As a boy, growing up in Devon, I was taught that Francis Drake and John Hawkins were great Elizabethan heroes. Drake was the first Englishman to sail around the world, to return with untold riches and be knighted by Queen Elizabeth on the deck of his ship, the Golden Hind; Hawkins was the founder of the Royal Navy, the man who designed and built the fast, weatherly galleons which sailed rings around the Spanish Armada.
It’s different today. Look up Devon County Council on the web and what do you find? No ship – just a logo of two green leaves. Terrific. (So Devon has trees and the rest of England does not?) But it’s a sign of the times. The environment is fashionable, the British Empire is no longer something to be proud of.
Do today’s school children learn much about Francis Drake and John Hawkins? I wonder. If they do, I’m sure they are taught a different version of British history differently to the one I learned; and to an extent, that’s quite right. For Sir Francis Drake was not just a hero; he was also a pirate and a thief. He was licensed by the Queen to steal, burn and destroy Spanish ships and colonies in the New World. He was as feared and hated by the Spanish just as much as the Vikings once were by English monks, or Somali pirates are by sailors today.
Everyone knows this. I’m sure if there’s one thing that British school children DO learn about in their history lessons it’s the slave trade. And quite right too. It was horrible. It was also one of the greatest forced migrations in history. It’s because of the slave trade that British and American classrooms today don’t just contain white children who can identify with men like Drake and Hawkins, but also black children whose African ancestors were enslaved by men just like them.
Well, perhaps. But perhaps not. These men, like most historical figures, were more complex than they first appear.
Francis Drake was both a pirate AND a great explorer, consummate navigator, circumnavigator of the world. He, like Hawkins, saved England from invasion by Spain.
But the life of Francis Drake also shows us something else. Astonishingly, it seems that it was possible to be both a slave trader AND the friend of escaped African slaves!
This incident made it crystal clear, as the Spanish Viceroy intended, that there was no possibility of English merchants trading with the Spanish colonists. Over the next few years Hawkins tried to negotiate with Spain for the return of his imprisoned sailors, even pretending, at times, that he was a Catholic. But Francis Drake took a more direct method. Since it was no longer possible to trade with the Spanish colonists, he decided to raid them instead. He set out to steal the gold and silver from the mines of South America which made the Spanish king so rich.
Francis Drake was very successful at this. In fact, he became one of the most successful pirates in all history. Historians estimate that each shareholder in his voyage of circumnavigation round the world made a profit of £47 for each £1 they invested. Queen Elizabeth got more money from that one pirate ship, than all other Exchequer receipts for a year.
So perhaps, even though he was once a slave-trader, we can exonerate Drake from the modern slur of racism. Slavery, after all, was common in the sixteenth century, and not necessarily linked to race. Thousands of slaves were chained to the oars of the galleys on both sides, Spanish and Turkish, at the battle of Lepanto; that was how Mediterranean sea-battles were fought. Moorish sailors from North Africa raided the coasts of Cornwall and southern Ireland for slaves to sell in the markets of Constantinople. For sailors and people who lived near the coast, slavery was an unfortunate hazard of life. It could happen at any time, out of the blue, and transform a person’s life forever.
For someone writing a historical novel about Drake and Hawkins today, what does all this mean? Surely the story can’t, or shouldn’t, be only about the heroic English sailors, as books were when I was young. John Hawkins’s third slave-trading voyage transformed the lives of hundreds of unlucky Africans – more Africans, probably, than there were English sailors on his ships. So in a novel about these events, surely the Africans should have a prominent place too. What was life like for them, as well as for the English sailors who captured them?
In my book, Nobody’s Slave, I try to imagine what this may have been like. Nobody’s Slave is the story of two teenage boys, one African, one English, whose lives collide on John Hawkins’s third slave-trading voyage. I have tried to write an adventure story which, I hope, can be read by anyone, white or black, as part of our shared and troublesome history. It’s a work of fiction, but all the main events really happened; they are based on original sources, and as true and accurate as I can make them.
Sources: Much of the original source material can be found in The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. Hawkins’ own account of his voyage (written and approved by John Sparke, who sailed with him) is in Volume 7; two other very colorful accounts, by Miles Philips and Job Hortob, both of whom sailed with Hawkins and were captured by the Spanish, are in Volume 6.
Links: Amazon US