West Indies

English admiral; merchant; slave trader

The first English merchant to participate in the African slave trade, John Hawkins is considered one of the leading seafarers of the 1500s. He led several sea expeditions that challenged Spanish and Portuguese control of the Atlantic Ocean and lands in the Western Hemisphere. His actions helped to bring vast profits to England, but his raids on Spanish ships and territories also contributed to tensions between England and Spain.

Many of Hawkins's actions—bribery, attacks on towns, and raiding enemy ships—caused political trouble for England. But Hawkins was also an effective administrator who improved the English navy. Hawkins built an efficient modern fleet that helped make England a major sea power.

"One fearing God / And loyal to his Queen, / True to the State / by trial ever seen."

—Inscription on the Memorial to Hawkins at St. Dunstan in the East Church.

Pirate or privateer?

John Hawkins was born into a wealthy family in the busy seaport of Plymouth, in southwest England. His mother was Joan Trelawney; his father, William Hawkins, was a successful businessman involved with the sea trade. William was a powerful man who was often in trouble with the law. In 1527, for example, he was charged with beating a Plymouth man almost to death, but he did not receive a harsh punishment. In 1545 he was accused of piracy and sent to prison for a short time. (Piracy is the illegal practice of robbing ships at sea.) William was not afraid to take risks to make money, and in 1530 became the first Englishman to sail from Plymouth to Africa and then across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil to trade various goods. This general route became known as the triangular transatlantic route.

Like his father, John Hawkins could be daring and even violent. When he was only twenty years old, he killed a man in Plymouth. The authorities who investigated the crime decided that he had acted in self-defense.

Hawkins and his older brother, William, worked with their father and learned much from him about seamanship and trade. They also perfected their skills at piracy and privateering. (Privateers are seafarers who own and operate their own ships independently but are authorized by their government to raid the ships of enemy nations, often capturing the entire ship with all its cargo.) Privateers were expected to give the treasure they stole to the government—though privateers often tried to keep as much as they could for themselves. Hawkins considered himself a privateer, but many of his actions came close to being piracy.

When Hawkins's father died, in 1553 or 1554, he and his brothers inherited the business, which continued to thrive. In 1559 Hawkins moved to London. He still spent much time in Plymouth, but he also began to establish a powerful career in London. Around this time Hawkins became a father, but he did not marry until 1567. Though his only son, Richard, was born out of wedlock, Hawkins accepted him as his legitimate child.

In London Hawkins hoped to find financial support for a daring new plan: an expedition to Africa to buy slaves, who would then be sold at a large profit in the Americas. Portuguese and Spanish explorers were already conducting a busy slave trade between Africa and the Americas, and they were stealing gold, silver, and other precious resources from lands in the Western Hemisphere. If England could participate in this trade, it, too, would become an extremely wealthy nation.

European slave traders considered African people nothing more than a cargo that could be bought and sold, like sugar or cloth. In fact, slaves were worth much more than most other types of cargo because they could be put to work on the new plantations that Europeans were building in Brazil and other parts of the Americas. With slave labor these plantations produced products such as sugar and coffee, which were then sold for enormous prices in Europe. Plantation owners needed slave labor in order to build huge fortunes. If they employed paid workers instead of slaves, they could not make such large profits.

First slaving voyage

Hawkins met several influential businessmen in London, and he began to establish connections with those in political power. Among these individuals was Benjamin Gonson, treasurer of the Royal Navy. Gonson helped to persuade a group of London merchants and investors to finance Hawkins's project. In 1562 Hawkins set out on his first slaving voyage.

Most Elizabethan ships were small and crowded, but Hawkins always traveled with chests full of fancy clothes, fine dishes, and other luxuries. He even hired musicians on his voyages to play for his own enjoyment. Though his sailors often endured hardships, Hawkins treated himself to the very best.

Hawkins sailed to West Africa. On the way he captured several Portuguese ships and stole their cargoes of slaves, spices, ivory, and other goods. With three hundred to four hundred slaves, Hawkins then set sail for the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Forced to live in brutally overcrowded conditions, half of the slaves died on this voyage. Despite this loss Hawkins made huge profits from the sale of the surviving slaves. With these profits he bought goods to sell back in England. He acquired so much gold, silver, pearls, sugar, hides, and other merchandise that he did not have enough room for it all on his ships.

Finding two empty Spanish vessels, Hawkins arranged for them to carry the extra goods to Spain. He then took his own ships back to England. But Spanish authorities seized the two ships that had arrived in Spain, claiming that the English had no legal right to trade in the Western Hemisphere. In 1494 the pope had divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal. No other country could trade in the Western Hemisphere without first obtaining permission. But Hawkins had ignored this law. Spain took possession of the ships' cargoes and refused to return them to Hawkins. Even with the loss of these goods, however, Hawkins made an enormous profit from the voyage and immediately began planning a second venture.

Second slaving voyage

Eager to share in the profits that the slave trade could bring, many high-ranking individuals in England agreed to help pay for Hawkins's second voyage. Among them were some of the most influential advisors to Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), including William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry); Lord Admiral Clinton, the Earl of Pembroke; and Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry). Even the queen herself became involved. Although she had said earlier that the buying and selling of African people was a "detestable" action, as quoted in Nick Hazlewood's The Queen's Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls, she now agreed to lend Hawkins one of her own ships, the Jesus of Lubeck. She also granted Hawkins permission to have a coat of arms, a type of honorary badge. At the top of the design was the picture of an African slave, bound with a rope.

Hawkins sailed from Plymouth in 1564, with the young Francis Drake (1540–1596; see entry), a relative, sailing with him. When the ships reached Africa, Hawkins sent raiding parties ashore to capture slaves. Leading a raid himself in December, he was attacked by local fighters and barely made it back to his ship with his men. In all, Hawkins obtained about four hundred slaves to carry across the Atlantic. But the voyage encountered trouble, including several storms and a period without any wind, which prevented the ships from making any progress. The ships almost ran out of food and water.

Reaching the coast of Venezuela in the spring of 1565, Hawkins discovered that the Spanish authorities there had forbidden residents to trade with him. To persuade the residents to cooperate, he sent groups of armed men ashore to pretend to capture certain towns where he wanted to trade. This way the local merchants could buy his goods and then tell Spanish authorities that they had been forced into it. No real fighting occurred, however. This strategy worked well, and Hawkins made even more money on this voyage than he had on his first one.

Third slaving voyage

Back in England after this second voyage, Hawkins began planning a third slaving expedition. But the queen's advisors wanted him to wait. Impatient, he kept his fleet in Plymouth harbor for more than a year. When Spanish ships sailed into this area, Hawkins fired shots at them. In 1567 he set sail for Africa. As before, he raided the coast for slaves and then, after enduring severe storms in the Atlantic, he brought this cargo to the Americas. By bullying and bribing the local authorities, he was able to trade in several ports. But then a severe storm came, forcing him to anchor in the port of San Juan de Ulúa, Mexico. There he hoped to sell his remaining cargo and repair damage to his ships. Only one day later, though, a large fleet of Spanish ships entered the harbor. The Spanish did not believe Hawkins when he told them he had come in peace. Fierce fighting broke out, and the English were almost completely destroyed. Hawkins lost many men and almost all his goods. Only two of his ships survived.

Hawkins had command of one of the remaining ships, the Minion, and Drake commanded the other, the Judith. When the two ships were separated Drake sailed back to England alone. Hawkins later accused Drake of abandoning him, though Drake insisted that he was just following orders. The battered ships, full of wounded men, had been forced to flee the fighting before they had taken on any new supplies. There was almost no food or water. As Hazlewood described it, "Men chewed on cowhides and chased rats and mice. Cats and dogs became delicacies." The men aboard the Minion grew so desperate that they begged Hawkins to set them ashore on a remote part of the Mexican coast. But when he agreed, and asked for volunteers to leave the ship, they changed their minds. So Hawkins ordered them ashore. He abandoned 114 men in Mexico, promising to return for them a year later if he ever made it back to England.

The return journey was filled with horrors. According to an account of the voyage published in Hakluyt's Principal Navigations and quoted by Hazelwood, "Our men being oppressed with famine died continually, and they that were left grew into such weakness that we were scantly able to manage our ships." By the time the Minion reached European waters off the coast of Spain, its men had been without adequate nutrition or fresh water for more than three months. Many suffered from scurvy, a vitamin deficiency. Hawkins and his ship finally returned to England in January 1569. This third voyage was Hawkins's last venture as a slave trader.

Hawkins began working for the release of the men he had left behind, whom the Spanish had captured and sent back to Spain. Because the queen's government did not wish to anger Spain any further by fighting for the release of these hostages, it suggested that Hawkins try to trick the Spanish government into releasing the prisoners. Hawkins befriended King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598; see entry) and offered to become his agent. Philip was fooled. He not only released the prisoners but made Hawkins a grandee, the highest rank for a noble in Spain. He also gave Hawkins a fortune in cash.

Having next gained the trust of the Spanish ambassador, Hawkins was able to obtain secret information about a Spanish plot against Elizabeth in 1571. English Roman Catholics, who were forbidden to practice their religion, hoped to overthrow the queen with Spain's help, and then make the Catholic Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry) queen of England. This plan became known as the Ridolfi plot. Hawkins revealed the plan to the English government, and the English conspirators were arrested.


Elizabethan sailors had no method of storing fresh fruits and vegetables during long sea voyages. Without these important foods in their diets, sailors frequently developed scurvy, a condition caused by Vitamin C deficiency. Symptoms included blackened skin, difficulty in breathing, and diseased gums that caused teeth to fall out. Sailors with scurvy became so tired they could scarcely move, and their flesh and breath smelled so rotten that others could barely stand to be near them. Scurvy was often deadly; indeed, when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) made his famous trip around the world in 1520, more than 80 percent of his crew died of scurvy. Seafarers in the 1500s had no idea what caused scurvy and were helpless to prevent it. It was not until the 1700s that the Scottish doctor James Lind (1716–1794) discovered that scurvy could be prevented by stocking ships with large amounts of lemons and limes. This is because citrus fruits are high in Vitamin C.

Becomes naval treasurer

During the 1570s and 1580s Hawkins busied himself with dealings in London and in Plymouth. In 1571 he was elected to Parliament, England's legislative body, as a representative from Plymouth. He had married Katherine Gonson, whose father was treasurer of the Royal Navy, in 1567. In 1577 Hawkins became royal treasurer after his father-in-law, and in 1589 he became the naval controller, in charge of finances. He made many improvements to the English navy. For example, he invented a method of smearing the part of a ship that was underwater with a thick mixture of tar and horsehair to protect the wood from rotting. He also introduced the chain pump, which helped keep water out of the bottom parts of ships. He ordered older ships to be rebuilt, and he promoted the design of faster and more heavily armed ships. These, it turned out, helped make it possible for the English to defeat the powerful Spanish navy, the Armada, in 1588.

By 1585 Philip II had started planning a naval assault on England. The Spanish fleet, which had about 130 ships and 19,000 infantry soldiers as well as 8,000 seamen, sailed for England in 1588. Spain hoped to overwhelm the English navy, invade the country, and overthrow the queen. The English, with Hawkins third in command, were well prepared. After several battles in the English Channel with no clear winner, the English initiated a major battle on August 7 and 8. They forced the Armada ships to break formation, which gave the smaller and faster English ships room to maneuver effectively and inflict great damage. The Armada tried to escape, sailing north toward Scotland. It encountered a devastating storm that wrecked several ships and drove others off course. Only about 60 of the original 130 ships made it back to Spain. The powerful Armada had been defeated.

In recognition of Hawkins's bravery and leadership during the Armada crisis, Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.) Those who had criticized his decisions during his disastrous third slaving voyage now began to respect him again. He worked hard to oversee repairs that the English fleet needed after the fighting. But as the years passed, the queen began to disapprove of the high costs involved in making naval improvements. She criticized Hawkins for spending too much, and he feared that she would send him to prison. He petitioned to be released from his job as naval treasurer, but the queen refused.

In 1590 Hawkins's wife died. The marriage had been a happy one, and he grieved for her. After a few years Hawkins married Margaret Vaughan, who had been one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, a woman in the queen's household who attends the queen. Around this same time Hawkins organized the construction of a hospital for seamen at Chatham. In 1594 this institution received a royal charter and was named the Hospital of Sir John Hawkins.

Death at sea

Hawkins sailed on his final sea voyage in 1595. Francis Drake had persuaded the queen to approve of an expedition to the Caribbean, where English ships would attack Spanish ports and raid treasure-filled Spanish ships. The queen made Hawkins second in command after Drake. The fleet anchored at Guadeloupe, West Indies, on October 29, and the commanders began considering various plans to attack the Spanish. But Hawkins became seriously ill. He died on November 11, 1595, off the coast of Puerto Rico, and was buried at sea.

A privateer and slave trader, Hawkins nonetheless made significant contributions to English history. He was respected as a daring seaman and fighter who helped England become a leading naval power.

For More Information


Hazlewood, Nick. The Queen's Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls. New York: William Morrow, 2004.

Kelsey, Harry. Sir John Hawkins: Queen Elizabeth's Slave Trader. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2003.


"Admiral Sir John Hawkins." Tudor Place. http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/JohnHawkins.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"The Pirates: Sir John Hawkins." Elizabeth's Pirates. http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/pirates/piratesjhawkins.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Sir John Hawkins." The Encyclopedia of Plymouth History. http://www.plymouthdata.info/PP-Hawkins.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Spain vs. England: The Early History of the Slave Trade." The Middle Passage: Slaves at Sea. http://beatl.barnard.columbia.edu/students/his3487/lembrich/seminar51.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).

About this article

Hawkins, John

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article