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Admiral Sir John Hawkins (also spelled as John Hawkyns) was an English shipbuilder, naval administrator and commander, merchant, navigator, and slave trader. As treasurer (1577) and controller (1589) of the 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 great battle in which the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Hawkins served as a vice admiral. He was knighted for gallantry.
The first Englishman recorded to have taken slaves from Africa was John Lok, a London trader who, in 1555, brought to England five slaves from Guinea. A second London trader taking slaves at that time was William Towerson whose fleet sailed into Plymouth following his 1556 voyage to Africa and from Plymouth on his 1557 voyage. Despite the exploits of Lok and Towerson, John Hawkins of Plymouth is widely acknowledged to be the pioneer of the English slave trade.
John Hawkins formed a syndicate of wealthy merchants to invest in the slave trade. In 1562, he set sail with three ships for the Caribbean via Sierra Leone. They hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and traded the 300 slaves in the Caribbean. Despite having two ships seized by the Spanish authorities, he sold the slaves in Santo Domingo and thus made a profit for his London investors. His voyage caused the Spanish to ban all English ships from trading in their West Indies colonies.
In 1564, Queen Elizabeth I partnered with him by renting him the huge old 700-tonne ship Jesus of Lubeck, and he set forth on his second longer and more extensive voyage along with three small ships. Hawkins sailed to Borburata, privateering along the way. By the time he reached Borburata, he had captured around 400 Africans. After Borburata, Hawkins sailed to Rio de la Hacha. The Spanish officials tried to prevent Hawkins from selling the slaves by imposing taxes. Captain Hawkins refused 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.
His third voyage was in 1567. Hawkins obtained many more slaves, and also augmented his cargo by capturing the Portuguese slave ship Madre de Dios (Mother of God) and its human cargo. He took about 400 slaves across the Atlantic on the third trip. At Vera Cruz he was chanced upon by a strong Spanish force that was bringing the new viceroy to the colony there. 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.
Hawkins pretended to be part of the Ridolfi plot to betray Queen Elizabeth in 1571. He offered his services to the Spanish, in order to obtain the release of prisoners 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 to become a Member of Parliament. He also became Treasurer and comptroller of the Royal Navy (1573–1589).
His Navy financial reforms upset many who had vested interests – principally Mathew Baker and Phineas Pett – and these concocted a Royal Commission on Fraud against him in 1583. However, he was found innocent.
John 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 achieve substantially more than a larger group of disinterested 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 more forward, and sails flatter. His ships were longer and the forecastle and aftcastle (or poop) were greatly reduced in size.
Hawkins innovative measures made the new English ships fast and highly manoeuverable. 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.
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 Sir John Hawkins’ Hospital. The charity continues today.
Potatoes were first imported to England (probably Ireland) in either 1563 or 1565 (sources differ) by Hawkins.
Some scholars suggest it was John Hawkins who introduced tobacco into England. Some accounts say this was in 1569, others in 1564. The latter is more likely, since he mentions "Ltobaccoj" (meaning tobacco) in his journals of the second voyage.
The OED 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 Yukatan.
In 1595 he accompanied his second cousin Sir Francis Drake, on a treasure-hunting voyage to the West Indies, during which they both fell sick and died at sea off Puerto Rico.
St. Kitts-Nevis, 1970/1976, Francis Drake and John Hawkins