England’s first slave trader who was Mayor of Plymouth

 Johns’ father, William Hawkins senior, was one of the five richest men in Plymouth in 1543.  He was worth 150 a year (to get a sense of scale bear in mind that the towns total income in that year was 63). Another fact:- during that year he was accused of being responsible for a fellow townsman’s near death by beating. He managed to avoid trial over this.

But these were dangerous times; merchant ships trading in coastal waters around Europe had to be prepared to repel borders by force as pirates of many nations were active. In those times Kings & Queens licensed pirates who were then called privateers.  Captured ships were called prizes the crew and passengers butchered, their possessions shared among the crew.

 William commanded privateers to Brazil at least three times and then continued to develop the trade from home to his immense profit.  He became infamous to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies where his violent piracy was feared.  As elected Lord Mayor William seems to have benefited during the dissolution of the monasteries.  This was the time when Henry the VIII wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon.  The friars that upheld Church Law against the King lost their property and valuables (never mind lives) in the following conflagration.  The Lord Mayor was the most powerful person in a town at that time; not a ceremonial position but for instance he would be in charge of the city militia and responsible for the defences of the city. 

 In 1544 William received the Kings Commission to ‘annoy the King’s enemies’. William trod a fine line between legality and piracy.   He was sent to prison at one point but this did not prevent him on release from more piracy.  When William died his estate went to his two sons William and John. William Junior managed the business at home and John took control at sea.

After marrying the daughter of the Treasury of the Navy, John formed a syndicate of wealthy London merchants to back a new venture trading against Spanish law with the Spanish Colonies in the Americas. These colonies were very short of labour and John Hawkins aimed to take slaves by force in Africa and trade them for the produce of Spanish America.  This would produce a double turnover in one voyage.  A huge profit would be made.

He sailed from Plymouth in 1562 with three ships.  He violently kidnapped about four hundred Africans in Guinea and traded them in the West Indies for Elizabethan luxuries:- pearls, ginger, sugar and hides.  He had become England’s first slave trader. He sailed again in 1564 from the Cattewater (part of the estuary of the river Plym) with four ships.  The syndicate this time included Queen Elizabeth I, Navy Board Officers and members of the Privy Council. He violently enslaved around five hundred people in Guinea and traded them in the West Indies.   His personal profit was huge and the Queen gave him a coat of arms. It had a bound slave as the crest (see below).

John Hawkins was responsible for seven ships in two squadrons sailing to Guinea in 1566.  Another member of this expedition was Hawkins’ cousin Francis Drake. In 1567, after a service in St Andrews Church attended by the 400 men of his crews, he sailed to the West Indies via Guinea again. After much bloodshed on the Guinea coast 500 slaves were transported to the Caribbean.  According to slavers accounts of the time this would probably have involved killing at least three times that number of people.  Hawkins made three voyages to what is now Sierra Leone between 1562 and 1569 – enslaving around 1,200 Africans.

William Hawkins Junior was Mayor elect of Plymouth in 1568.  In this year there were believed to be 50 Huguenot privateers operating in the English Channel.  Thirty of them were English.  William had the biggest stake in the fleet and was virtually Pirate-in-chief.  During the period up to 1572 the state records are full of the screams of those Europeans and others who suffered under these marauders.  Plymouth became the main base of their operations. In 1572, under political pressure from Spain, their fleet shifted to the other side of the channel.   William and John went on buying cargoes in Plymouth from privateers and ‘ransoming’ Huguenot prizes.  London Merchants were still financing slaving voyages to West Africa out of Plymouth.  Ships were still sailing to the Caribbean, eight Hawkins vessels and six others in 1575. 

Words of a plaque to SIR JOHN HAWKINS put up in the late 20th century (1960s)on the now re-sited Ring o’ Bells Tavern entrance arch at the top of Looe Street, Plymouth.


Plymouth Born

 Close to the site of this notice, in what was once Kinterbury Street, stood the birthplace of one of England’s most famous seamen-adventurers.   John Hawkyns was born in 1532 to William Hawkyns an enterprising merchant and former Mayor.

 Merchant Adventurer

 Inspired by his fathers trading ventures in South America, John Hawkyns organised a series of expeditions to the Spanish territories of Central America.   He made a good profit by buying and capturing negro slaves in West Africa and trading them for gold and other valuables with the Spanish settlers across the Atlantic.  He was England’s first slave trader.

The Spanish jealously protected their trade with their colonies and Hawkyns was openly flouting their laws.  Both sides increasingly used violence to protect their interests and Hawkyns, along with his cousin Drake, rapidly became skilled in the arts of diplomacy and naval strategy.

 Architect of the Elizabethan Navy

 Queen Elizabeth invested money in Hawkyns adventures and in 1577 he was appointed Treasurer to her navy.  Not only did he re-organise the navy, but also he was responsible for the adoption of the ‘race built galleon’, whose speed and guns were of enormous help in the fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588.

 Naval Commander

 He was Vice-Admiral in the battle against the Armada, in which he commanded the Victory.  He was knighted on the 23rd July, 1588, off the Isle of Wight during the battle.


 John Hawkyns was responsible for the foundation of the welfare fund for seamen disabled during the Armada campaign.  Known as the Chatham Chest, it was later merged with the Greenwich Hospital Fund.

 Death at Sea

 Sir John Hawkyns died on an expedition with Drake to the West Indies in 1595.  The advice he gave his crew is now famous: “Serve God daily, love one another, preserve your victuals, beware of fire and keep good company”.

Arch from the Old Ring O’Bells

 The arch to the right of this notice (opposite the Job Centre at the top of Buckwell Street) was once the front entrance to the Old Ring O’Bells a public house in Wooster Street (now part of Vauxhall Street).  It must have been a familiar sight to Hawkyns whose main residence was close by in the same street.  The arch was moved to its present site in the 1960’s.



The Hawkins crest (below) wasn't on the plaque:-

Hawkins Crest.JPG (146120 bytes)