Richard Hawkins


Last of a Dynasty
Sir Richard Hawkins wrote the most delightful of Elizabethan seafaring books. He was also the last member of the remarkable dynasty that made Plymouth what it became in the sixteenth century: the leading port for oceanic voyages - of trade, discovery, war, privateering - into the Atlantic and beyond. In voyages of discovery to the New World Bristol took premier place at first; but in a few decades this status shifted further west around the coast, to a port jutting out more conveniently into the Atlantic.

Of the Hawkins family three generations produced men of mark. 'Old' William Hawkins, who flourished in the reign of Henry VIII, began it all with the first English voyages into the South Atlantic, to Guinea and Brazil. Of his sons the elder, another William, carried on the family business, developing trade and the port, made remarkable voyages of his own, and was Mayor of Plymouth in Armada year. The younger, Sir John, was the man to whom Elizabeth's Navy owed most: he built the ships that defeated the Armada. Sir Richard Hawkins was his son by his first wife, Katherine Gonson, daughter of the previous Treasurer of the Navy.

Richard was born in 1560, and first appears in his uncle William's successful voyage of 1582, which returned with rich booty from Spanish captures, sugar and hides, pearls and some treasure. Then, in Brake's brilliant campaign of 1585, destroying defences and fortifications in the West Indies and along the Spanish Main, young Hawkins commanded the little galliot, the Duck. Against the Armada he was put in command of The Swallow , a Queen's ship of 350 tons; two of the small fireships, which frightened the Spanish fleet off Calais into cutting their cables and breaking formation to get away, were young Hawkins' property.

He was already an experienced seaman when he put in hand the building of a ship of some 350 tons, expressly for a voyage into the Pacific, of which the Spaniards claimed, and enjoyed, the monopoly. Richard had it in mind to follow in Drake's path, and make fame and fortune for himself. Richard's religious mother christened the ship Repentance , but the Queen, no Puritan, rechristened her the Dainty.

The Pacific project was postponed for a few years, while the Dainty , serving under Frobisher, captured a great Biscayan of 500 tons. Then Richard served under his father in 1590, keeping the seas towards the Azores and watching for the treasure-fleet from the Indies, which escaped them. In 1592 the Dainty played a chief part in the capture of the Madre de Dios , richest of East India carracks to be taken; but of this the big share - what was left over from the spoil and pillage of the cargo - came to the Queen. Next year, 1593, Richard was free to renew his Pacific project, and made preparations for his expedition. Other: venturers were involved, for we know that the big London merchant, Thomas Myddleton, invested #150 in Richard's enterprise. There must have been others, almost certainly his father, his uncle and Drake, with whom he discussed the plan and from whom he got much information and advice.

Having gathered the greater part of his company aboard at Plymouth, June 12th, 1593, 'I luffed near the shore to give my farewell to all the inhabitants of the town, whereof the most part were gathered together upon the Hoe, to show their grateful correspondency to the love and zeal which I, my father and predecessors have ever borne to that place as to our natural and mother town'. So they disappeared from view, over the horizon, making south-west out into the Atlantic. There were five ships in company: the Dainty herself, the Fancy under Captain Tharlton, a tender which was a mere storeship, and a couple of pinnaces. Tharlton's desertion with the Fancy, in a storm off the River Plate, was a prime factor in the later defeat inflicted upon Hawkins and the failure of the voyage.

Hawkins' account of the Straits of Magellan - with their twists and turns like a river, broadening then narrowing, the few people they sighted, the relics of the Spanish posts that had been placed there to keep interlopers out - is the most readable I know. The season in which it was possible to pass through the Straits at all was a short one; the greatest difficulty was getting out at the western end, for the wind mostly came from the west and blew ships back within sight of the outlet. Hawkins was held up for over a month going to and fro, then the wind suddenly favoured him and he slipped out.

He was in the Spanish preserve of the Pacific, the vast South Sea, with its unknown lands and a suspected continent, Terra Australis , from all of which Spain was determined to keep everybody out as far as possible. The English were not going to sit down under this sentence of exclusion; to the Spaniards they were all pirates. They were not: this was wartime: they were privateers, with a perfectly good right to exact retribution for losses inflicted on them - for example, the immense losses inflicted on Hawkins' father at San Juan de Ulloa. Neither he nor Drake ever forgot it; and both sailed with the Queen's commission to recoup themselves.

Drake had had the supreme advantage of surprise: this was thrown away for Hawkins by the insistence of his ship's company on immediate pillage. Their attacks on shipping before they got clear of the port of Lima (Callao), advertised their presence on the coast. In one big ship coming from Concepcion they took a good quantity of gold, and in a first encounter with the ships sent out to stop them they had the best of it and managed to get away. The Spanish were alerted to put everything into rounding them up - a small armada was got together, sufficient to deal with the Dainty . When it was sighted the crew were sure that it was the treasure-fleet, wrongly of course. They insisted on fighting against overwhelming odds, for they were now down to some seventy-five men against several hundred in the Spanish ships. When they closed for action, it was found that the Master Gunner had let them down: 'our stern pieces were unprimed, and so were all those which we had to leeward, save half one in the quarter, which discharge wrought that effect in our contraries [opponents] as that they had five or six foot water in hold before they suspected it'.

When it came to fighting hand to hand, the men fought like devils; but, though the contest went on for three days, Hawkins could never get clear from the ships that hemmed him in. 'The third day, our sails being torn, our masts all perished, our pumps rent and shot to pieces, our ship with fourteen shot under water and seven or eight foot of water in hold; many of our men being slain... the enemy offering still to receive us a buena guerra and to give us life and liberty and embarkation for our country....' There was nothing for it but surrender, before the ship sank. Hawkins himself was badly wounded, nineteen of his men killed, nearly forty wounded - only a handful remained unhurt. The terms of surrender were good: life and liberty, return to England; for the Spaniards were immensely taken with the Dainty : they reported. their capture, 'a ship of 400 tons, most beautiful in all her parts'.

Hawkins was carried aboard the Spanish flagship, to be received by a gentleman, Don Beltran de Castro 'with great courtesy and compassion, even with tears in his eyes, and commanded me to be accommodated in his own cabin, where he sought to cure and comfort me the best he could. The like he used with all our hurt men, six and thirty at least'. Don Beltran gave his word of honour that Hawkins should be returned. Thirty of the Englishmen were sent to Spain and held prisoners for some time, though most got back to England. Two of them escaped, and reached Plymouth with their ill news. But the higher authorities would not allow Don Beltran to honour his word: Hawkins knew too much, and a young man of thirty-three might well lead another expedition into their South Sea, the more dangerous for having learned from experience. He was held prisoner for nearly ten years.

For the first three or four years he was held captive in Peru - so that he is able to tell us in his book a good deal about conditions in South America: the undying hatred of the Indians of' Chile for the Spaniards, for example. In 1597 Hawkins was sent back to Spain - and had a narrow escape from rescue. For Essex was at sea with a large fleet on the lookout for the treasure-fleet. He just missed it, and the treasure-ships were able to take shelter under the guns of impregnable Terceira. Hawkins managed to smuggle a letter away to the Earl in England in October, beseeching him to get the Queen to intervene for his deliverance - and was not to cease to besiege Queen, Privy Council, Essex and Robert Cecil with letters for the next five years. Though the Spaniards honoured the terms of submission for everyone else of his company, they were not letting go of him: much too valuable.

He was taken to the prison of the Contratacion, the grand depot for the Indies, at Seville. The next we hear from him is a fascinating account of his attempted escape, which he smuggled out to Essex in August next year. It reads like something out of Le Sage's picaresque novel, Gil Blas , and has never been cited. Hawkins' father had served under King Philip in Queen Mary's reign, and had been taken prisoner by the French, who demanded a ransom of 10,000 crowns, which would have ruined him, had he not broken prison and escaped. Richard was once more trying to take a leaf out of the book of his admired father, who had set aside #3,000 in his will for his son's ransom in case he should be captured.

'Being desperate of my liberty by justice due unto me, I contrived with one Captain Borgen, my fellow prisoner, to break prison. We were to go out at the roof of the prison at midnight, and then to strike ourselves down by a rope, which was such as we could get and so small, and the prison so high, that in sliding down I fell more than four fathoms. Wherewith Captain Borgen, being dismayed, durst not follow me, thinking me to be dead in the street... Though I lay without feeling a good space, at length I recovered breathing, and after feeling my legs to be sound, I began first to go and after to run... till I was outside the gates of the city, guided by a servant of mine which waited for me in the street.'

The two of them took the Lisbon road; but shortly 'the hue and cry, which they call the Hermandad, was made after me, the city and country in an uproar'. Two leagues out of the city they hid in a vineyard, 'minding not to stir in many days but in the owl light. But at noon came the keepers, or owners, of the vineyard and found us sleeping: who put me in jealousy [fear] to be discovered'. Hawkins was in sailor's garments and evidently spoke Spanish well by this time. He decided to cross the highway and make off into the country.

Crossing the highway, they ran into four men, Moriscos or mulattos, who were unarmed. They asked if the couple were those who had broken prison, for four men on horseback were coming along the road searching for them. Two horsemen caught up with them, who gave the alarm. They once more took cover among vineyards and olive gardens, Hawkins' concealing himself up in an olive tree, his servant in a bramblebush. Till sunset the whole force searched the area, men several times passing under Richard's tree without discovering him, until they happened upon the servant, whom they beat up. He, 'being a whitelivered fellow, brought them to the tree where I was'; they levelled their pieces at him to force him down.

Hawkins was hauled back to prison, but now to a dungeon in the common jail, put in irons day and night. 'In four years and more they never gave me one rial to sustain me, and now they have not only taken from me the money which, by friendship, I had procured - to be repaid by my wife upon exchange - but my apparel, and what I had saving the clothes on my back.'

Meanwhile, both Drake and Richard's father had died on their last unlucky expedition to the West Indies, and been buried at sea. Sir John Hawkins left a widow, his second wife, who was coexecutrix of his will along with Richard. Richard's wife took up the cudgels on his behalf, for his stepmother dragged her feet in paying over the #3,000 Sir John had provided in case of need for his son. Richard had married a West Country girl, Judith Hele, and had one child before he left. Here was the burden of his petition to the Queen in 1599: eight years of separation from wife and child, seven of these in prison. He knew that exchanges of prisoners were being made, and negotiations for peace discussed; he was afraid of being forgotten - no likelihood of that, it was rather that he, a Hawkins, was a special case.

At last, as peace drew nearer, a member of the Spanish government took up his case on the ground that it was contrary to Spain's honour to detain him, when he had surrendered on the promise of being given his liberty. Meanwhile, he heard that at Plymouth his employees were making away with his goods; his house was used by the corporation to keep Spanish prisoners in. We learn from the town archives in 1602 that he returned 'the week before Christ-tide' - we note the Puritan inflexion of the phrase. Puritanism had made strides in the town in the last decade.

It was a rather different Richard Hawkins who returned to Plymouth after a decade: no longer the youth and forward-looking promise with which he had set out in Drake's footsteps in 1593. Moreover, his circumstances had changed: from being a comparatively rich young man, he was now a comparatively poor middle-aged one. In addition to the total loss of his voyage and the very large ransom, heavy expenses had piled up during his imprisonment, with nothing coming in. At first all looked well enough. A Hawkins was back in the town to take the lead; he was chosen Mayor for 1603-04, and one of its members for the Parliament of that year. While in London he was one of several hundreds knighted by King James in the garden at Whitehall - clearly inflation was setting in for such things.

Hawkins resumed his office as Vice Admiral for Devon, but when he had a servant of the Lord Admiral arrested for piracy, Bagge, Mayor in 1606, made trouble for him. Hawkins had an inveterate enemy in Bagge, who laid informations against him to the Lord Admiral. Bagge had his supporters, who complained of Hawkins' conduct not only of his business as Vice-Admiral but of 'his general miscarriage towards all in the place where he lives whereby the gentleman, we hear, is drawn into great troubles and likely to be undone'.

Complaints mounted against him; for a couple of years he tried to brave it out. He protested to Salisbury at having to dance continual attendance upon the Council to answer charges against his administration of his office. Indeed he protested too much; in the end he had to admit to peculation and using his office for private profit, pay a fine and submit to a spell in prison. This did not seem to damage his reputation; nor did Hawkins think himself particularly guilty in the matter; he confessed merely to 'error'. What was more important was the incidence of a fine, in his circumstances no longer prosperous. It is likely that his fine was remitted; he was soon out of prison, and continued as Vice Admiral of Devon.

There are no notices of further troubles, but of further employment, and projects for command, at sea. As late as 1614 a project was put forward for another voyage through the Straits of Magellan and across the Pacific, and Hawkins was still willing to go. This came from the East India Company, which was a sequel to Drake's original attempt to open up the spice trade with the East Indies to the English. The voyage was to make across the Pacific to the Solomon Islands, which mesmerised the minds of Spaniards and English alike, for they were thought to be abounding in gold. Hawkins was designated leader of the expedition, as a man held to be of courage, art and knowledge' for the enterprise. He offered to raise #20,000 from himself and his friends; negotiations continued for some six months, and then the project was dropped.

Three years later his name was again proposed as commander of the Company's next fleet to the Indies. He was growing old for so long and taxing an assignment; another, younger man was appointed in his stead. Three years later again he was not too old to go as Vice-Admiral of a fleet to subdue the Algerine pirates who were now preying upon commerce not only in the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic, but even in the Channel. The long Jacobean peace had allowed the Navy to decay and the menace to grow.

Hawkins was at sea again in the last year of his life; in the spring of 1622 he was back in England, once more frustrated. In April he died, a newsletter remarked, 'of vexation'. On April 16th Sir Richard made his will, 'being sick and weak of body, but of perfect mind and memory'. He was no longer a rich man after the losses he had endured. Only the manor of Poole at Slapton and a certain amount of house property in Plymouth remained. The family property did not continue in its possession for long. The eldest son, another John, parted with what he had in Plymouth before the Civil War; the manor out at Slapton left the family after that upheaval.

Though the name and the descendants continued, Sir Richard was effectively the end of the eminent dynasty that had done so much to make Plymouth famous - apart from what his father had achieved in building the Elizabethan Navy. Actually, Sir Richard lives for us, a more real and sympathetic figure of a man, by his book, The Observations , which he was preparing for publication at the time of his death; it had to be seen through the press by another hand. The book received a singular transformation in the Victorian age: it became the basis upon which Charles Kingsley built his Westward Ho! . As J. A. Williamson writes: 'The good ship Rose of Amyas Leigh is in effect the Dainty of Sir Richard Hawkins, and the: Rose's fight with the Madre Dolorosa is conducted as Sir Richard would have wished his own battle to have been, had all things not gone wrong'. Kingsley adapted his Elizabethan seamanship and sea-warfare from The Observations ; names and characters re-appear, but how transmogrified!

By A. L. Rowse

Richard Hawkins
Richard Hawkins
Further Reading
The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knt in His Voyage into the South Sea in the Year 1593
by Richard Hawkins

Hawkins of Plymouth
by James A. Williamson

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