Thursday, October 4, 2012

Sir Francis Drake and the African Slaves, by Tim Vicary

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.
These men were pioneers, adventurers, founders of the British Empire. Everything they did seemed admirable. They had saved the nation once; if England were ever in danger of invasion again all we had to do was to sound Drake’s Drum (which was hidden somewhere in Plymouth) and like King Arthur, he would rise from the dead and sail back to our rescue. As schoolboys, we basked in the reflected glory of these men. The symbol for the county of Devon was an Elizabethan galleon – Drake’s ship - sailing proudly across a blue sea.
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.  
So what about his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, the founder of the British Navy, the man who built Queen Elizabeth’s galleons to defend us against the Spanish Armada? Surely he was no pirate; he was a respectable merchant, a shipowner,  a businessman, a senior civil servant.
Well, yes. He was all of those things. But he was a slave trader too. That’s where much of his wealth came from.
Oh dear. If there’s one thing that’s really really bad about the British Empire, that has be it: the slave trade. African prisoners torn from their homes, chained and packed like sardines into the stinking holds of wooden ships for month-long voyages across the heaving Atlantic. Then poked and prodded, naked and trembling, in a marketplace where they stood waiting to be sold.
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.
You might think John Hawkins was ashamed of being a slave trader, but he wasn’t. Not at all. After all he hadn’t started it; the Portuguese were selling slaves long before him; they regarded the whole of the west African seaboard as exclusively their own, granted to them by the Pope. They sold slaves across the Atlantic to Spanish colonists in New Spain, the part of the New World the Pope had granted exclusively to them. Hawkins was just trying to get some of this commerce for himself, in the spirit of free trade. He made three slave-trading voyages, and he was so successful that he commissioned a coat of arms, proudly featuring – of all things – a black man bound with a rope.
Not very politically correct. Not the sort of public relations we can celebrate in our schools today, where racism is rightly regarded with anathema. And it wasn’t just John Hawkins who was involved with this; his young cousin Francis Drake sailed with him too, on the third and most troublesome of his three slaving voyages.
Clearly, these men were no angels. They were slave-traders, pirates, thieves – how can we possibly regard them as heroes? Surely we should just condemn them outright; and say there was nothing good about their lives at all?
 Well, perhaps. But perhaps not. These men, like most historical figures, were more complex than they first appear.
John Hawkins was both a slave trader AND the Treasurer of Queen Elizabeth’s Navy. He was the man who commissioned and built the ships which defeated the Spanish Armada. And by doing that, he saved many English men from becoming slaves themselves, bound for years to an oar in a Spanish galley, or being burned alive by the Inquisition at an Auto-da-Fe.
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!
Here is the evidence. In 1567 the young Francis Drake sailed to Sierra Leone in a fleet commanded by his cousin, John Hawkins. Here they bought, stole and captured some 500 African slaves which they transported to the Spanish Main and sold to Spanish colonists. But although the colonists were happy to buy the slaves, they were less happy about the vendor; their King, Philip of Spain, had made it very clear that English and French merchants should be kept out of his New World Empire, and treated as pirates.
So when Hawkins’s fleet was caught in a hurricane, and forced to seek shelter in the Spanish port of San Juan de Ulloa, he knew he was in trouble. While he was there, repairing his ships, the new Viceroy arrived from Spain with a fleet of 13 ships. At first, Hawkins negotiated an uneasy truce with the Viceroy: hostages were exchanged, and the Spanish fleet entered the harbor, mooring a short distance from the English. But the Spanish Viceroy had no intention of doing deals with a pirate. The truce was broken, and after a fierce battle most the English ships were sunk or captured. Hawkins escaped in one ship, Drake in another. Hawkins’s ship, the Minion, was so overcrowded with sailors from his other ships that he was forced to maroon several hundred men on land, where they were taken prisoner by the Spanish. When the Minion eventually reached England, only 15 men were still alive on board.
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.
But Francis Drake couldn’t have done all this on his own. Many of his most successful raids were due to some very important allies – the Cimarrons. These Cimarrons were escaped African slaves; people exactly like those whom he and John Hawkins had captured in Sierra Leone. Some of them may have actually travelled in Hawkins’s ships. But a lot of the Africans who were sold as slaves to the colonists had escaped. So many of them escaped, in fact, that they became a major threat to the Spanish colonists – just as big a threat as the English and French pirates. But unlike the pirates, the Cimarrons didn’t want gold and silver; they didn’t have much use for it.  They wanted freedom, and revenge, and the ability to defeat their Spanish masters.
All the accounts suggest that Francis Drake got on really well with these people. In a famous raid in Panama Drake presented the Cimarron leader, Pedro, with a gold encrusted scimitar which had previously belonged to Henry II, king of France. A true pirate’s sword! His Cimarron allies also took him to a hilltop in Panama, and showed him a famous tree. They climbed this tree with Francis Drake and his friend, John Oxenham, and showed them a marvelous sight: the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Pacific to the west. It was this vision which inspired Drake’s later voyage round Cape Horn.
Some of these Africans liked Drake so much that they even chose to sail with him. As the wounded Drake was getting back into his pinnace after a raid on Nombre de Dios in 1573, a black man called out to him from the shore: ‘Are you Francis Drake? Then I am coming with you!’ This man, an escaped African slave called Diego, became one of Drake’s longest-serving seamen, and stayed with him until he died on the Golden Hind’s round-the-world voyage six years later. And in 1586, at the siege of Santo Domingo, Drake sent a different black servant to receive a Spanish officer who carried a flag of truce. When the Spaniard, apparently insulted by this, callously ran the black man through with his sword, Drake was so incensed that he insisted that the Spanish hanged their own officer before any further negotiations took place.

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


  1. Fantastic article, Tim - especially as a Devonian who has named one of his sons Francis (albeit after the Saint, not the pirate... or the footballer). Very much looking forward to reading your book.

    1. Thanks so much, Richard. I hope the book lives up to expectations. It's a beautiful county, Devon - but I miss the ship!

  2. It is one of the peculiarities of fiction that it is easier to persuade a reader of the reality of dragons than to persuade him that a 'good' man may also be a racist.

    Keeping characters 'true to their time' while not exciting modern day moral censoriousness is a tightrope act. A good article.

    1. Thank you. What you say is very true. History is a constant interrogation of the past by the present, and values of the present are always changing. Racism and slavery are both bad things, but they're not the same thing; it's quite possible to have one without the other.

  3. Your book sounds interesting, Tim. Children make a particularly good vehicle for showing what a time/experience may have been like, in that the young have so many fewer biases. Interesting post too; you’re right, we weren’t taught about this side of these two men in school. It’s a bit hard to reconcile the slave trading with what I formerly thought of them. Despite possibly excusing them from the mores of today with regard to slavery, you would think having once done it and seen the brutality of the hold and the block they would have had some realization of the unjustness of it.

  4. They probably did; as I say, Drake appeared to have quite good relations with Africans as he grew older, and I've made him aware of some of the injustice in my book. But we have to realize that Elizabethan sailors lived extremely hard lives too; for instance, there was nowhere special for most of them to sleep on board ship, and hammocks weren't in common use yet. It was quite normal for more than half a ship's crew to die on a long voyage; Hawkins returned from this voyage with just 15 men alive - he took hundreds. And then, as I mention and M.M. Bennetts has reminded me, slavery was common. Turkish pirates raided English and Irish shores frequently for slaves to sell in Constantinople. John Smith, the hero of Jamestown, was sold as a slave there.

    What I've tried to do in my book is to explore how an English boy might do exactly as you say - come to realize, through experience, the injustice of slavery.

  5. Fabulous thank you. I live & learn.

  6. He was a key part of the slave genocides nothing can redeem him of that you cannot glorify a murderous pirate that helped tear thousands of people from their homes to be brutally worked,raped tortured and de humanized until dead just because he helped turn a few to be like him does not make it all better.

  7. I'm a Drake and I just wanted to see where I got the name from!


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