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.