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Sir John Hawkins, Seaman and Administrator.


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This famous sea-captain was the grandson of John Hawkins of Tavistock, who was a merchant in the service of Henry VIII. John was born at Plymouth in the year 1520, and drank in the love of the salt seas from his earliest years. His father, William Hawkins, was known to be one of the most experienced sea-captains in the west of England: he had fitted out a "tall and goodly ship," the Paul of Plymouth, and made in her three voyages to Brazil and to Guinea. He treated the savage people so well that they became very friendly, and in 1531 he brought one of their chiefs to England, leaving a Plymouth man behind as hostage. This chief was presented to King Henry and became the lion of society. On his way home to Brazil he died of sea-sickness; but Hakluyt tells us that the savages, being fully persuaded of the honest dealing of William Hawkins with their king, believed his report and restored the hostage, without harm to any of his company.

William Hawkins married Joan Trelawny and had two sons, John and William, both of whom made their way as seamen and merchants.

John made some voyages to the Canary Islands when quite a youth, and with his quick eye for gain soon learnt that negroes might be cheaply gotten in Guinea and profitably sold in Hispaniola. John Hawkins was not the first to make and sell slaves, but he was the first Englishman to take part in this cruel and inhuman barter. The Spaniards and Portuguese had used slaves, both Moors and negroes, and Hawkins no doubt had seen plenty of cases of slave-holding along the west coast of Africa, where savage warfare was carried on between native tribes, and such of the conquered as were not eaten were retained as slaves. He may have thought therefore that he was only carrying them to a less barbarous captivity; and we should remember that slavery was defended even by some religious people until quite recent times: but we must deplore the fact that this daring sea-dog, who certainly was not without religious feelings, found in this traffic a source of gain.

No doubt John, on his return to England, discussed the matter openly with men of influence, for in October 1562, being now more than forty years old, he led an expedition of a hundred men in three ships, the Solomon of 120 tons, the Swallow of 100 tons, and the Jones of 40 tons burden, and sailed direct for the coast of Sierra Leone, in West Africa, just north of Guinea. Hakluyt draws a veil over the exact methods by which John Hawkins got possessed of 300 fine negroes, besides other merchandise; but he probably took sides in some local quarrel and carried off his share of the prisoners. These poor wretches were carried across the Atlantic in the stuffy holds of small ships, and landed at San Domingo, one of the largest of the Spanish islands in the West Indies.

John made due apologies for entering the Spanish port: they could see he was really in want of food and water. The Spaniards too were polite, and as they peeped into his hold they saw the very thing they wanted - negroes. A bargain was quickly made, and John Hawkins took off in return for his captives quite a goodly store of pearls, hides, sugar, and other innocent materials.

Hawkins himself arrived safely in England with his three ships, but his partner, Thomas Hampton, who took what was left over in two Spanish ships to Cadiz, did not fare so well. For when it became known at Cadiz that English merchants had been trading with Spain's colonies, Philip II. confiscated the cargo, and Hampton narrowly escaped the prisons of the Inquisition. Queen Elizabeth was warned by her ambassador at Madrid that further voyages of this nature might lead to war.

For it seems that Philip had been an admirer of the Maiden Queen, and had been rebuffed as a suitor; whereby his love had changed to hate, and he lost no opportunity of showing his resentment.

But Queen Bess had her father's spirit in her, and answered the Spanish threat by permitting one of her largest ships, the Jesus of Lubeck, to be chartered for a new voyage. The Earls of Leicester and Pembroke joined in raising money for the expedition - this time it was a Court affair; there sailed a hundred and seventy men in five vessels, and they were to meet another Queen's ship, the Minion, before they got out of the Channel.

Again Hawkins raided the West African coast, "going every day on shore to take the inhabitants, with burning and spoiling of their towns."

It is strange how men engaged in such ruthless work could yet believe that they were specially preserved by Providence. For on New Year's Day 1565 they were well-nigh surprised by natives as they were seeking water. But a pious seaman wrote thus in his journal: « God, who worketh all things for the best, would not have it so, and by Him we escaped without danger - His name be praised for it!" Then they set sail for the West Indies with a goodly cargo of miserable slaves; but for eighteen days they were becalmed – "as idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean." "And this happened to us very ill, being but reasonably watered for so great a company of negroes and ourselves. This pinched us all: and, that which was worst, put us in such fear that many never thought to have reached the Indies without great dearth of negroes and of themselves; but the Almighty God, which never suffereth His elect to perish, sent us the ordinary breeze."

Let us hope that they felt some pity for the poor negroes too, who must have suffered agonies of thirst on that hideous journey.

But King Philip had ordered his Christian subjects to have no dealings with heretics; and for some time they could sell no negroes in Dominica.

But some heathen Indians presented cakes of maize, hens, and potatoes, which the English crews bought for beads, pewter whistles, knives, and other trifles. "These potatoes be the most delicate roots that may be eaten, and do far exceed our parsnips and carrots."

We need to remind ourselves occasionally of some of the luxuries which our ancestors never knew till these old sea-dogs brought them home - tobacco and potatoes! and later on, tea and coffee! It is difficult to imagine what the want of such things would mean to us now.

But not all the Indians were so kind as these they first met; for on the American mainland they fell in with a tribe whom the devilries of Spain had turned to "ferocious bloodsuckers," and whom they only narrowly avoided. Hawkins, according to his instructions from the Queen's Council, kept away from the larger dependencies and islands, and tried to sell his cargo in out-of-the-way places which Philip's orders might not have reached. At Barbarotta he was refused permission to trade. But Hawkins sent in a message: "I have with me one of Queen Elizabeth's own ships. I need refreshment and without it I cannot depart; if you do not allow me to have my way, I shall have to displease you."

Thereat he ran out a few of his guns to mark the form which his displeasure might assume: the Spaniards improved in politeness. At Curacoa they feasted on roast lamb to their heart's content: near Darien they again had to use threats of violence in order to get licence to trade; but the price offered by the Spaniards for the negroes so disgusted the equitable mind of John Hawkins that he wrote the Governor a letter saying that they dealt too rigorously with him, to go about to cut his throat in the price of his commodities . . . but seeing they had sent him this to his supper, he would in the morning bring them as good a breakfast.

When that breakfast was served - and served hot - it proved to be garnished with a handsome volley of ordnance, with ships' boats landing at full speed a hundred armed Englishmen: the Spaniards fled.

"After that we made our traffic full quietly, and- sold all our negroes." Hawkins then sailed for Hispaniola, but being misled by his pilot he found himself at Jamaica and then at Cuba, and so along the coast of Florida, meeting many Indians whenever they landed who were of so fierce a character that of five hundred Spaniards who had recently set foot in the country only a very few returned; and a certain friar who essayed to preach to them "was by them taken and his skin cruelly pulled over his ears and his flesh eaten." "These Indians as they fight will clasp a tree in their arms and yet shoot their arrows: this is their way of taking cover."

In coasting along Florida they found a Huguenot colony that had been founded there at the advice of Admiral Coligny. They had been reduced by fighting the Indians from two hundred to forty, and were glad to accept a passage home in the Tiger. On the 28th of July the English ships started for home, but, owing to contrary winds, their provisions fell so short they « were in despair of ever coming home, had not God of His goodness better provided for us than our deserving." On the 20th September they landed at Padstow in Cornwall, having lost twenty persons in all the voyage, and with great profit in gold, silver, pearls, "and other jewels great store." The Queen was delighted with the bold way in which Hawkins had traded in defiance of the Spanish king, and by patent she conferred on him a crest and coat of arms.

The Spanish ambassador at once wrote off to his master, saying he had met Hawkins in the Queen's palace, who gave him a full account of his trading with full permission of the governors of towns (he did not say by what means he had obtained such licence); "The vast profit made by the voyage has excited other merchants to undertake similar expeditions. Hawkins himself is going out again next May, and the thing needs immediate attention." The result of this letter was that Hawkins was strictly forbidden by Sir William Cecil from "repairing armed, for the purpose of traffic, to places privileged by the King of Spain." So the ships went, but Hawkins stayed at home; his ships returned next summer laden with gold and silver. The crews did not publish any account of how they had obtained their cargoes, and as the Queen had recently been assisting the Netherlands in their struggle for liberty against Spain, she made no indiscreet inquiries, and proceeded to lend the Jesus of Lubeck and the Minion for another expedition. One of the volunteers was young Francis Drake, now twenty-two years of age, whom Hawkins made captain of one of his six vessels.

As they left Plymouth they fell in with a Spanish galley en route for Cadiz with a cargo of prisoners from the Netherlands. Hawkins fired upon the Spanish- flag, and in the confusion many of the captives escaped to the Jesus, whence they were sent back to Holland.

The Spanish ambassador wrote strongly to the Queen, and the Queen wrote strongly to Hawkins; but Hawkins had sailed away and was encountering storms off Cape Finisterre, so that he had a mind to return for repairs. But the weather moderating he went on to the Canaries and Cape Verde. Here he landed 150 men in search of negroes, but eight of his men died of lockjaw from being shot by poisoned arrows. "I myself," writes Hawkins, "had one of the greatest wounds, yet, thanks be to God, escaped."

In Sierra Leone they joined a negro king in his war against his enemies, attacked a strongly paled fort, and put the natives to flight. "We took 250 persons, men, women, and children, and our friend the king took 600 prisoners," which by agreement were to go to the English, but the wily negro decamped with them in the night, and Hawkins had to be content with his own few. They were at sea from February 3rd until March 27th, when they sighted Dominica, but found it difficult to trade, until after a show of force the Spaniards gave in and eagerly bought the slaves. At Vera Cruz the inhabitants mistook our ships for the Spanish fleet. There is a rocky island at the mouth of the harbour which Hawkins seized. The next morning the Spanish fleet arrived in reality, but Hawkins would not admit them until they had promised him security for his ships. Now there was no good anchorage outside, and if the north wind blew "there had been present shipwreck of all the fleet, in value of our money some 1,800,000 pounds." So he let them in under conditions, for even Hawkins thought that he ought not to risk incurring his Queen's indignation. On Thursday Hawkins had entered the port, on Friday he saw the Spanish fleet, and on Monday at night the Spaniards entered the port with salutes, after swearing by King and Crown that Hawkins might barter and go in peace.

For two days both sides laboured, placing the English ships apart from the Spanish, with mutual amity and kindness. But Hawkins began to notice suspicious changes in guns and men, and sent to the Viceroy to ask what it meant. The answer was a trumpet-blast and a sudden attack. Meanwhile a Spaniard sitting at table with Hawkins had a dagger in his sleeve, but was disarmed before he could use it. The Spaniards landed on the island and slew all our men without mercy. The Jesus of Lubeck had five shots through her mainmast, the Angel and Swallow were sunk, and the Jesus was so battered that she served only to lie beside the Minion, and take all the battery from the land guns.

Hawkins cheered his soldiers and gunners, called his page to serve him a cup of beer, whereat he stood up and drank to their good luck. He had no sooner set down the silver cup than a demi-culverin shot struck it away. "Fear nothing," shouted Hawkins, "for God, who hath preserved me from this shot, will also deliver us from these traitors and villains."

Francis Drake was bidden to come in with the Judith, a barque of 50 tons, and take in men from the sinking ships: at night the English in the Minion and Judith sailed out and anchored under the island. The English taken by the Spaniards received no mercy. "They took our men and hung them up by the arms upon high posts until the blood burst out of their fingers' ends."

The Judith under Drake sailed for England and reached Plymouth in January 1569; the Minion, with 200 men, suffered hunger and had to eat rats and mice and dogs. One hundred men elected to be landed and left behind to the mercies of Indians and Spaniards. "When we were landed," said a survivor, "Master Hawkins came unto us, where friendly embracing every one of us, he was greatly grieved that he was forced to leave us behind him. He counselled us to serve God and to love one another; and thus courteously he gave us a sorrowful farewell and promised, if God sent him safe home, he would do what he could that so many of us as lived should by some means be brought into England - and so he did." Thus writes Job Hartop. So we see that John Hawkins, the slave-dealer, sincerely tried after his fashion to serve God as well as his Queen. His men loved him and spoke well of him when he failed; a good test of a man's worth when men will speak well of you though all your plans be broken and your credit gone. But alas! for the poor hundred men left ashore on the Mexican coast! They wandered for fourteen days through marshes and brambles, some poisoned by bad water, others shot by Indians or plagued by mosquitoes, until they came to the Spanish town of Panluco, where the Governor thrust them into a little hog-stye and fed them on pigs' food. After three days of this they were manacled two and two and driven over ninety leagues of road to the city of Mexico. One of their officers used them very spitefully and would strike his javelin into neck or shoulders, if from faintness any lagged behind, crying, "March on, English dogs, Lutherans, enemies to God." After four months in gaol they were sent out as servants to the Spanish colonists. For six years they fared passing well, but in 1575 the Inquisition was introduced into Mexico, and then their "sorrows began afresh." On the eve of Good Friday all were dressed for an auto-da-fe, and paraded through the streets. Some were then burnt, others sent to the galleys, the more favoured ones got three hundred lashes apiece. One who had escaped had spent twenty-three years in various galleys, prisons, and farms.

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