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John Hawkins


HAWKINS, or Hawkyns, SIR JOHN (1532–1595), British admiral, was born at Plymouth in 1532, and belonged to a family of Devonshire shipowners and skippers—occupations then more closely connected than is now usual. His father, William Hawkins (d. 1553) was a prosperous freeman of Plymouth who thrice represented that town in parliament, and is described by Hakluyt as one of the principal sea-captains in the west parts of England, his elder brother, also called William (d. 1589), was closely associated with him in his Spanish expeditions, and took an active part in fitting out ships to meet the Armada, and his nephew, the eldest son of the last named and of the same name, sailed with Sir Francis Drake to the South Sea in 1577 and served as lieutenant under Edward Fenton (q.v.) in the expedition which started for the East Indies and China in 1582. His son, Sir Richard Hawkins, is separately noticed.

Sir John Hawkins was bred to the sea in the ships of his family. When the great epoch of Elizabethan maritime adventure began, he took an active part by sailing to the Guinea coast, where he robbed the Portuguese slavers, and then smuggled the negroes he had captured into the Spanish possessions in the New World. After a first successful voyage in 1562–1563, two vessels which he had rashly sent to Seville were confiscated by the Spanish government with the help of friends, and the open approval of the queen, who hired one of her vessels to him, he sailed again in 1564, and repeated his voyage with success, trading with the Creoles by force when the officials of the king endeavoured to prevent him. These two voyages brought him reputation and he vas grantcd a coat of arms mth a rlcmi Moor, or negro, chained, as his crest 'I he rivalry with Spain was now becoming very acute, and when Hawkins sailed for the th1rd time in 1567, he went in fact, though not technically, on a national venture. Again he kidnapped negroes, and forced his goods on the Spanish colonies. Encouraged by his discovery that these settlements were small and unfortified, he on this occasion ventured to enter Vera Cruz, the port of Mexico, after capturing some Spaniards at sea to be held as hostages. He alleged that he had been driven in by bad weather. The falsity of the story was glaring, but the Spanish officers on the spot were too weak to offer resistance. Hawkins was allowed to enter the harbour, and to refit at the small rocky island of San Juan de Ulloa by which it is formed. Unfortunately for him, and for a French corsair whom he had in his company, a strong Spanish force arrived, bringing the new viceroy. The Spaniards, who were no more scrupulous of the truth than himself, pretended to accept the arrangement made before their arrival, and then when they thought he was off his guard attacked him on the 24th of September. Only two vessels escaped, his own, the “ Minion,” and the “ Judith,” a small vessel belonging to his cousin Francis Drake. The voyage home was miserable, and the sufferings of all were great.

For some years Hawkins did not return to the sea, though he continued to be interested in privateering voyages as a capitalist. In the course of 1572 he recovered part of his loss by pretending to betray the queen for a bribe to Spain. He acted with the knowledge of Lord Burleigh. In 1573 he became treasurer of the navy in succession to his father-in-law Benjamin Gonson. The office of comptroller was conferred on him soon after, and for the rest of his life he remained the principal administrative officer of the navy. Burleigh noted that he was suspected of fraud in his office, but the queen's ships were kept by him in good condition. In 1588 he served as rear-admiral against the Spanish Armada and was knighted. In 1590 he was sent to the coast of Portugal to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet, but did not meet it. In giving an account of his failure to the queen he quoted the text “ Paul doth plant, Apollo doth water, but God giveth the increase,” which exhibition of piety is said to have provoked the queen into exclaiming, “ God's death! This fool went out a soldier, and has come home a divine.” In 1595 he accompanied Drake on another treasure-hunting voyage to the West Indies, which was even less successful, and he died at sea off Porto Rico on the 12th of November 1595.

Hawkins was twice married, first to Katharine Gonson and then to Margaret Vaughan. He was counted a puritan when puritanism meant little beyond hatred of Spain and popery, and when these principles were an ever-ready excuse for voyages in search of slaves and plunder. In the course of one of his voyages, when he was becalmed and his negroes were dying, he consoled himself by the reflection that God would not suffer His elect to perish. Contemporary evidence can be produced to show that he was greedy, unscrupulous and rude. But if he had been a more delicate man he would not have risked the gallows by making piratical attacks on the Portuguese and by appearing in the West Indies as an armed smuggler; and in that case he would not have played an important part in history by setting the example of breaking down the pretension of the Spaniards to exclude all comers from the New World. His morality was that of the average stirring man of his time, whether in England or elsewhere.


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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 13

See R A J Walling, A Sea-dog of Devon (1907); and Southey in his British Admirals, vol. iii. The original accounts of his voyages compiled by Hakluyt have been reprinted by the Hakluyt Society, with a preface by Sir C. R. Markham.

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