30 November 1567
Cacheu was a Portuguese trading and administrative town at the mouth of what was then called the Santo-Domingo River on the West African coast. It was situated a short distance south of Cape Roxo in what is today Guinea-Bissau. On the evening of 29 November 1567, three heavily armed British ships sailed silently towards the settlement.1 They were under the command of the celebrated Elizabethan sea dog, John Hawkins, who in 1588 would be knighted and earn his place in school history books for his role with Sir Francis Drake, his cousin, in defeating the Spanish Armada.
On 2 October 1567, he had set sail from Plymouth on a very different mission, to plunder Portuguese settlements and ships along the African coast of valuable goods and slaves, which he hoped to sell for a handsome profit to nascent Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. All this with the full approval and enthusiastic sponsorship of Queen Elizabeth I, who provided the flagship Jesus of Lubeck. Hawkins also enjoyed the patronage of leading courtiers and city financiers who eagerly helped to equip and supply Hawkins’ fleet in anticipation of reaping rich rewards.2
Shortly before the dawn on 30 November, Hawkins’ ships staged their first major piratical assault of the voyage on Portuguese vessels anchored off Cacheu, which were outgunned and quickly captured, their crews fleeing for fear of being slaughtered or enslaved. His men, with Francis Drake leading the charge, then rushed the town, burning down the buildings, torching the surrounding fields and murdering many who had not had time to flee into the surrounding jungle. Six of the wealthier inhabitants were spared the sword, but only to be tortured ‘with ropes until they confessed that the negroes (slaves who the British hoped to find) were concealed in a ravine.’3
Five ships were also seized, some of them already loaded with wax, ivory and yet more captive Africans, and some of their crews ‘suffered many lashes and tortures’ for attempting to conceal cargo. The rampaging sailors also discovered Catholic ‘images and crosses… and threw them into the sea or into the fire saying they they were mere idols and papistical.’ One of the fleet’s musicians, William Lowe, recalled that a fellow shipmate knocked down a cross and ‘hacked it to pieces with his axe, explaining, contemptuously ‘Christ died upon a Cross but they have too many crosses here.’4
- Nick Hazlewood, John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I and the Trafficking in Human Souls, Harper Perennial, New York and London, pp. 204-205.
- Ibid., pp. 166-180.
- Ibid., pp. 205-206.
- Ibid., pp. 205-206.
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