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24 September 2014

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Sir John Hawkins
Sir John Hawkins

England's first slave trader

The English chapter in the history of African slavery began in Plymouth and is remembered every year. Each year, African Remembrance Day pays homage to the millions of Africans who perished during 500 years of enslavement.

Held every year on 1 August, African Remembrance Day reflects on the lessons and challenges resulting from over 500 years of African enslavement.

It brings people together in mourning for those who perished during this painful period  in Africa's long and turbulent history.

Interestingly the English chapter in the history of slavery begins in Plymouth.

John Hawkins was England's first slave trader. In 1562 he sailed from The Barbican in Plymouth with three ships and violently kidnapped about 400 Africans in Guinea, later trading them in the West Indies.

A bound slave was Hawkins' crest
A bound slave was Hawkins' crest

Between 1562 and 1567 Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake made three voyages to Guinea and Sierra Leone and enslaved between 1,200 and 1,400 Africans.

According to slavers' accounts of the time this would probably have involved the death of three times that number.

The pattern was consistent. Hawkins sailed for the west coast of Africa and, sometimes with the help of other African natives, kidnapped villagers.

He would then cross the Atlantic and sell his cargo, or those who survived the voyage, to the Spanish. The slave trade was better business than plantations.

Hawkins' personal profit from selling slaves was so huge that Queen Elizabeth I granted him a special coat of arms, which has a c.

He was appointed as Treasurer for the Navy in 1577 and knighted in 1588 by the Lord High Admiral, Charles Howard, following the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

For Hawkins, the trade ended in 1567 when his fleet, which included a ship commanded by Francis Drake, took shelter from a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. The Spanish were also there. In the chaos and fight that followed, many of his men were killed.

Remembering African ancestors
Remembering African ancestors

Hawkins escaped in one ship and Drake in another. He'd lost 325 men on that voyage but it still showed a financial profit.

However, slavery continued after Hawkins and, although banned in England in 1772, it continued in the colonies until the 19th century.

In Plymouth there are numerous public monuments to his achievements, including Sir John Hawkins Square.

While Plymouth has publicly remembered John Hawkins as 'England’s first slave trader', there are no public monuments to the thousands of Africans killed and enslaved by Hawkins and Drake - nor the millions who perished in the period that followed.

African Remembrance Day pays homage to those who perished and those who survived.

Portrait of Sir John Hawkins (1532–95)
16th century oil by unknown artist
Copyright National Maritime Museum

Listen to some audio features about the slave trade in Devon and how it came to be abolished:
audio Slavery in Devon >
audio Sir John Hawkins >
audio Devon's slave traders >
audio Devon's plantation owners >
audio The abolition movement >
Audio and Video links on this page require Realplayer
last updated: 01/05/07
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Abolition - 1807

Abolition - 1807

History: Abolition 1807 »

Religion: Ethics of Slavery »

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