Adm. Sir John Hawkins

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Sir Admiral John Hawkins

Also Known As: "Hawkyns"
Birthplace: Plymouth, Devon, England
Death: November 12, 1595 (58-66)
At sea off coast of Puerto Rico
Place of Burial: At sea off coast of Puerto Rico
Immediate Family:

Son of Captain William Hawkins, MP, of Tavistock and Joan Trelawny, Heiress of Brightorre
Husband of Dame Katherine Hawkins and Margaret Vaughan
Partner of N.N.
Father of Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins, MP
Brother of Sir William Hawkins, II

Occupation: Treasurer of the Navy, Admiral for the Navy, Sea Dog, Admiral, knighted, admiral sir, Slave Trader, Mayor, Comandante naval e corsário
Managed by: Ann Margrethe Nilsen
Last Updated:

About Adm. Sir John Hawkins

Francis Drake, son of Edmund Drake and one of twelve brothers, was brought up at the expense of and support of his relative, Sir Admiral John Hawkins. Francis Drake made his early voyages with Sir John. Sir John was about twelve years Drake's senior.

[Note: exactly how they were related has never come to light. "Cousin" covered a lot of territory back then.]


England’s first slave trader who was Mayor of Plymouth

Johns’ father, William Hawkins senior, was one of the five richest men in Plymouth in 1543. He was worth £150 a year (to get a sense of scale bear in mind that the towns total income in that year was £63). Another fact:- during that year he was accused of being responsible for a fellow townsman’s near death by beating. He managed to avoid trial over this.

But these were dangerous times; merchant ships trading in coastal waters around Europe had to be prepared to repel borders by force as pirates of many nations were active. In those times Kings & Queens licensed pirates who were then called privateers. Captured ships were called prizes the crew and passengers butchered, their possessions shared among the crew.

William commanded privateers to Brazil at least three times and then continued to develop the trade from home to his immense profit. He became infamous to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies where his violent piracy was feared. As elected Lord Mayor William seems to have benefited during the dissolution of the monasteries. This was the time when Henry the VIII wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon. The friars that upheld Church Law against the King lost their property and valuables (never mind lives) in the following conflagration. The Lord Mayor was the most powerful person in a town at that time; not a ceremonial position but for instance he would be in charge of the city militia and responsible for the defences of the city.

In 1544 William received the Kings Commission to ‘annoy the King’s enemies’. William trod a fine line between legality and piracy. He was sent to prison at one point but this did not prevent him on release from more piracy. When William died his estate went to his two sons William and John. William Junior managed the business at home and John took control at sea.

After marrying the daughter of the Treasurer of the Navy, John formed a syndicate of wealthy London merchants to back a new venture trading against Spanish law with the Spanish Colonies in the Americas. These colonies were very short of labour and John Hawkins aimed to take slaves by force in Africa and trade them for the produce of Spanish America. This would produce a double turnover in one voyage. A huge profit would be made.

He sailed from Plymouth in 1562 with three ships. He violently kidnapped about four hundred Africans in Guinea and traded them in the West Indies for Elizabethan luxuries:- pearls, ginger, sugar and hides. He had become England’s first slave trader. He sailed again in 1564 from the Cattewater (part of the estuary of the river Plym) with four ships. The syndicate this time included Queen Elizabeth I, Navy Board Officers and members of the Privy Council. He violently enslaved around five hundred people in Guinea and traded them in the West Indies. His personal profit was huge and the Queen gave him a coat of arms. It had a bound slave as the crest (see below).

John Hawkins was responsible for seven ships in two squadrons sailing to Guinea in 1566. Another member of this expedition was Hawkins’ cousin Francis Drake. In 1567, after a service in St Andrews Church attended by the 400 men of his crews, he sailed to the West Indies via Guinea again. After much bloodshed on the Guinea coast 500 slaves were transported to the Caribbean. According to slavers accounts of the time this would probably have involved killing at least three times that number of people. Hawkins made three voyages to what is now Sierra Leone between 1562 and 1569 – enslaving around 1,200 Africans.

William Hawkins Junior was Mayor elect of Plymouth in 1568. In this year there were believed to be 50 Huguenot privateers operating in the English Channel. Thirty of them were English. William had the biggest stake in the fleet and was virtually Pirate-in-chief. During the period up to 1572 the state records are full of the screams of those Europeans and others who suffered under these marauders. Plymouth became the main base of their operations. In 1572, under political pressure from Spain, their fleet shifted to the other side of the channel. William and John went on buying cargoes in Plymouth from privateers and ‘ransoming’ Huguenot prizes. London Merchants were still financing slaving voyages to West Africa out of Plymouth. Ships were still sailing to the Caribbean, eight Hawkins vessels and six others in 1575.

Words of a plaque to SIR JOHN HAWKINS put up in the late 20th century (1960s)on the now re-sited Ring o’ Bells Tavern entrance arch at the top of Looe Street, Plymouth.

Plymouth Born
Close to the site of this notice, in what was once Kinterbury Street, stood the birthplace of one of England’s most famous seamen-adventurers.   John Hawkyns was born in 1532 to William Hawkyns an enterprising merchant and former Mayor.
Merchant Adventurer/Slave Trader
Inspired by his fathers trading ventures in South America, John Hawkyns organised a series of expeditions to the Spanish territories of Central America.   He made a good profit by buying and capturing negro slaves in West Africa and trading them for gold and other valuables with the Spanish settlers across the Atlantic.  He was England’s first slave trader.

The Spanish jealously protected their trade with their colonies and Hawkyns was openly flouting their laws. Both sides increasingly used violence to protect their interests and Hawkyns, along with his cousin Drake, rapidly became skilled in the arts of diplomacy and naval strategy.

Architect of the Elizabethan Navy
Queen Elizabeth invested money in Hawkyns adventures and in 1577 he was appointed Treasurer to her navy.  Not only did he re-organise the navy, but also he was responsible for the adoption of the ‘race built galleon’, whose speed and guns were of enormous help in the fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Naval Commander
He was Vice-Admiral in the battle against the Armada, in which he commanded the Victory.  He was knighted on the 23rd July, 1588, off the Isle of Wight during the battle.
John Hawkyns was responsible for the foundation of the welfare fund for seamen disabled during the Armada campaign.  Known as the Chatham Chest, it was later merged with the Greenwich Hospital Fund.
Death at Sea
Sir John Hawkyns died on an expedition with Drake to the West Indies in 1595.  The advice he gave his crew is now famous: “Serve God daily, love one another, preserve your victuals, beware of fire and keep good company”.

Arch from the Old Ring O’Bells

The arch to the right of this notice (opposite the Job Centre at the top of Buckwell Street) was once the front entrance to the Old Ring O’Bells a public house in Wooster Street (now part of Vauxhall Street).  It must have been a familiar sight to Hawkyns whose main residence was close by in the same street.  The arch was moved to its present site in the 1960’s.

The Hawkins crest (below) wasn't on the plaque:-

Hawkins Crest.JPG (146120 bytes)


Admiral Sir John Hawkins (also spelled as John Hawkyns) (Plymouth 1532 – 12 November 1595) was an English shipbuilder, naval administrator and commander, merchant, navigator, and slave trader. As treasurer (1577) and controller (1589) of the Royal Navy, he rebuilt older ships and helped design the faster ships that withstood the Spanish Armada in 1588. He later devised the naval blockade to intercept Spanish treasure ships. One of the foremost seamen of 16th-century England, he was the chief architect of the Elizabethan navy. In the battle in which the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Hawkins served as a vice admiral and was knighted for his role.

William, John's father, was a confidant of Henry VIII of England and one of the principal sea captains of England. Sir Francis Drake, John's second cousin, helped him in his 2nd voyage.

The first Englishman recorded to have taken slaves from Africa was John Lok, a London trader who, in 1555, brought to England five slaves from Guinea. A second London trader taking slaves at that time was William Towerson whose fleet sailed into Plymouth following his 1556 voyage to Africa and from Plymouth on his 1557 voyage. Despite the exploits of Lok and Towerson, John Hawkins of Plymouth is widely acknowledged to be the pioneer of the English slave trade, because he was the first to run the Triangular trade, making a profit at every stop.


John Hawkins was the son of William Hawkins and Joan Trelawney. William Trelawney was the son of John Trelawney and Florence Courtenay, daughter of Hugh Courtenay. Hugh Courtenay was the son of Hughie Courtenay, Sr. and Matilda "Maud' Beaumont. Maud's mother was Eleanor Plantagenet, herself the great grand daughter of King Henry III making John Hawkins the 7th great-grandson of King Henry III. John Hawkins is also the great-great-grandfather of King James, the executive producer of the King James Version Bible. John was also the second cousin of Sir Francis Drake.

First voyage (1555–1563)

John Hawkins formed a syndicate of wealthy merchants to invest in the slave trade. In 1555, he set sail with three ships for the Caribbean via Sierra Leone. They hijacked a Portuguese slave ship and traded the 301 slaves in the Caribbean. Despite having two ships seized by the Spanish authorities, he sold the slaves in Santo Domingo and thus made a profit for his London investors. His voyage caused the Spanish to ban all English ships from trading in their West Indies colonies.[citation needed] In 1563, John Hawkins brought the first slaves from Africa to both the Caribbean Isles and Lower Americas.[2]

Second voyage (1564–1565)

The second voyage was even more successful. In 1564, Queen Elizabeth I partnered with him by renting him the huge old 700-ton ship Jesus of Lubeck , and he set forth on his second longer and more extensive voyage along with three small ships. Hawkins sailed to Borburata, privateering along the way. By the time he reached Borburata, he had captured around 400 Africans. After Borburata, Hawkins sailed to Rio de la Hacha. The Spanish officials tried to prevent Hawkins from selling the slaves by imposing taxes. Captain Hawkins refused the taxes and threatened to burn the towns. After selling his slaves, Captain Hawkins sailed to a French colony in Florida for a respite. Captain Hawkins returned to England in September 1566, his expedition a total success as his financiers made a 60% profit.

Third voyage (1567–1569)

His third voyage began in 1567. Hawkins obtained many more slaves, and also augmented his cargo by capturing the Portuguese slave ship Madre de Deus (Mother of God) and its human cargo. He took about 400 slaves across the Atlantic on the third trip. At San Juan de Ulúa (in modern Vera Cruz) he was chanced upon by a strong Spanish force that was bringing the new viceroy to the colony there. In the ensuing Battle of San Juan de Ulúa only two of the English ships escaped destruction, and Hawkins' voyage home was a miserable one. That of Hawkins' gunner, Job Hartop was equally so and took many years.

Although his first three voyages were semi-piratical enterprises, Queen Elizabeth I was in need of money and saw pirates as fighting her battles at their own cost and risk.

Hawkins would write about the details of his third voyage in An Alliance to Raid for Slaves. Specifically he comments on how trading and raiding were closely related in the English slave trade and how European success in the slave trade directly depended on African allies who were willing to cooperate. He also comments on the level of violence he and his men used and encouraged in order to secure his captives. The title makes clear the basis of his methodology.


As part of the government's web of counter-espionage, Hawkins pretended to be part of the Ridolfi plot to betray Queen Elizabeth in 1571. By gaining the confidence of Spain's ambassador to England, he learned the details of the conspiracy and notified the government so to arrest the plotters. ( He offered his services to the Spanish, in order to obtain the release of prisoners and to discover plans for the proposed Spanish invasion of England.

His help in foiling the plot was rewarded, and in 1571 Hawkins entered Parliament to become a Member of Parliament. He became Treasurer of the Royal Navy on 1 January 1578 following the death of his predecessor Benjamin Gonson (who was also his father-in-law, Hawkins having married Katherine Gonson in 1567). Hawkins' Navy financial reforms upset many who had vested interests, and in 1582 his rival Sir William Wynter accused him of administrative malfeasance, instigating a Royal Commission on Fraud against him. The Commission, under Burghley, Walsingham and Drake, concluded that there was no undue corruption, and that the Queen's Navy was in first-rate condition.[3]

John Hawkins was determined that his navy, as well as having the best fleet of ships in the world, would also have the best quality of seamen, and so petitioned and won a pay increase for sailors, arguing that a smaller number of well-motivated and better-paid men would achieve substantially more than a larger group of uninterested men.

Hawkins made important improvements in ship construction and rigging; he is less well known for his inventiveness as a shipwright, but it was his idea to add to the caulker's work by the finishing touch of sheathing the underside of his ships with a skin of nailed elm planks sealed with a combination of pitch and hair smeared over the bottom timbers, as a protection against the worms which would attack a ship in tropical seas. Hawkins also introduced detachable topmasts that could be hoisted and used in good weather and stowed in heavy seas. Masts were stepped further forward, and sails were cut flatter. His ships were "race-built", being longer and with forecastle and aftcastle (or poop) greatly reduced in size.

The Spanish Armada

Hawkins' innovative measures made the new English ships fast and highly manoeuvrable. In 1588 they were tested against the Spanish Armada. Hawkins was the Rear Admiral, one of three main commanders of the English fleet against the Armada, alongside Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher. Hawkins’ flagship was Victory. It is possible that Hawkins organised the fire-ship attacks at Calais. For his role in the great sea battle, Hawkins was knighted.

After the defeat of the Armada, Hawkins urged the seizure of Philip II's colonial treasure, in order to stop Spain re-arming. In 1589, Hawkins sailed with former apprentice Francis Drake in a massive military operation (the Drake-Norris Expedition) with one of its goals being to try to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet. The voyage failed, but the idea led many other English pirates to make similar attempts.

In 1590 Drake and Hawkins founded a charity for the relief of sick and elderly mariners. This was followed by a hospital in 1592 and another in 1594, the Sir John Hawkins’ Hospital. The charity continues today. And the charity and hospital is known as Johns Hopkins Charities and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The term Johns Hopkins derives from the shop that sold and traded kin of black/African slaves, hence John's Kin Shop. Hawkins was the pioneer and father of the slave trade. John Hawkins is also the great-great-grandfather of King James, the executive producer of the King James Version Bible.

Potatoes, tobacco and sharks

Potatoes were first imported to England (probably Ireland) in either 1563 or 1565 (sources differ) by Hawkins.

Some scholars suggest it was John Hawkins who introduced tobacco into England. Some accounts say this was in 1569, others in 1564. The latter is more likely, since he mentions "Ltobaccoj" (meaning tobacco) in his journals of the second voyage.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word shark appears to have been introduced by Hawkins' sailors, who brought one back and exhibited it in London in 1569. It has recently been suggested that the derivation is from xoc, the word for "fish" in a Mayan language spoken in Yucatán.[4]


In 1595 he accompanied his second cousin Sir Francis Drake, on a treasure-hunting voyage to the West Indies, involving two unsuccessful attacks on San Juan. During the voyage they both fell sick. Hawkins died at sea off Puerto Rico. Drake succumbed to disease, most likely dysentery, on January 27, and was buried at sea somewhere off the coast of Porto Belo. Hawkins was succeeded by his son Sir Richard Hawkins.

Hawkins came to the public's attention again in June 2006, almost four and a half centuries after his death, when his descendant Andrew Hawkins publicly apologized for his ancestor's actions in the slave trade.[5]

Admiral Sir John Hawkins (also spelled as John Jawkyns) Plymouth 1532 - November 12, 1595 was an English ship builder, naval administrator and commander, merchant, navigator and slave trader. As treasurer (1577) and controller (1589) of the Royal Navy, he rebuilt older ships and helped design the faster ships that withstood the Spanish Armada in 1588. He later devised the naval blockade to intercept Spanish treasure ships. One of the foremost seaman of the 16th-Century England, he was the cheif architect of the Elizabethan Navy. In the battle in which the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Hawkins served as a vice admiral and was knighted for his role. William, John's father was a confidant of Henry VIII of England and one of the priciple sea captains of England. Sir Francis Drake, John's second cousin, helped him in his 2nd voyage.
Died off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Sir Admiral John Hawkins was a sea captain , and pirate in service to Queen Elizabeth. He was rear admiral of the English fleet during the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He was cousin to Sir Francis Drake. Drakes mother was a Hawkins.

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Adm. Sir John Hawkins's Timeline

November 12, 1532
Plymouth, Devon, England
- 1595
Age 22
- 1595
Age 22
March 16, 1562
Age 29
Plymouth, Devonshire, England
November 12, 1595
Age 63
At sea off coast of Puerto Rico
November 1595
Age 62
At sea off coast of Puerto Rico