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Sir John Hawkins

Admiral Sir John Hawkins (also spelled as Hawkyns) (1532 – 12 November 1595) was an English shipbuilder, naval administrator and commander, merchant, navigator, pirate and slave trader. As treasurer (1577) and controller (1589) of the Royal Navy, he rebuilt older ships and helped design the faster ships that withstood the Spanish Armada in 1588. He later devised the naval blockade to intercept Spanish treasure ships. One of the foremost seamen of 16th-century England, he was the chief architect of the Elizabethan navy. In the battle in which the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Hawkins served as a vice admiral. He was knighted for gallantry.

John Hawkins was born in Plymouth. William, John's father, was a confidant of Henry VIII of England and one of England's principal sea captains, having sailed to the New World ca. 1527. Sir Francis Drake, John's second cousin, helped him in his second voyage.

The first Englishman recorded to have taken slaves from Africa was John Lok, a London trader who, in 1555, brought five slaves from Guinea. A second London trader taking slaves at that time was William Towerson whose fleet sailed into Plymouth following his 1569 voyage to Africa and from Plymouth on his 1557 voyage. Despite the exploits of Lok and Towerson, John Hawkins of Plymouth is often considered to be the pioneer of the British slave trade, because he was the first to run the Triangular trade, making a profit at every stop.

First voyages (1555–1563)

John Hawkins formed a syndicate of wealthy merchants to invest in trade, including that of slaves. In 1555, he set sail with three ships for the Caribbean via Sierra Leone. They hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and traded the 301 slaves in the Caribbean. Despite having two ships seized by the Spanish authorities, he sold the slaves in Santo Domingo and thus demented the profit made by his London investors. His voyage caused the Spanish to ban all English ships from trading in their West Indies colonies .[citation needed]

Second voyages (1564–1565)

In 1564, Queen Elizabeth I partnered with him by renting him the huge old 700-ton ship Jesus of Lubeck, on which he set forth on a more extensive voyage, along with three small ships. Hawkins sailed to Borburata in Venezuelan coast, privateering along the way. By the time he reached Borburata, he had captured around 400 Africans. Diego Ruiz de Vallejo, public accountant, allowed him to trade slaves on the condition he pay only 7.5% of the Almojarifazgo tax. Alonzo Bernaldez, Borburata governor, submitted a report in which it was recorded as a legitimate transaction. After Hawkins routed all Venezuelan ports and Rio de la Hacha yielding advantageous returns, he was awarded a certificate of good behavior. The ample extended certificate is restated as follows:

Hernando de Heredia, Rio de la Hacha public notary and councilman hereby stated: During the course of the first 19 days of May, Sir Juan Haquines, commander of the English fleet stationed in Rio de la Hacha, carried out commercial operations with all residents by trading slaves and goods...

A commercial license was extended to him on 21 May 1565 by honorable sirs Rodrigo Caso, city regular mayor, Hernando Castilla, Miguel de Castellanos, treasurer, Lazaro de Vallejo Alderete, quartermaster, Baltasar de Castellanos and Domingo Felix, aldermen. During the same year, Audience of Santo Domingo initiated investigations leading to know about the irregular activities performed by Rio de la Hacha seniors officials who were involved in a deal with John Hawkins. Castellanos, the treasurer, was accused of having a fraudulent deal regarding to slave trade. It was the third time the English filibuster roamed about the area accomplishing large commercial operations among which the slave trade was significant. This fact was not overlooked by Santo Domingo Audience civil servants in connection to his visits to Venezuelan ports: In the year 65 [...] recorded in 1567 [...] there was such a coaster named Juan de Aquines, Englishman [...] with enough goods and 300 to 400 slaves product of his raids in Guinea territory [...] In the Province of Venezuela quite a few slaves and merchandise were rescued from this Englisman and others such as Frenchmen and Portuguese who were accustomed to this kind of activities... .[1] After Borburata, Hawkins sailed to Rio de la Hacha. The officials tried to prevent Hawkins from selling the slaves by imposing taxes. Captain Hawkins refused to pay the taxes and threatened to burn the towns. After selling his slaves, Captain Hawkins sailed to a French colony in Florida for a respite. Captain Hawkins returned to England in September 1566, his expedition a total success as his financiers made a 60% profit.[citation needed]

Third voyage (1567–1569)

His third voyage began in 1567. Hawkins obtained many more slaves, and also augmented his cargo by capturing the Portuguese slave ship Madre de Deus (Mother of God) and its human cargo. He took about 400 slaves across the Atlantic on the third trip to merchandise in Dominica, Margarita island and Borburata. At San Juan de Ulúa (in modern Vera Cruz) he was chanced upon by a strong Spanish force that was bringing, by a royal edict issued on 16 June 1567 by king Philip II of Spain, an investigative commission consisting of Licenciado Gaspar de Jarava, Licenciado Alonso Muñoz, and Doctor Luis Carrillo to find out about the insistent rumours alleging some sort of move towards Mexican independence from the Spanish Crown by the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico Gaston de Peralta, 3rd Marquis of Falces, and his half-brothers Martin Cortés I "El Mestizo", Martin Cortés y Zúñiga (also known as Martin Cortés II and Martín Cortés, 2nd Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca) and Luis Cortés y Hermosillo. De Jarava and Muñoz were from the Council of the Indies, while Carrillo was an official at the Court. The General Commander of the Fleet was the newly appointed governor of Cuba Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (founder of the City of San Agustin, Florida), assisted by the capable seafarer Sancho Pardo Donlebún, who was later to be a powerful adversary of both Hawkins and Drake.

In the ensuing Battle of San Juan de Ulúa only two of the English ships escaped destruction, and Hawkins' voyage home was a miserable one. That of Hawkins' gunner, Job Hartop was equally so and took many years.

Although his first three voyages were semi-piratical enterprises, Queen Elizabeth I was in need of money and saw pirates as fighting her battles at their own cost and risk.

Hawkins would write about the details of his third voyage in An Alliance to Raid for Slaves. Specifically he comments on how trading and raiding were closely related in the English slave trade, and how European success in the slave trade directly depended on African allies who were willing to cooperate. He also comments on the level of violence he and his men used and encouraged in order to secure his captives. The title makes clear the basis of his methodology.


The arms of Sir John Hawkins

As part of the English government's web of counter-espionage, Hawkins pretended to be part of the Ridolfi plot to betray Queen Elizabeth in 1571. By gaining the confidence of Spain's ambassador to England, he learned the details of the conspiracy, and notified the government so to arrest the plotters. He offered his services to the Spanish, in order to obtain the release of prisoners of war, and to discover plans for the proposed Spanish invasion of England.

His help in foiling the plot was rewarded, and in 1571 Hawkins entered Parliament as MP for UK Parliament constituency. He became Treasurer of the Royal Navy on 1 January 1578, following the death of his predecessor Benjamin Gonson (who was also his father-in-law, Hawkins having married Katherine Gonson in 1567). Hawkins' financial reforms of the Navy upset many who had vested interests, and in 1582 his rival Sir William Wynter accused him of administrative malfeasance, instigating a royal commission on fraud against him. The commission, under William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, Francis Walsingham, and Drake, concluded that there was no undue corruption, and that the Queen's Navy was in first-rate condition.[2]

Hawkins was determined that his navy, as well as having the best fleet of ships in the world, would also have the best quality of seamen, and so petitioned and won a pay increase for sailors, arguing that a smaller number of well-motivated and better-paid men would be more effective than a larger group of uninterested men.

Hawkins made important improvements in ship construction and rigging; he is less well known for his inventiveness as a shipwright, but it was his idea to add to the caulker's work by the finishing touch of sheathing the underside of his ships with a skin of nailed elm planks sealed with a combination of pitch and hair smeared over the bottom timbers, as a protection against the worms which would attack a ship in tropical seas. Hawkins also introduced detachable topmasts that could be hoisted and used in good weather and stowed in heavy seas. Masts were stepped further forward, and sails were cut flatter. His ships were "race-built", being longer and with forecastle and aftcastle (or poop) greatly reduced in size.

The Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada in 1588

John Hawkins' innovative measures made the new English ships fast and highly manoeuvrable. In 1588 they were tested against the Spanish Armada. Hawkins was the Rear Admiral, one of three main commanders of the English fleet against the Armada, alongside Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher. Hawkins’ flagship was Victory. It is possible that Hawkins organised the fire-ship attacks at Calais. For his role in the great sea battle, Hawkins was knighted. After the defeat of the Armada, Hawkins urged the seizure of Philip II's colonial treasure, in order to stop Spain re-arming. In 1589, Hawkins sailed with former apprentice Francis Drake in a massive military operation (the Drake–Norris Expedition) with one of its goals being to try to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet. The voyage failed, but the idea led many other English pirates to make similar attempts.


The Hospital of Sir John Hawkins Knight in Chatham

In 1590 Drake and Hawkins founded a charity for the relief of sick and elderly mariners. This was followed by a hospital in 1592 and another in 1594, the Hospital of Sir John Hawkins, Knight, in Chatham. The charity continues today and the terms of the Elizabethan charter have been broadened. Almshouse accommodation in High Street Chatham on the border with Rochester may be granted by the Governors to a needy or disabled man or woman who has served in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, WRNS, Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service, or who has been employed in the Royal Dockyards in the construction, repair, maintenance or re-fitting of RN vessels; and under the broadening of the charter those who served in the Merchant Navy, the Army, the Royal Air Force or who saw active service in the Reserve Forces may apply. If there is no such applicant the spouses or dependents of those named above may also be considered. Details from The Deputy Governor, The Hospital of Sir John Hawkins, High Street, Chatham, Kent, ME4 4EW.

Potatoes, tobacco and sharks

Potatoes were first imported to Ireland in either 1563 or 1565 (sources differ) by Hawkins.[citation needed]

Some scholars suggest that it was Sir John Hawkins who introduced tobacco into Britain. Some accounts say this was in 1569, others in 1564. The latter is more likely, since he mentions "tobacco" in his journals of the second voyage.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word shark appears to have been introduced by Hawkins' sailors, who brought one back and exhibited it in London in 1569. It has recently been suggested that the derivation is from xoc, the word for "fish" in a Mayan language spoken in Yucatán.[3]


In 1595 he accompanied his second cousin Sir Francis Drake, on a treasure-hunting voyage to the West Indies, involving two unsuccessful attacks on San Juan in Puerto Rico. During the voyage they both fell sick. Hawkins died at sea off Puerto Rico. Drake succumbed to disease, most likely dysentery, on 27 January, and was buried at sea somewhere off the coast of Porto Belo. Hawkins was succeeded by his son Sir Richard Hawkins.

Hawkins came to the public's attention again in June 2006, almost four and a half centuries after his death, when his descendant Andrew Hawkins publicly apologized for his ancestor's actions in the slave trade.[4]


A WW2 ship called 'Sir John Hawkins' featured in the film 'Dunkirk' (1958).[citation needed]


  1. Saignes, Miguel (1967). Vida de los esclavos negros en Venezuela. Hesperides. ISBN 0.  p. 60
  2. Herman, Arthur (2004). To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-340-73419-1.  p.103
  3. Breaking the Maya Code: Revised Edition by Michael D. Coe, 1999
  4. "The Times | UK News, World News and Opinion".,,3-2236871,00.html. Retrieved 2012-11-17. 

External references

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. Encyclopædia Britannica Cambridge University Press 

Further reading

  • Hazlewood, Nick. The Queen's Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls. HarperCollins Books, New York, 2004. ISBN 0-06-621089-5.
  • Walling, R.A.J. A Sea-Dog of Devon: a Life of Sir John Hawkins. 1907.
  • WILLIAMSON, James. Hawkins of Plymouth: a new History of Sir John Hawkins. 1969.
  • DAVIS, Bertram. Proof of Eminence : The Life of Sir John Hawkins. Indiana University Press. 1973
  • UNWIN, Rayner. The Defeat of John Hawkins: A Biography of His Third Slaving Voyage. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1960; New York: Macmillan, 1960.

External links

Preceded by
Benjamin Gonson
Treasurer of the Navy
(jointly with Benjamin Gonson, 1577)
Succeeded by
Fulk Greville

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