25 March 2007

England's first slaver

Every year on 1 August Plymouth holds an African Remembrance Day, a reflection that England’s entry proper into the history of slavery began there.

John Hawkins holds the dubious title of founder of the English slave trade (He was not the first Englishman to carry slaves – John Lok and William Towerson had brought slaves to England in the 1550s). In 1562 Hawkins sailed from Plymouth. He took 400 Africans from Guinea and traded them in the West Indies. Between 1562 and 1567 He made three voyages three voyages to Guinea and Sierra Leone taking between 1,200 and 1,400 Africans.

Hawkins would sail for the west coast of Africa and kidnap villagers, often with the help of other African natives. He would then cross the Atlantic and sell his cargo, or those who survived the voyage, to the Spanish. For Hawkins, the trade ended in 1567 when his fleet, which included a ship commanded by Francis Drake, took shelter from a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. The Spanish were also there. In the chaos and fight that followed, many of his men were killed. Hawkins escaped in one ship and Drake in another. He'd lost 325 men on that voyage but it still showed a financial profit.

He was later appointed as Treasurer for the Navy and knighted in 1588 by the Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard, following the defeat of the Spanish Armada. In Plymouth there are numerous public monuments to his achievements, including Sir John Hawkins Square.

Above: The Hawkins Crest


Alasdair Ross said...

Found your posts on slavery very interesting, there should have been more about the signicance of today in the national media. In some cases it seems we are still ashamed of our past. i feel we should celebrate the lives of Wilberforce and others who helped stop this vile trade.
Here in Ipswich the celebration of Thomas Clarkson- who influenced the likes of Wilberforce was kept low key- hope you dont mind but I have mentioned it on my own blog

jams o donnell said...

Thanks Alasdair. The slave trade is a stain on our history, as it is on the history of all of the other nations who participated in it. Although the British Empire finaly abolished slavery in the 1830s we have not seen the end of it, be it the girl coerced into working as a prostitute or the domestic servant who it to all intents and purposes a slave.

I think it is right to celebrate Wiberforce, Equiano and all of those who pricked Britain's conscience over 200 years ago. Slavery still eexists in this world. A fitting legacy would be for our government and for all of us to play a part in eradicating this business for once and for all.

beakerkin said...


This time you are missing a larger point. Slavery was a cross cultural give and it was Western Civ that outlawed it. The abolition of Slavery is the remarkable event not its practice.

Slavery in the modern age also went on in Gulags. Prison labor is a complex topic in the USA.

jams o donnell said...

THe eventual abolition was certainly a good thing, of course it was!

the bicentenary celebrated here is the abolition of the trade which again is a good thing but not the end of the story. THere have been calls again for an apology for teh slave trade.. To me it would be an empty aplogy. the UK doing its bit to end the slavery that continues is worth more than any empty words.

beakerkin said...


Slavery was just part of who we were. The notion of the people who ended the barbaric practice apologizing for the practice misses the main point. Slavery was universal but the move to end it was the greater story.

jams o donnell said...

Agreed. It was a bold move by people who could have just gone with the flow.

Pete's Blog said...

Intersting how slavery continues in Africa and the Middle East. A tragedy now ignored because the slavers are no longer white.

jams o donnell said...

I wonder if that is the case too Pete.