1500-1799 | Looting and plunder | Slavery | Torture


Sir John Hawkins – Oil on panel –
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery/Wikimedia

12 March 1563

The 12 March 1563 is not a date which receives attention in most history books, which routinely laud Queen Elizabeth’s celebrated sea dogs, not least Sir John Hawkins, who’s name graces public buildings, streets and at least one town square in memory of his daring courage which helped defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Twenty six years earlier, however, Hawkins had led another audacious cutthroat mission which was of even greater, if less glorious, significance.

Hawkins’ three ships, with about a hundred men, left Plymouth one day early in October 1562. They first called at Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands where Hawkins probably had contacts that would allow him to strike illicit deals on the Spanish Caribbean island of Hispaniola the following spring. He then headed south along the African coast, kidnapping men, women and children from villages and cramming them into the dark damp and disease ridden holds of his ships. According to his own account, written in the third person, he ‘got into his possession, partly by the sword and partly by other means, to the number of 300 Negroes at the least, besides other merchandises, which that Country yieldeth.’1 Local Portuguese traders, however, claimed that he seized no fewer than 900 Africans, many of them during six assaults on their ships and trading stations, in which he ordered the beatings, robbery and torture of entire crews and captured five or six ocean worthy caravels along with ivy, cloves and other loot.2

On 10 March 1563, Hawkins’ fleet caused panic when it finally arrived off Puerto de Plata on the northern coast of Hispaniola, but when the local merchants were persuaded that the British wished only to trade, a pilot guided them west until they reached the small settlement of Isabella on 12 March.3 Here, Hawkins made it known that he had several hundred slaves for sale, while the colonists, knowing that King Philip II had forbidden them from trading with the British, hoped deals could be struck discreetly. Part of the clandestine arrangement involved the payment of 105 slaves and a caravel to Lorenzo Bernaldez, an influential islander, although 14 Africans died before there was time to arrange their auction.4 Through this and other bribes paid to various funcionarios, Hawkins succeeded in enriching himself, numerous London merchants, several prominent court officials and possibly even Queen Elizabeth herself. In so doing, he gave England her first and highly profitable taste of the triangular Atlantic slave trade, which even in its precarious infancy would help finance the Elizabethan renaissance.


  1. Hawkins cited in Hugh Bicheno, Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs: How the English became the Scourge of the Seas, Conway, London, 2012, p. 78
  2. Nick Hazlewood, The Queen’s Slave Trader: John Hawkins, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls, Harper Perennial, London, 2004, pp. 66-67.
  3. Ibid., pp. 71-73.
  4. Ibid, pp. 75-77.

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