300 Trade and Exploration


Elizabeth’s reign famously saw England enter the search for new markets with which to trade and explore. In this episode, we focus on trade with West Africa, and John Hawkins’ infamous voyages of the 1560s.


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Last time I spent a bit of time on Africa and the issues around the development of trade between Europe and Africa. I have no doubt that many of you deeply resented being forced to listen to an episode that appeared to have little to do with the history of England, and I would like to apologise for that, and cast rose petals at your feet to make it up to you. This time, there’ll be much more about the English; we’ll talk about how the English, a nation noted for being able to push its way where it isn’t wanted, began to push its way into the Africa trade, and into the Caribbean, to the irritation of the Portuguese and Spanish. Since as far as they were concerned, this all belonged to them. Because the pope said so. We will begin with the start of trading ventures in Elizabethan England generally, and then we’ll switch back to Africa; to the growth of trade there, and then the infamous campaigns of one John Hawkins of Devon, cradle of English Elizabethan seafaring.

England’s international trade did not start with Elizabeth of course; she had depended on the trade in wool and cloth with Flanders for many centuries, and for the foreseeable this is the trade that will dominate policy and draw Elizabeth’s eyes. In the Africa trade, activity from England started in the 1530s as we will see, despite the embargo of the Papacy. Before that, John Cabot had sailed to Newfoundland and Canada in 1497. Relatively little happened for a while, and English seamen found competition with French and Portuguese ships a problem on the Newfoundland banks. Under Mary, English traders turned their attention eastwards. Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor were financed by a group of London merchants to find a northern route to China. Really, the north was to prove an enormous disappointment to generations of English seamen, looking for a north east passage or a north west passage, and as often as not ending up as ice sculptures. This is what happened to Willoughby’s part of the expedition. It’s really difficult to get a grip emotionally on the incredible risks these first explorers took; Willoughby’s diary records how the coastline differed from the globe as known at that time, their awareness of the local conditions was limited, and probably sometime in January 1554, while trying to over winter on the Russian coast, Willoughby and all his men simply froze to death.

Chancellor on the other hand, managed to get to the Russian port of St Nicholas, despite having been warned by some Scottish merchants not to go any further. Off Chancellor then went overland to Moscow, where he met Ivan IV, who was clearly not feeling so terrible since he was very positive about trading with the English and even wrote letters to that effect with trading privileges. This lead the following year, in 1555, to the formation of the Muscovy Company. This was the first joint stock company in England, pooling the resources of 250 stockholders.

Obviously, Mary’s husband Philip was not terribly keep on English traders getting in the way of his own traders, Spanish and Flemish, and was therefore not terribly encouraging, but Elizabeth was keen to continue the traditional relationship between monarch and London, and offered some preferable customs rates to that stalwart of the English cloth trade, the Society of Merchant Adventurers.

Still the most interesting of the non-traditional markets for English merchants were in the Atlantic world; trade to the east was difficult, despite the formation of the Turkey Company in 1581 to trade with the Ottoman Empire; the company would become the Levant company in 1593. The Ottomans were old hands at this international trading malarkey, and the English had to deal with Dutch, French and Venetian traders, all much better established than England. By 1583, there was a permanent ambassador in Istanbul, but it was hard work. In this context, therefore, the Atlantic trade looked more attractive. The activities of the early traders we’ll hear about in a moment crawled with some determination up the nostrils of the Portuguese, and wriggled about, and in 1561 the Portuguese complained – not just that this was their party and English heretics were not invited for the jelly and ice cream, but also that the English needed to be kept out of any regions conquered by Portugal, and more reasonably that the trader William Towerson had attacked and burned Portuguese ships. This got Elizabeth proper steaming, well thank you sir kindly said she. Or moving away from Stanley Holloway sketches, what she really said was that where evidence was brought to her of English piracy, the wrong doers would be punished – though it’s possible that queenie’s nosy grew slightly at that point – but that

her meaning is …to restrain her subjects from haunting any new found land…wherein the king of Portugal had obedience, dominion, and tribute, and not from all places discovered, whereof he had no superiority at all

Elizabeth was a big believer that attack was the best form of defence. Basically, just finding somewhere didn’t mean you owned it, Mr Portugal sir. And as we know now, almost all African kingdoms were in no way dominated or controlled by Europeans, so were open to trade for all.

I should break off for a moment and cover something. I have been engaged in a debate with Luke about what constitutes a pirate, in the light of Portuguese and Spanish moans, modern ones rather than 16th century ones, that Francis Drake was just a pirate – and also some historians of course, some of Drake’s biographers like Kelsey take the same approach. Anyway, we’ll come to Drake in due course, but the point is that there were two ways for a private individual to capture other ships for profit. As it happens, Privateering, a word we all use for the 16th century and before, is not one of those options; privateering becomes a recognised legal term only in the 17th century. Anyway, two ways; the first was a General Proclamation made by the government which entitled citizens to capture ships of a named enemy with whom the country was at war. The other was the older term; where a merchant or ne’er do wells from another country, a country with whom we were not at war, robbed the fine upstanding citizen; and the government of the ner’er do wells refused to make reparation. So a letter of reprisal was issued, authorising the upstanding citizen to seize the specified sum by force. Since this was based on marcher law, such letters became known as letters of mark. In Scotland, a letter of reprisal was actually heritable property, and could last for decades. I feel I have told you all this before, in which case sorry. But up and down the west of Europe countries would have recognised these rules – Spaniard, French, Portuguese, French, Scots, Flemish. There’s one more wrinkle worth noting, an aspect of the naval set up in the Early Modern world that feels very alien now; which is the private-public thing. Captains and crew received a cut of the proceeds for any ship captured; and the English lord Admirals did too – 10%. So there’s plenty of impetus to support the offer of letters of reprisal.

The line between personal enterprise and matters of state was also narrower and less well defined than it would be in later centuries; we see this not just in letters of reprisal, but also in the traditional commandeering of private merchant vessels for war, though this last trend will begin its demise, as we will find out in a couple of episodes’ time. But also, the crown got itself involved in trading and exploration ventures, and one of these raised a head that will become increasingly ugly. I speak, of the voyages of John Hawkins.

So, to the Africa trade then. The start of English exploration on the coast of Africa is traditionally identified with the Hawkins family, one of the great traditions of Devonian sea dogs, if I may use such an antiquated term. But before we launch into the Hawkins family in might be noted that there’s an earlier tradition, though it seems a little shaky. But it appears that there was a community of English traders already involved in Africa trade and also slave trading; there seem to have been maybe as many as 50 of them. The reason they are often ignored is that they lived in and worked from Andalusia. Its therefore a little dodgy in the sense that while one historian makes a great claim that these merchants formed a sort of crucible or apprenticeship for the African trade, and indeed for slaving, they form no significant local tradition in England. Nor actually are they involved in much slave trading – but it might be said that a commission in 1521 for Thomas Malliard to ship two black Africans to Santo Domingo forms the first English involvement in slave trading rather than the better known John Hawkins in the 1560s. Other historians see this all as bit of a stretch[1], though it’s worth noting that being part of the Spanish communities many of them owned enslaved servants and workers.

Whatever view you take of the ex-pat Englishmen, there’s no doubt that news of Portuguese trading was finding its way back to England, and that enthusiastic merchants and would be merchants were beginning to dribble at the thought of all that gold, ivory and pepper; by the start of the 16th century around 25,000 ounces of Gold had been sold to the Portuguese by African traders. I have not read anything that definitively identifies the first English trader to West Africa, but all the roads seem to lead to that hot bed of English piracy, exploration and naval warfare – to Devon. More specifically, the road leads to the Hawkins family, starting with William Hawkins rather than the more famous John, but son of a merchant of Tavistock, called John Hawkins. Born around 1490 or earlier, William Hawkins may have been part of Henry VIII’s navy in 1512; William in turn had two children which, with Tudor originality, he called William, and you guessed it – Reginald. No just kidding, John, the mildly famous one. William tips up in Plymouth in the 1520s, and was one of the lesser local dignitaries – collector of subsidies, contributing to the town’s defensive arsenal, that sort of thing.

There’s a definite like father like son thing going on here; William Hawkins was an in your face kind of man. He became mayor of Plymouth in a distinctly factional atmosphere, in the end hauled up before the Privy Council no less. He initially lost the case…then slipped Thomas Cromwell some hake, would you believe, apparently a delicacy, which seemed to do the job. William’s main line was international trade though; with Spain and France, in traditional English goods, like cloth, importing wine, sugar, pepper, soap, and fish. His big claim to fame though came in 1530-1532 when he made 3 trips to the Guinea coast. Richard Hakluyt’s The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, published in 1589 recorded that Hawkins

Touched at the river Cestos, where he trafficked with the negroes, and took of them Oliphant’s teeth and other commodities which that place yielded

Oliphant’s teeth by the way are tusks. Thence he sailed to Brazil, where he loaded Brazilwood, used in the dying process, and shipped it over to the Mediterranean. By the way, you’ll hear a lot of Hakluyt, I can’t be bothered with the full mouthful of the title, so I’ll call them Hakluyt’s Discoveries in future. Make a note.

On a second voyage to Brazil, Hawkins made a friendship with a local chief, and brought said chief back to England to a meeting with Henry VIII. This is a tactic that will be repeated elsewhere at other times; the attempt to create a local relationship to strengthen trading opportunities. Unfortunately, said chief died on the voyage back to Brazil, which gave Hawkins a problem – he’d left an Englishman as hostage for the return of the king. Somehow, however, he managed to sweet talk his way round the problem. Hawkins’ career is then a bit hidden for a while, but one more expedition of his ship the Paul sailed at least. The voyage demonstrated why people like Hawkins took the high risks of trading with such distant places, unknown to geographers; it made a return of more than 1000%, which isn’t bad.

In the 1540s Hawkins indulged in another theme, for which modern podcasters would thank him; he decided that despite these profits privateering in the channel was more his style. I say theme, because after the 16th century forays into new world exploration, English seamen generally will turn away from these new opportunities, and return to the world they knew and had indulged in for centuries – privateering. After all, the English Channel was a very busy area for shipping, so much so that collisions often happen, such as the two ships that collided, one carrying purple dye and the other red dye. One chronicle records that all the seamen were marooned.

This entire episode has been constructed so that I could tell that 2 Ronnie’s joke of which the Wittertainers reminded me. It is a classic though is it not?

Anyway, under a general proclamation of war against the French in the 1540s, William Hawkins seized shipping. As befits a man who was clearly headstrong and self confident; Hawkins sailed close to the line; he seized a Spanish ship, because it had a French cargo; and a Breton ship just after peace had been declared with France. He essentially got away with most of it, but spent a short period in the clink.

So William Hawkins kicked off trade to West Africa in a rather secondary sense, but showed there was money to be made. But the Treaty of Tordesillias rather held English merchants back. Then of course came Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and the treaty was made irrelevant as far as the English were concerned. Still it took a while until the son of another seafaring county, Norfolk, led an expedition to the African coast in 1553. This was Thomas Wyndham, and in this he had an advantage over Hawkins, in the form of a Portuguese adviser, Pinteado and a Portuguese pilot who both sailed with them. Wyndham had several backers for his 3 ship flotilla, confident that after Wyndham’s successful trading voyages to Morrocco, all would go well in Africa.

To a degree it did go well in that the expedition traded for 150 pounds of gold, and at Benin for 80 tons of pepper. But Wyndham showed a healthy disregard for expert advice, another fine English virtue, and against Pinteado’s advice kept going. Disease swept through the flotilla and took Wyndham with it before they turned for home.

Nothing daunted, in the following year a merchant called John Lok took an expedition to the Gold Coast, avoiding the Portuguese fort at El Mina as had Wyndham. Lok, however made it home as well – with 250 tusks of ivory and over 400 pounds of gold. London and its merchants were now officially interested in trade with Africa, the Guinea trade as it was being called. A further adventurer, William Towerson, then launched three expeditions down the coast. The first was peaceful and successful; the second in 1556 took the form of a joint venture with French sailors. This time, the Portuguese caught them, and a battle ensued, but Towerson managed to keep trading with some success. Thus did the Portuguese try to defend their monopoly; and thus did interlopers like English, French and Dutch in particular, um, interlope

The third voyage was less successful; the same battle broke out with the Portuguese, but worse Towerson was late in the year and most of the African traders’ goods had been sold. The English were viewed with suspicion, and Towerson attacked and burned a village called Sharma before sailing for home. The problems of this third voyage was enough for Towerson and he gave up on the Guinea trade. No doubt the inhabitants of Sharma were pleased to see the back of him.

Now when John Lok had returned, he had clearly seen a long term future for the Guinea trade. Because it was recorded that he ‘brought with him certain blacke slaves’. There were five men, and in fact they were not slaves; they were there to learn English and be returned to Africa. John Lok’s cunning plan was all about developing his customer knowledge; these men could be his guide to further trade. They stayed for a few months, and then were returned as part of William Towerson’s voyage. History does not record if Lok managed to make contact with his potential partners again, and strike up a good trading relationship.

The most well known expeditions in the 1560s though that involved Africa were 3 campaigns carried out by one John Hawkins, infamous as the first English foray into the buying and selling of people, enslaved Africans. As you all know now, John Hawkins was the son of William, and part of a family that was no stranger to walking on the very edge of the line, often stepping over the poor, abused line, and very much at home to taking a risk or two in the interests of getting ahead and making a few quid. By the 1550s John Hawkins was in the business with his brother, and during the Anglo French wars in Mary’s reign made several of said quid under the aegis of a general proclamation to seize French ships and goods. By 1559 Hawkins’ home town of Plymouth in Devon was too small to hold him, despite having achieved dignitary status through his activities. So Hawkins went to where the streets were paved with gold – and a little poo it has to be said – namely East Grinstead. No, not East Grinstead of course, to London. There he hooked up with Katherine Gonson, the daughter of the Treasurer of the Navy, one Benjamin Gonson. I say hooked up, because it looks as though they had a son, Richard Hawkins well before they got married in 1567, which back then was considered naughty.

By 1561, Hawkins had made several voyages to the Canaries, and there he came across the idea, floated by one of the Canarian trading families, that intrigued him; why not, said Pedro de Ponte, trade in enslaved Africans, picked up in Guinea and traded with the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean? Pedro no doubt told him that although officially the Spanish could not trade with a non- Spanish heretic like Hawkins, in practice they were so desperate that they would trade with anyone to get enslaved for their plantations. Hawkins sadly did not say ‘That’s a revolting trade how could I do that’; he thought instead here is a fortune being made by others, and I would like a part of it.

In October 1562 3 small ships totalling 260 tons and with 100 men duly sailed from Plymouth, and picked up an experienced Caribbean pilot at Tenerife. By the end of the year Hawkins reached the Guinea coast, which he followed as far south as Sierra Leone. Here Hawkins procured 300 enslaved African people; either by buying them from the Portuguese, which is the English story, or by attacking the Portuguese ships, which is the Portuguese story; possibly because if it had become known to their king that the Portuguese captains had been trading with the English, their guts would soon have been waving gently from the gallows in the hot Portuguese sun. We know nothing of the conditions the enslaved were kept, whether it was akin to the appalling conditions of the Middle Passage of the 18th century. But he sailed across to the Caribbean, to Spanish Hispaniola, the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and there he sold the unfortunate Africans, in small towns away from the centre of Spanish government, and then sailed home, sending two of his ships to Seville and Lisbon to sell the homeward cargo of hides. Both those ships were seized and confiscated. Dire messages went out to the Caribbean from Spanish and Portuguese governments telling them not to trade again with the English.

Hawkins had proved that this nasty trade offered potential to make money; and a new syndicate was formed to finance a new expedition. It included 3 Privy Councillors – Leicester, the lord admiral Clinton, and the earl of Pembroke. William Cecil didn’t contribute any money but was involved in planning, while Elizabeth herself gave Hawkins her backing by contributing a large ship – the Jesus of Lubeck. By 1565, Hawkins was on the coast of Venezuela looking to sell 400 enslaved Africans who he had bought, or raided from the Portuguese. Relationships between England and Spain were now much more rocky than they had been, and Spanish governors arranged with Hawkins to pretend a show of force, so they could claim they were forced into trading. Which didn’t really convince anyone. Hawkins continued on to Rio de Hacha where the same charade played out, until the enslaved people were all sold. And then north, to Florida, selling a ship and goods to the rather desperate French colony there, thence to Newfoundland and home. The profit from the trade in human beings from this trip worked out at 60%.

The Spanish made their intentions in the Caribbean as regards English trading quite clear. The governor who had traded with Hawkins was sent back to Spain as a prisoner, the French colony in Florida was wiped out. At the Spanish Ambassador’s insistence, Hawkins agreed never to trade in the Caribbean again. The trouble here also was that Elizabeth was directly implicated, and it was much more difficult therefore for her to duck the blame – she was compromised diplomatically, and for a while she put something of a dampner on further Hawkins voyages as the Spanish Ambassador asked that she prevent Hawkins’ expeditions. Hawkins sent out his fleet under a deputy, John Lovell, but it only made a mild return, and was not sponsored by the queen or Privy Councillors. By the time he returned the diplomatic situation was transformed by the arrival of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands, just across the water, and Elizabeth decided that the time was right to fire a diplomatic warning shot. So John Hawkins was removed from his box, dusted off, and pointed in the direction of the Spanish Empire.

The fleet of 6 ships and 400 men sailed in August 1567; two of the ships, the leaky old Jesus of Lubeck and the Minion, a 300 ton ship made 30 years before in 1536, and therefore like most 30 year olds, no longer really cool or fashionable, much as they’d like to think otherwise. Unfortunately, Phillip and his agents knew where Hawkins was bound. This time Hawkins’ presence capturing enslaved people was more violent, since he found Portuguese unwilling to trade; his activities included attacking the African town of Conga in Sierra Leone with the help of a local king. By the end, Hawkins had acquired 400 enslaved people for the gruelling passage to the Caribbean. On the 7 week passage, a new captain was promoted to the little 50 ton pinnace Judith – this was one Francis Drake, earning his Caribbean spurs. In 1568, Hawkins traded quite peacefully for a while, but when he returned to Rio de Hacha he found a governor that was steaming and the resulting trading was more akin to a war.

But nonetheless, by Hawkins’s standards when it was time to head for home, the expedition could be judged a commercial success, though he had problems with the Jesus of Lubeck which was frankly rotten, with so many holes that fish were living happily in the ballast. So Hawkins was forced to put into the harbour of San Juan de Uloa for repairs. He felt reasonably comfortable – his little flotilla of ships was pretty well placed in the harbour, and he thought he’d stitched up a deal with the Governor to get repairs done peacefully.

Sadly he was wrong; a Spanish fleet carrying silver for the homeland appeared, and the Spanish admiral objected to the presence of a fleet of heretical English corsairs. And so on 23rd September, 120 Spanish soldiers snuck up on the English fleet, and started a fight that was waged all day, with losses both sides. But it was the English who came off worse, and fairly early it became clear that Hawkins was going to have to abandon most of his ships, and as much treasure as possible was transferred to two ships, the Minion and the little Judith; the Minion in particular was stuffed to the gunwales with sailors. By nightfall, just these two ships made it out of the harbour, out of range of Spanish guns. In the morning, the Judith and its captain Francis Drake had disappeared, leaving the Minion to fend for herself – as Hawkins angrily said, Drake

Forsook us in our great myserie

It cast something of a cloud over their relationship, but it would recover; Hawkins would invest £500 in Drake’s trip to circumnavigate the world.

Hawkins limped home. He left behind French and English sailors who had been given over as hostages for good behaviour, or had been captured in the battle. The overloaded Minion fought contrary winds for a while as food and water ran low, until Hawkins was forced to put 96 ashore, with bolts of cloth to barter. That didn’t work out well – most were captured by the Spanish, many tried by the Spanish Inquisition and only 4 managed to make it home alive. One of them was Miles Phillips who had a varied 17 years with run ins with the native inhabitants, imprisonment by the Spanish, employment as an overseer and translator before making it home. Another was Job Hortrop, who took 23 years to make it home. In all, Hawkins lost 1,000 tons of shipping and arrived home in 1569 with a crew of just 15. Together with the Judith, less than a quarter of the men had made it home, despite Hawkins’ efforts over the next couple of years to sail back to find his men and persuade the Spanish to release those captured. ‘All is lost, save only honour’ he was reported as saying. The affair at San Juan, which the English saw as the betrayal of an agreement made, and the treatment of the English prisoners by the Spanish, bred a hatred of the Spanish, certainly in the breast of Francis Drake, but also more widely.

It was the last English voyage to trade in enslaved people for over 70 years, and the English and British deep commitment to the trade would nor really start in earnest until the 1660s, by when Jamaica had been captured and the English plantations were growing and demanding the labour of the enslaved. The reason often given for the withdrawal of the English is this disastrous third voyage, and that’s partly true of course, but really, it’s the reasons behind it that count. The big driver of the massive enslavement of African people was the plantation business, and in 1568 England had none of her own colonies; and Spain had demonstrated that getting involved in the Spanish and Portuguese trade in the enslaved would be a hard, bloody business. It would take the decline of Spanish military power and the rise of English colonialism and plantation agriculture for the long century of British domination of the evil trade to take place.

In the meantime, by 1571 all trade between Africa and England had effectively ceased by 1571; and England’s interest in the Caribbean moved to a combination of piracy and state approved private warfare. See above for discussion of Letters of Reprisal and General Proclamation, but in the 1570s there will be at least a dozen plundering expeditions into the Caribbean, made of course by that celebrated corsair, Francis Drake, or possibly depending on your nationality or general outlook on life, that bloody and infamous pirate, Francis Drake. We’ll deal with our Francis in a future episode.

[1] Ungerev, g The Mediterranean Apprenticeship of British Slavery; see also Miranda Kaufman’s review at http://www.mirandakaufmann.com/book-reviews.html


3 thoughts on “300 Trade and Exploration

  1. How are you feeling this week?
    I have to thank you, because borrowing your style of historiography is helping me immensely in my art history paper.

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