Wednesday, June 2, 2010

People: The Queen's Privateer

John Hawkins was born into a respectable merchant family some time in 1532. He was born in the port city of Plymouth in the English county of Devon. The city and county have probably given their country more able seamen than any other, and Hawkins certainly followed the mode.

As a boy he would have watched his father make repeated visits to Africa and Brazil, carrying cargo for trade. Perhaps young John was along on some of these voyages which would have been both exciting and harrowing without a doubt. He would have seen the troubles his father had with the Spanish in particular. Trade with Spain was not technically illegal, but the Spanish on the Main jealously guarded their trade rights and rarely did open business with "infidels" from Protestant countries. No doubt this was why Hawkins pere tended to head for Brazil, which was a Portuguese holding and therefor less stringent about trade and immigration.

It's fairly clear that John Hawkins saw there was money not being made and he wanted in on it. By 1562 he had assembled his own small flotilla; two ships under his command - Solomon and Swallow - left Britain for the Guinea coast that year. Along the way, Hawkins took a Portuguese merchant as a prize and promptly sold her cargo for African slaves. The ships were packed in the usual inhuman manner and they set out for the Caribbean, probably in late fall.

In January Hawkins docked off Hispaniola and got right to the business of selling the 300 souls in his ships' holds. At first the local government balked. A 120 man patrol led by Lorenzo Bernaldez was sent to dispatch the English from Spanish soil. Either through threat or bribe or both, Hawkins brought Bernaldez around to his way of thinking and sold his cargo for goods and coin. He got so cocky at this point that he sent some of his goods to Seville in a Spanish ship. They were confiscated by the Spanish government but it was literally no skin off Hawkins' nose. He returned to England in 1563 as a very wealthy man.

Word of Hawkins success reached the court of Elizabeth I and, as Hawkins began to prepare for another voyage, the powerful began to invest in his endeavors. Elizabeth took an immediate interest in the venture. She was searching for ways to break up the Spanish trade monopoly while trying to keep Philip of Spain at arm's length. Giving Hawkins money and a commission under the table suited both the Crown's needs and the freebooter's. It was win/win as long as Hawkins kept his mouth shut. He did.

In March of 1565, Hawkins put out to sea once more. This time he sailed aboard his flagship, of 30 guns and 700 tons - a gift from his Queen - Jesus of Lubeck. She was accompanied by his prior ships and Tiger, of 50 tons. Together they packed in 400 slaves and headed off to the New World. This time Hawkins chose the coast of Venezuela for his landing. He was rebuffed at the island of Margarita and sailed on to the French-run port of Barburata. Though the local government was at first disinclined to deal, after a few nice broadsides aimed at their town they changed their mind. Hawkins sold some of his slaves at Barburata and then repeated his gunboat diplomacy up the coast at Riohacha in modern Columbia. He was back in England by September and his investors were very pleased indeed.

Despite the most vehement protests from the Spanish ambassador, Elizabeth I continued to fund Hawkins' ventures. He made more slaving runs to the West Indies and his success drew sailors from all over Britain to his ships. Not the least of these was his cousin, Francis Drake, who took command of Hawkins' Judith on a voyage in late 1567.

This venture went according to plan until Hawkins flotilla, now numbering seven ships including captured merchants, was hit by a hurricane off Cuba and blown deep into the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the ships needed repair and Hawkins tried to put in at San Juan de Ulua (modern day Veracruz). He was surprised by the annual Spanish treasure fleet and, though an initial truce was called, the Spanish commenced firing in the close packed harbor.

A day long fire fight resulted in the destruction or capture of all but two of Hawkins' ships. Only Minion, with Hawkins aboard, and Judith escaped. Drake ran ahead to England in the smaller, faster Judith. Hawkins followed in Minion with two hundred of his men. Some of these deserted ashore, trusting their fate to the Spanish rather than the battered Minion. Hawkins made it home, but with no more than 20 men remaining alive.

Recovered from this experience, Hawkins seems to have turned over the helm to Drake who began his famous personal war against the Spanish. Hawkins stayed at home and was appointed treasurer of the Royal Navy in 1577. He had as much success in this post as he initially had on the Main. He was knighted in 1588 and, he would later say to his shame, given a coat-of-arms that included a bound African above the crest. He returned to sea in the same year, leading a flotilla against the Spanish Armada.

This experience seemed to reinfect him with the sailing bug and he set out against the Spanish treasure fleet in 1590. He failed on all counts. Hawkins tried again in 1595, taking up with Drake and heading out for the Main. The two disagreed on tactics and went their separate ways. At this point, Hawkins was ill and within a month he was dead aboard his flagship off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico at the age of 63.

Despite his late-in-life regrets over the means of his success, Sir John Hawkins certainly paved the way for the exploits of sea dogs like Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish. He was one of the first to strike against the trading monopoly of the Spanish Empire and he was the first of Queen Elizabeth's now famous privateers.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I seem to recall reading an account of the firefight at San Juan de Ulua that basically said that when Drake left he pretty much deserted his cousin Hawkins and that their relationship was never the same afterwards. Not too surprising, I guess.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! There's actually some debate on that score among historians. Some insist that Drake was ordered by Hawkins to hurry ahead with what booty they could salvage. Others argue that Hawkins stood with his men to fight the Spanish and was nearly captured himself while Drake took off. Either way, San Juan de Ulua was a disaster for the Elizabeth's Sea Dogs and many Englishmen ended up at hard labor in Veracruz after being taken prisoner. Definately an embarassing and costly defeat.