The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

John Hawkins

Hawkins was probably brought up in the family home in Kinterbury Street, Plymouth. By the time he was twenty Hawkins had killed a man, a Plymouth barber named White; but the coroner adjudged White to have been the aggressor, and Hawkins' father, realizing the seriousness of the offence, secured a royal pardon for his son.

During negotiations for the marriage of Queen Mary to Philip of Spain, Hawkins seems to have performed some useful service for the Spanish emissaries passing through Plymouth and seems to have made himself genuinely useful to their mission.

In the 1550s Hawkins was a partner with his elder brother, William Hawkins, in the family shipping business. During the Anglo-French war (1557-8) Hawkins and his brother were successfully engaged in channel privateering. By the end of the decade he was a man of importance in Plymouth, where he had become a freeman in 1556 and a common councillor in 1558. Although he took up lodging and a residence in Deptford, London from 1559 perhaps in connection to his marriage to Katherine Gonson the daughter of the Benjamin Gonson who happened to hold the important role of treasurer of the navy. John and Katherine had one son, Richard Hawkins. He formally dissolved his business relationship with his brother but kept all of his properties in the city of Plymouth.

In the early 1560s, he started trading in the Canary Islands where he heard of the fortunes that could be made from taking slaves from Africa to the Caribbean where the Spanish had an insatiable demand for labour, despite imposing restrictions on who could trade there.

Sailing in October 1562, in at least 3 small ships totalling 260 tons and with 100 men from Plymouth, Hawkins picked up an experienced Caribbean pilot at Tenerife, and by the end of the year reached the Guinea coast, which he followed as far south as Sierra Leone. He captured at least 300 African slaves and numerous Portuguese ships. On reaching the Caribbean, he avoided the seat of Spanish government at San Domingo, and disposed of his English merchandise and slaves, without violence, at the small north coast ports of Isabella, Puerto de Plata, and Monte Christi. Hawkins was careful to appear as a peaceful trader rather than a pirate: he paid the correct customs dues to participating local officials and secured written permissions to trade and certificates of fair dealing and was happy to except bills of exchange in Spanish ports.

On arriving in Spain though to seek redress for the bills, his goods were confiscated and crew and captain of the ship sent there were arrested. On return to England, Hawkins lobbied for redress through the queen and his father-in-law but to little avail. Despite this setback, the voyage earned a handsome return for the investors and crew and seemed to offer good prospects for future, similar voyages.

Hawkins would finance three further similar expeditions and command two of the ventures himself. He also brought his nephew Francis Drake along to gain experience and enrich himself also. The voyages seemed to offer diminishing returns as Spanish officials were warned not to trade or deal with the English. The final voyage ended in disaster at San Juan de Ulua where the Viceroy ordered an attack on Hawkins' fleet at anchor after surviving a storm.

Hawkins had many of his crew imprisoned by the Spanish and did much to lobby for their freedom. He was actually encouraged by Elizabeth's minister, Cecil, to entreat himself and gain the favour of the Spanish. He managed to convince the Spanish that he was on their side and was in favour of returning Mary Queen of Scots to the throne of England and restore Catholicism in England. This was all part of the Ridolfi Plot to ensnare Mary and it worked a treat. Hawkins received compensation and the freedom of his men and he passed on all the information of a possible invasion of England to Cecil to use against Mary.

For the next few years, he worked closely with French Huguenots who were being persecuted by their Catholic countrymen. He helped them to raid French and Spanish ships and bases. His expeditions were generally financed from London but organised and manned from Plymouth which the Hawkinses made 'an ocean port, a naval base, a privateers' mart, the western bastion of England's defences'.

From 1571 to 1581 Hawkins was MP for Plymouth; in February 1576 he sat on a committee concerned with ports. On 11 October 1573 he narrowly avoided death in London. While riding near Temple Bar with Sir William Winter, he was stabbed by Peter Burchet, a puritan fanatic of unsound mind, who confused Hawkins with Sir Christopher Hatton, possibly because of the fine clothes Hawkins habitually wore. For some days his recovery was uncertain.

He invested heavily in Drake's voyage of circumnavigation, and he was vice-admiral of the squadron sent to patrol the Irish coast against a threatened invasion. He became treasurer of the navy succeeding his father-in-law. He did much to modernise the fleet and its organisation. He spearheaded a change in naval design to favour low-built warships, better for long oceanic voyages. He also agreed with adding more guns including longer range culverins. By 1588 two-thirds of the queen's ships had been built or rebuilt to this new design, so making them more adept at operating on the high seas and giving them a decisive advantage over the Spanish ships of the Armada.

During the wait for the Armada Drake had been put in command at Plymouth, while Hawkins remained at Chatham at the elbow of the lord admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham. In December 1587 Hawkins showed he could fully mobilize the fleet in little more than a fortnight and that the ships were in excellent condition. It was early in June 1588 before Hawkins finally joined the assembled fleet at Plymouth. He owned 3 of the ships that fought the Armada and, as rear-admiral and later vice-admiral, he commanded the 800 ton Victory, one of the ships he had rebuilt at Deptford. Ranking third in seniority after Howard and Drake, he was a member of the war council. When the fleet spread out towards Ushant, Hawkins commanded the inshore squadron towards the Isles of Scilly. He hotly engaged a group of Spanish ships off Eddystone, expended much powder and shot off Portland Bill, and, after commanding one of the four squadrons at the Isle of Wight, he was knighted by the lord admiral on board the Ark Royal. The English galleons completely outsailed and outmanoeuvred the clumsy Armada carracks, and decisively outgunned them at their chosen range. Not a single English ship withdrew from the fight through damage by the elements or the enemy, and Hawkins's effective victualling of the fleet allowed it to chase the Armada past the Firth of Forth.

The Navy's finances were in a confused state following the Armada and Hawkins stood down for a year to try and sort them out. He could not stay away from the sea though and decided to try and instigate a 'silver blockade' of Spain and lie in wait with a fleet for the Spanish treasure fleets. The blockade failed, although it did disrupt the flows of Spanish silver from South America as the 'flota' were cancelled or redirected.

Hawkins' final voyage was with Drake to the Caribbean to try and capture Panama. It was a disaster from the very start and not much went according to plan. The two Admirals communicated badly with one another and fell out over strategy and tactics. On 31 October 1595 Hawkins became ill; by 2 November he was unable to leave his bed, and at about 3 p.m. on the 12th he died. He was buried at sea off Puerto Rico.

His will left funds for the poor of London, Deptford, and Plymouth; in a codicil he left the queen 2000 pounds. There was to be no monument to Hawkins in Plymouth. But his will provided for one to be erected to his memory in the church of St Dunstan-in-the-East, in which parish he had lived for thirty years. This had a long Latin inscription; another, even longer, in English, appeared on a nearby mural tablet. Both perished, along with the church, in the fire of 1666.

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals

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by Stephen Luscombe