|Sir John Hawkins. © NMM|
Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved people from West Africa to the Americas began during the reign of Elizabeth I.
John Hawkins – a merchant adventurer and later a naval administrator – was the first English trader. In 1562, while on a voyage to Hispaniola (Haiti), Hawkins added the transportation of captured Africans to his family’s trading interests in West Africa.
|Elizabeth I, 1533-1603, supported Hawkins and profited from slavery. © NMM|
A number of important people supported the venture, including:
Elizabeth I also backed the voyage, expressing a hope that the Africans would not be enslaved without first giving their free consent. She believed that capturing Africans against their will 'would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers'.
|A map of the West Indies, c.1590. © NMM|
Hawkins then crossed the Atlantic, selling the Africans into slavery in the Spanish West Indies. He returned to England with tropical produce such as ginger, sugar, pearls and hides, which he then sold to City merchants. Hawkins made a fortune in the process.
|John Hawkins. © NMM|
Hawkins went back to Sierra Leone. He took about 400 captives through a combination of force, negotiation with African rulers and seizure from Portuguese vessels. Again it was highly profitable, producing a return of 60% on the original investment.
Hawkins made huge sums selling the enslaved Africans to the Spanish and then selling tropical goods in England. As a result he was knighted.
|Sir Francis Drake, went on a slaving voyage in 1567-8. © NMM|
A third slaving voyage in 1567-68 was a disaster. Hawkins sailed with six ships, including two royal vessels. Between 400 and 500 Africans were captured. Hawkins also seized a Portuguese slave ship.
On the return voyage, bad weather forced the ships into a port in Mexico. A Spanish fleet trapped the English adventurers there and the Spanish captured both the queen’s ships.
Only Hawkins’ ship and that of the young Francis Drake returned safely. All the English cargo was taken and the profit from the expedition was lost.
|English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588. © NMM|
Hawkins’ activities irritated the Spanish. They objected to the English breaking their monopoly of West Indies trade.
This growing dispute was one of the reasons for the long war between England and Spain from 1584 until the Peace of London in 1604.
During the conflict, English ships continued to target Spanish colonies in the Americas. This disrupted Spain’s commerce, including its trade in enslaved people. However, Hawkins’ failure brought an end to organized English involvement in the trade for some years.