Chronicles of America 

John Hawkins, Slavers, and Gentlemen Pirates

Said Francis I of France to Charles V, King of Spain: 'Your Majesty and the King of Portugal have divided the world between you, offering no part of it to me. Show me, I pray you, the will of our father Adam, so that I may see if he has really made you his only universal heirs!' Then Francis sent out the Italian navigator Verrazano, who first explored the coast from Florida to Newfoundland. Afterwards Jacques Cartier discovered the St. Lawrence; Frenchmen took Havana twice, plundered the Spanish treasure-ships, and tried to found colonies--Catholic in Canada, Protestant in Florida and Brazil.

Thus, at the time when Elizabeth ascended the throne of England in 1558, there was a long-established New Spain extending over Mexico, the West Indies, and most of South America; a small New Portugal confined to part of Brazil; and a shadowy New France running vaguely inland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, nowhere effectively occupied, and mostly overlapping prior English claims based on the discoveries of the Cabots.

England and France had often been enemies. England and Spain had just been allied in a war against France as well as by the marriage of Philip and Mary. William Hawkins had traded with Portuguese Brazil under Henry VIII, as the Southampton merchants were to do later on. English merchants lived in Lisbon and Cadiz; a few were even settled in New Spain; and a friendly Spaniard had been so delighted by the prospective union of the English with the Spanish crown that he had given the name of Londres (London) to a new settlement in the Argentine Andes.

Presently, however, Elizabethan England began to part company with Spain, to become more anti-Papal, to sympathize with Huguenots and other heretics, and, like Francis I, to wonder why an immense new world should be nothing but New Spain. Besides, Englishmen knew what the rest of Europe knew, that the discovery of Potosi had put out of business nearly all the Old-World silver mines, and that the Burgundian Ass (as Spanish treasure-mules were called, from Charles's love of Burgundy) had enabled Spain to make conquests, impose her will on her neighbors, and keep paid spies in every foreign court, the English court included. Londoners had seen Spanish gold and silver paraded through the streets when Philip married Mary--'27 chests of bullion, 99 horseloads + 2 cartloads of gold and silver coin, and 97 boxes full of silver bars!' Moreover, the Holy Inquisition was making Spanish seaports pretty hot for heretics. In 1562, twenty-six English subjects were burnt alive in Spain itself. Ten times as many were in prison. No wonder sea-dogs were straining at the leash.

Neither Philip nor Elizabeth wanted war just then, though each enjoyed a thrust at the other by any kind of fighting short of that, and though each winked at all kinds of armed trade, such as privateering and even downright piracy. The English and Spanish merchants had commercial connections going back for centuries; and business men on both sides were always ready to do a good stroke for themselves.

This was the state of affairs in 1562 when young John Hawkins, son of 'Olde Master William,' went into the slave trade with New Spain. Except for the fact that both Portugal and Spain allowed no trade with their oversea possessions in any ships but their own, the circumstances appeared to favor his enterprise. The American Indians were withering away before the atrocious cruelties of the Portuguese and Spaniards, being either killed in battle, used up in merciless slavery, or driven off to alien wilds. Already the Portuguese had commenced to import blacks from their West African possessions, both for themselves and for trade with the Spaniards, who had none. Brazil prospered beyond expectation and absorbed all the blacks that Portuguese shipping could supply. The Spaniards had no spare tonnage at the time.

John Hawkins, aged thirty, had made several trips to the Canaries. He now formed a joint-stock company to trade with the Spaniards farther off. Two Lord Mayors of London and the Treasurer of the Royal Navy were among the subscribers. Three small vessels, with only two hundred and sixty tons between them, formed the flotilla. The crews numbered just a hundred men. 'At Teneriffe he received friendly treatment. From thence he passed to Sierra Leona, where he stayed a good time, and got into his possession, partly by the sword and partly by other means, to the number of 300 Blacks at the least, besides other merchandises.... With this prey he sailed over the ocean sea unto the island of Hispaniola [Hayti]... and here he had reasonable utterance [sale] of his English commodities, as also of some part of his Blacks, trusting the Spaniards no further than that by his own strength he was able still to master them.' At 'Monte Christi, another port on the north side of Hispaniola... he made vent of [sold] the whole number of his Blacks, for which he received by way of exchange such a quantity of merchandise that he did not only lade his own three ships with hides, ginger, sugars, and some quantity of pearls, but he freighted also two other hulks with hides and other like commodities, which he sent into Spain,' where both hulks and hides were confiscated as being contraband.

Nothing daunted, he was off again in 1564 with four ships and a hundred and seventy men. This time Elizabeth herself took shares and lent the "Jesus of Lubeck", a vessel of seven hundred tons which Henry VIII had bought for the navy. Nobody questioned slavery in those days. The great Spanish missionary Las Casas denounced the Spanish atrocities against the Indians. But he thought blacks, who could be domesticated, would do as substitutes for Indians, who could not be domesticated. The Indians withered at the white man's touch. The blacks, if properly treated, throve, and were safer than among their enemies at home. Such was the argument for slavery. The argument against, on the score of ill treatment, was only gradually heard. On the score of general human rights it was never heard at all.

'At departing, in cutting the foresail lashings a marvellous misfortune happened to one of the officers in the ship, who by the pulley of the sheet was slain out of hand.' Hawkins 'appointed all the masters of his ships an Order for the keeping of good company in this manner:--The small ships to be always ahead and aweather of the "Jesus", and to speak twice a-day with the "Jesus" at least.... If the weather be extreme, that the small ships cannot keep company with the "Jesus", then all to keep company with the "Solomon".... If any happen to any misfortune, then to show two lights, and to shoot off a piece of ordnance. If any lose company and come in sight again, to make three yaws [zigzags in their course] and strike the mizzen three times. SERVE GOD DAILY. LOVE ONE ANOTHER. PRESERVE YOUR VICTUALS. BEWARE OF FIRE, AND KEEP GOOD COMPANY.'

Before reading on, one would do well to read up on the second voyage of John Hawkins to America, as penned by the eloquent John Spark.

Hawkins was now a rich man, a favorite at court, and quite the rage in London. The Queen was very gracious and granted him the well-known coat of arms with the crest of 'a demi-Moor, bound and captive' in honor of the great new English slave trade. The Spanish ambassador met him at court and asked him to dinner, where, over the wine, Hawkins assured him that he was going out again next year. Meanwhile, however, the famous Captain-General of the Indian trade, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the best naval officer that Spain perhaps has ever had, swooped down on the French in Florida, killed them all, and built the fort of St. Augustine to guard the 'Mountains of Bright Stones' somewhere in the hinterland. News of this slaughter soon arrived at Madrid, whence orders presently went out to have an eye on Hawkins, whom Spanish officials thenceforth regarded as the leading interloper in New Spain.

Nevertheless Hawkins set out on his third and very 'troublesome' voyage in 1567, backed by all his old and many new supporters, and with a flotilla of six vessels, the "Jesus", the "Minion" (which then meant darling), the "William and John", the "Judith", the "Angel", and the "Swallow". This was the voyage that began those twenty years of sea-dog fighting which rose to their zenith in the battle against the Armada; and with this voyage Drake himself steps on to the stage as captain of the "Judith".

There had been a hitch in 1566, for the Spanish ambassador had reported Hawkins's after-dinner speech to his king. Philip had protested to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth had consulted with Cecil, afterwards 'the great Lord Burleigh,' ancestor of the Marquis of Salisbury, British Prime Minister during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The result was that orders went down to Plymouth stopping Hawkins and binding him over, in a bond of five hundred pounds, to keep the peace with Her Majesty's right good friend King Philip of Spain. But in 1567 times had changed again, and Hawkins sailed with colors flying, for Elizabeth was now as ready to hurt Philip as he was to hurt her, provided always that open war was carefully avoided.

But this time things went wrong from the first. A tremendous autumnal storm scattered the ships. Then the first blacks that Hawkins tried to 'snare' proved to be like that other kind of prey of which the sarcastic Frenchman wrote: 'This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself.' The 'envenomed arrows' of the blacks worked the mischief. 'There hardly escaped any that had blood drawn of them, but died in strange sort, with their mouths shut some ten days before they died.' Hawkins himself was wounded, but, 'thanks be to God,' escaped the lockjaw. After this the English took sides in a native war and captured '250 persons, men, women, and children,' while their friend the King captured '600 prisoners, whereof we hoped to have had our choice. But the negro, in which nation is seldom or never found truth, that night removed his camp and prisoners, so that we were fain to content ourselves with those few we had gotten ourselves.'

However, with 'between 400 and 500 blacks,' Hawkins crossed over from Africa to the West Indies and 'coasted from place to place, making our traffic with the Spaniards as we might, somewhat hardly, because the King had straitly commanded all his governors by no means to suffer any trade to be made with us. Notwithstanding, we had reasonable trade, and courteous entertainment' for a good part of the way. In Rio de la Hacha the Spaniards received the English with a volley that killed a couple of men, whereupon the English smashed in the gates, while the Spaniards retired. But, after this little bit of punctilio, trade went on under cover of night so briskly that two hundred blacks were sold at good prices. From there to Cartagena 'the inhabitants were glad of us and traded willingly,' supply being short and demand extra high.

Then came a real rebuff from the governor of Cartagena, followed by a terrific storm 'which so beat the "Jesus" that we cut down all her higher buildings' (deck superstructures). Then the course was shaped for Florida. But a new storm drove the battered flotilla back to 'the port which serveth the city of Mexico, called St. John de Ulua,' the modern Vera Cruz. The historic Vera Cruz was fifteen miles north of this harbor. Here 'thinking us to be the fleet of Spain, the chief officers of the country came aboard us. Which, being deceived of their expectation, were greatly dismayed; but ... when they saw our demand was nothing but victuals, were recomforted. I [for it is Hawkins's own story] found in the same port 12 ships which had in them by report 200,000 in gold and silver, all which, being in my possession [i.e., at my mercy] with the King's Island ... I set at liberty.'

What was to be done? Hawkins had a hundred blacks still to sell. But it was four hundred miles to Mexico City and back again; and a new Spanish viceroy was aboard the big Spanish fleet that was daily expected to arrive in this very port. If a permit to sell came back from the capital in time, well and good. If no more than time to replenish stores was allowed, good enough, despite the loss of sales. But what if the Spanish fleet arrived? The 'King's Island' was a low little reef right in the mouth of the harbor, which it all but barred. Moreover, no vessel could live through a northerly gale inside the harbor--the only one on that coast--unless securely moored to the island itself. Consequently whoever held the island commanded the situation altogether.

There was not much time for consultation; for the very next morning 'we saw open of the haven 13 great ships, the fleet of Spain.' It was a terrible predicament. '"Now", said I, "I am in two dangers, and forced to receive the one of them".... Either I must have kept out the fleet, which, with God's help, I was very well able to do, or else suffer them to enter with their accustomed treason.... If I had kept them out, then there had been present shipwreck of all that fleet, which amounted in value to six millions, which was in value of our money 1,800,000, which I considered I was not able to answer, fearing the Queen's Majesty's indignation.... Thus with myself revolving the doubts, I thought better to abide the jut of the uncertainty than of the certainty.' So, after conditions had been agreed upon and hostages exchanged, the thirteen Spanish ships sailed in. The little island remained in English hands; and the Spaniards were profuse in promises.

But, having secretly made their preparations, the Spaniards, who were in overwhelming numbers, suddenly set upon the English by land and sea. Every Englishman ashore was killed, except a few who got off in a boat to the "Jesus". The "Jesus" and the "Minion" cut their headfasts, hauled clear by their sternfasts, drove back the boarding parties, and engaged the Spanish fleet at about a hundred yards. Within an hour the Spanish flagship and another were sunk, a third vessel was burning furiously, fore and aft, while every English deck was clear of enemies. But the Spaniards had swarmed on to the island from all sides and were firing into the English hulls at only a few feet from the cannon's mouth. Hawkins was cool as ever. Calling for a tankard of beer he drank to the health of the gunners, who accounted for most of the five hundred and forty men killed on the Spanish side. 'Stand by your ordnance lustily,' he cried, as he put the tankard down and a round shot sent it flying. 'God hath delivered me,' he added, 'and so will He deliver you from these traitors and villains.'

The masts of the "Jesus" went by the board and her old, strained timbers splintered, loosened up, and were stove in under the storm of cannon balls. Hawkins then gave the order to abandon ship after taking out what stores they could and changing her berth so that she would shield the little "Minion". But while this desperate manoeuvre was being executed down came two fire-ships. Some of the "Minion's" crew then lost their heads and made sail so quickly that Hawkins himself was nearly left behind.

The only two English vessels that escaped were the "Minion" and the "Judith". When nothing else was left to do, Hawkins shouted to Drake to lay the "Judith" aboard the "Minion", take in all the men and stores he could, and put to sea. Drake, then only twenty-three, did this with consummate skill. Hawkins followed some time after and anchored just out of range. But Drake had already gained an offing that caused the two little vessels to part company in the night, during which a whole gale from the north sprang up, threatening to put the "Judith" on a lee shore. Drake therefore fought his way to windward; and, seeing no one when the gale abated, and having barely enough stores to make a friendly land, sailed straight home. Hawkins reported the "Judith", without mentioning Drake's name, as 'forsaking' the "Minion". But no other witness thought Drake to blame.

Hawkins himself rode out the gale under the lee of a little island, then beat about for two weeks of increasing misery, when 'hides were thought very good meat, and rats, cats, mice, and dogs, parrots and monkeys that were got at great price, none escaped.' The "Minion" was of three hundred tons; and so was insufferably overcrowded with three hundred men, two hundred English and one hundred blacks. Drake's little "Judith", of only fifty tons, could have given no relief, as she was herself overfull. Hawkins asked all the men who preferred to take their chance on land to get round the foremast and all those who wanted to remain afloat to get round the mizzen. About a hundred chose one course and a hundred the other. The landing took place about a hundred and fifty miles south of the Rio Grande. The shore party nearly all died. But three lived to write of their adventures. David Ingram, following Indian trails all round the Gulf of Mexico and up the Atlantic seaboard, came out where St. John, New Brunswick, stands now, was picked up by a passing Frenchman, and so got safely home. Job Hortop and Miles Philips were caught by the Spaniards and sent back to Mexico. Philips escaped to England fourteen years later. But Hortop was sent to Spain, where he served twelve years as a galley-slave and ten as a servant before he contrived to get aboard an English vessel.

The ten Spanish hostages were found safe and sound aboard the "Jesus"; though, by all the rules of war, Hawkins would have been amply justified in killing them. The English hostages were kept fast prisoners. 'If all the miseries of this sorrowful voyage,' says Hawkins's report, 'should be perfectly written, there should need a painful man with his pen, and as great a time as he had that wrote the lives and deaths of martyrs.'

Thus, in complete disaster, ended that third voyage to New Spain on which so many hopes were set. And with this disastrous end began those twenty years of sea-dog rage which found their satisfaction against the Great Armada.

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