Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader.

When I was a boy, growing up in Devon, Francis Drake and  John Hawkins were great Elizabethan heroes.  Drake was the first Englishman to sail around the world, to return with untold riches and be knighted by Queen Elizabeth on the deck of his ship, the Golden Hind; Hawkins was the founder of the Royal Navy, the man who designed and built the fast, weatherly galleons which sailed rings around the Spanish Armada.

These men were pioneers, adventurers, founders of the British empire. Everything they did, we were taught, was admirable. Drake was our national savior; if ever England were in peril again all we had to do was to sound Drake’s Drum (which was hidden somewhere in Plymouth) and he would rise from the dead like King Arthur and sail back to our rescue. I was glad to live in the county where these men grew up. The county sign for Devon was an Elizabethan galleon –Drake’s ship – sailing proudly across a blue sea.

Not today. That sign disappeared long ago. Look up Devon County Council on the web and what do you find? No ship – just a logo of two green leaves. Wonderful. But it’s a sign of the times. The environment is fashionable, the British Empire is nothing to be proud of. 

I wonder if school children today learn anything about Francis Drake and John Hawkins. If they do, I’m sure their history is taught differently to the way I learned it; and to an extent, quite right too. For Francis Drake was a pirate, licensed by the Queen to steal, burn and destroy Spanish ships and colonies in the New World. For the Spanish, he was as much of a menace as the Vikings once were to English monks, or Somali pirates are today. 

So what about his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, the founder of the British Navy, the man who built Queen Elizabeth’s galleons to defend us against the Spanish Armada? Surely he was a respectable man; not a pirate, but a merchant, a shipowner.

Well, yes. He was all of those things. But he was a slave trader too. That’s where much of his wealth came from.

Oh dear. If there’s one thing that’s really really bad about the British Empire, that has be it: the slave trade. African prisoners torn from their homes, chained and packed like sardines into the stinking holds of wooden ships for month-long voyages across the heaving Atlantic. Then sold, naked and trembling, in a marketplace like so much merchandise.

I don’t have to elaborate. I’m sure if there’s one thing that British school children DO learn about in their history lessons it’s the slave trade. And so they should. It was horrible. It was also one of the greatest forced migrations in history. And so schools in Britain and America today are full of black children who can trace their ancestors back, not to Drake and Hawkins, but to the Africans who men like Hawkins enslaved.

Hawkins was not ashamed of being a slave trader. After all he hadn’t started it; the Portuguese were selling slaves long before him; they regarded the whole of the west African seaboard as exclusively their own, granted to them by the Pope. They took slaves across the Atlantic and sold them to Spanish colonists in New Spain, the part of the New World the Pope had granted exclusively to them. Hawkins was just trying to get some of this commerce for himself, in the spirit of free trade. He made three slave-trading voyages, and he was so proud of his success that he commissioned a coat of arms, with pride of place given to – of all things – a black man bound with a rope.

Not very politically correct. Not the sort of national hero we want to celebrate in our schools today, where racism is rightly regarded with anathema. And it wasn’t just John Hawkins who was involved in this; his young cousin Francis Drake sailed with him too, on the third and most troublesome of his three slaving voyages.

So were Francis Drake and John Hawkins racists, is that what we should tell our children? Not seafaring heroes, but monsters like Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot? Should we bow our heads in shame when they are mentioned, or delete them from our national syllabus altogether?

Well no, surely not. In the first place, they were men of their time, when people thought very differently. If we judge historical figures too strictly by our own values, we will only get a distorted understanding of what they and their world were really like. And secondly, these men were not simple, one-dimensional characters; they were much more interesting than that.

John Hawkins was both a slave trader AND a respected, national figure. He was the Treasurer of Queen Elizabeth’s Navy, the man who built the ships which defeated the Spanish Armada. (And thus saved many Britons from becoming slaves themselves, bound for years to an oar in a Spanish galley, or burned alive by the Inquisition at an Auto-da-Fe)

Francis Drake was both a pirate AND a consummate navigator, great explorer, circumnavigator of the world. He, more than anyone, saved England from invasion by Spain.

But most interestingly, in the case of Francis Drake, it seems that it is possible to be both a slave trader AND the friend of escaped African slaves!

 In 1567 the young Francis Drake sailed to Sierra Leone in a fleet commanded by his cousin, John Hawkins. Here they bought, stole and captured some 500 African slaves which they transported to the Spanish Main and sold to Spanish colonists. But although the colonists were glad to acquire the slaves, they were less happy about the merchant; King Philip of Spain had made it very clear that English merchants like Hawkins should be regarded as pirates, and kept out of his New World Empire.

So when Hawkins’s ships were caught in a hurricane, and forced to seek shelter in the Spanish port of San Juan de Ulloa, he knew he was in trouble. While he was there repairing his ships, a Spanish fleet arrived carrying the new Viceroy from Spain. At first, Hawkins and the Viceroy negotiated an uneasy truce: hostages were exchanged, and the Spanish ships entered the harbor, mooring a short distance from the English. But the truce was broken, and after a fierce battle most of the English ships were sunk or captured. Hawkins escaped in one ship, Drake in another. Hawkins’s ship, the Minion, was so overcrowded with sailors from his other ships that he was forced to maroon several hundred men on land, where they were taken prisoner by the Spanish. When the Minion eventually reached England, only 15 men were still alive on board.

This incident destroyed any semblance of trust between the English sailors and the Spanish colonists. While Hawkins tried to negotiate with Spain for the return of his imprisoned sailors, Francis Drake took a more direct method. Instead of trading with the Spanish colonists, as Hawkins had done, he decided to simply steal the gold and silver from the mines of South America which made King Philip of Spain so rich.

Francis Drake was very successful at this. In fact, he became one of the most successful pirates in all history. When he returned from his circumnavigation of the world, historians estimate that each shareholder made a profit of £47 for each £1 invested. The Queen got more money from that one pirate ship, than all other Exchequer receipts for a  year.

But Drake couldn’t have done this without the help of a very important group of allies – the Cimarrons. These Cimarrons were escaped African slaves; people exactly like those whom he and John Hawkins had captured in Sierra Leone. It’s possible that some of them had actually travelled in Hawkins’s ships. But having arrived in the new world, these Africans had escaped, and were now a major threat to the Spanish colonists – as big a threat as the English and French pirates. But unlike the pirates, the Cimarrons didn’t want gold and silver; it wasn’t very useful to them. They wanted freedom, and revenge, and the ability to defeat their Spanish masters.

All the accounts suggest that Francis Drake got on really well with these people. In one raid in Panama Drake presented the Cimarron leader, Pedro, with a gold encrusted scimitar which had previously belonged to Henry II, king of France. It was the Cimarrons who showed him a tree in Panama from the top of which for the first time he saw the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west – a vision which inspired his later voyage round Cape Horn.

Some of these Africans liked Drake so much that they even chose to sail with him. One of his longest-serving seamen was an escaped black slave called Diego, who volunteered to join him at Nombre de Dios in 1573, and stayed with him until he died on the Golden Hind’s round-the-world voyage six years later. And in 1586, at the siege of Santo Domingo, Drake sent a different black servant to receive a Spanish officer who carried a flag of truce. When the Spaniard, apparently insulted by this, callously ran the black man through with his sword, Drake was so incensed that he insisted that the Spanish hanged their own officer before any further negotiations took place.

So perhaps, even though he was once a slave-trader, we can exonerate Drake from the modern slur of racism. Slavery, after all, was common in the sixteenth century, and not necessarily linked to race. Thousands of slaves were chained to the oars of the galleys on both sides, Spanish and Turkish, at the battle of Lepanto; that was how Mediterranean sea-battles were fought. North African slave traders raided the coasts of Cornwall and southern Ireland for slaves to sell in the markets of Constantinople. Slavery was a normal hazard of life, particularly for those who lived near the coast. It could happen at any time, out of the blue, and transform a person’s life forever.

So what happened to those unlucky Africans who were sold across the Atlantic by John Hawkins? What was life like for them, and for the English sailors who captured them? In my book, Nobody’s Slave, I try to imagine what this may have been like. Nobody’s Slave  is the story of two teenage boys, one African, one English, whose lives are transformed by John Hawkins’s third slave-trading voyage. It’s a work of fiction, but all the main events really happened; they are based on original sources, and as true and accurate as I can make them.

Nobody’s Slave is a adventure story which I hope can be read by anyone, white or black, as part of our shared and troublesome history.

Sources:  Much of the original source material can be found in The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. Hawkins’ own account of his voyage (written and approved by John Sparke, who sailed with him) is in Volume 7; two other very colorful accounts, by Miles Philips and Job Hortob, both of whom sailed with Hawkins and were captured by the Spanish, are in Volume 6.

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A Dramatic Evening

It was because of a play that I wrote The Monmouth Summer. Not a famous play in a West End theatre, though; this was just a play in a school hall, performed by kids. But it was a fantastic play for all that, brilliantly acted, overwhelmingly effective, and it inspired me to write a novel.

The play was so effective because there was no stage. There were a few seats and benches here and there around the edges of the school hall, but other than that, the audience had to stand or walk about.  At the start of the play we milled around, rather confused at first, like people in a market place, while people in seventeenth century costume tried to sell us things – pies, sweetmeats, mulled wine. But then, suddenly, the actors appeared amongst us.  They were part of the crowd, too, but acting out scenes. Sometimes in front of us, sometimes behind; at other times distant, across the room. As the actors moved, so did we, trying to get a good view, guess what would happen next. It sounds chaotic but it was tremendously effective: the play was all around us, we were in it, part of it, it was happening to US!

And it was a play about what had happened to ordinary people just like us, in that town, 300 years ago. The town was Colyton, in East Devon, and the play was about the Monmouth Rebellion. In 1685, the lives of people in Colyton were transformed – many of them ruined – when James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, landed from a Dutch ship, the Hereldenburg, in nearby Lyme Regis.  Who was Monmouth? He was the gallant, proud, dashing, spoilt illegitimate son of King Charles II, who had just died. But Monmouth refused to believe he was illegitimate. Despite his father’s persistent, stubborn denial, Monmouth claimed that King Charles had secretly married his mother, Lucy Walter, long before he married Catherine of Braganza. There were secret letters, Monmouth said, in a casket, which would prove this. And therefore he, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth was the rightful heir to the throne.

Why did this matter, to the ordinary, everyday folk of the town of Colyton? It mattered because the new king, James II – Charles II’s brother and Monmouth’s uncle – was openly Catholic. And that was something that most West Country folk could not abide. Colyton was a small town grown prosperous on the cloth trade, and many of its small merchants and artisans were fiercely Protestant dissenters. Their conventicles were already banned by the Church of England. A Catholic King, they thought, could only make things worse.  Whereas Monmouth, at least, was Protestant – ‘the Protestant Duke.’ He was also young, handsome, and dashing, and had been cheered by crowds everywhere when he had toured the West Country five years before.

So the first bit of news which electrified the crowd in that school hall was that the Duke of Monmouth had landed in Lyme. The gossip spread from mouth to mouth – first whispered, then shouted, then earnestly discussed. What did it mean? Was it true? Did he have soldiers, men, arms?  What should we do? Join his army, welcome him, risk our lives? Or ignore him? What if he failed? What would the punishment be then? How if we did nothing,  and were afraid to help?

It all came vividly alive, in short sketches around the hall. Not two feet in front me, a wife tugged tearfully at her husband, begging him not to go, not to leave her and their children to fight in a futile war, a rebellion which would leave them all ruined, destitute if it failed. And if they lost, how would the King punish them? What would he do? Against which her husband – just a sixth-form boy really, but totally absorbed in his role – spoke of duty, and religion, and his loyalty to the other men of the town, a few of whom had even fought for Cromwell in their youth. How could he desert his friends at this time? In that school hall it seemed so real, so shocking. Such terrible, impossible choices; and of course we all knew, how could we not, that the wife was right, it could only turn out badly in the end.

Monmouth’s men were brave, but badly led. They had their chances, even at Sedgemoor – the last battle to be fought on English soil – but they lost, as we all knew they would. Monmouth was captured and executed, and Judge Jeffreys – surely one of the cruellest, most vindictive men ever to disgrace an English courtroom, was sent by King James to punish the rebels. Jeffreys’ appearance in the school hall was utterly terrifying. He called Colyton ‘the most rebellious town in England.’ Towering above us on a dias which we had not noticed before, wincing and sipping brandy to ease the pain of the stone, he mocked the chained, bloodied prisoners who were dragged limping before him. And because these prisoners came out of the crowd – they were US – his sadistic jokes hit home even harder.

The play didn’t show them being hanged, drawn and quartered, of course – that’s too much – but it brought the horror home to us nonetheless. Staging the play like that brought home the fact that it really happened, to ordinary people like us; if we’d been born earlier, it could have been us.  Of course, not all the men died – some hid, some were transported, some escaped, and the women survived and kept life going. Three years later, King James was gone too, chased away by another, larger army brought to Devon from Holland. And a few surviving rebels crept secretly home, to put their lives together and begin again, as best as they could.

I left that school hall feeling sober, but not sad – it was exhilarating, in a way, to be purged of pity and terror like this, and to see a bunch of school kids and a talented teacher bring English history so dramatically to life. I learned a lot, too. And on the way home, I thought, ‘I should write a book about this.’

So I did.

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