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John Hawkins and the Slave Trade, Episode 6 - 03/10/05


Massacre in Mexico, 1567 (Getty Images)

Massacre in Mexico, 1567
(Getty Images)
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Slavery is a stain on the history of the British Empire. The Anglo-Saxons kept slaves, but although serfdom survived for many years, slavery had all but gone from England by the 12th century. Certainly the earliest colonies, the West Indies and Virginia could not have survived without slaves.

The British were not the first Europeans in the slave trade. The Portuguese had established themselves as traders a century earlier.

Our story, here in the sixteenth century, centres on three voyages of John Hawkins. Hawkins was the first established English slave trader. Between 1562 and 1567 he made such profits so lucrative that he was supported by the Queen who showed her investment by donating two of her own ships, the Jesus of Lubeck and the Minion.

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.

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. The Queen's Jesus of Lubeck was lost. Hawkins escaped in one ship and Drake in another. He'd lost 325 men on that voyage but it still showed a financial profit.

That skirmish between the Spanish and English ships was partly a turning point in the naval confrontation between the two nations; it continued for two decades and was only partially settled by the 1588 English Channel battle with the Spanish Armada. However, slavery continued after Hawkins and, although banned in England in 1772, it continued in the colonies until the 19th century.

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Historical Figure

John Hawkins 1532-1595(Getty Images)

John Hawkins
(National Maritime Museum)
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Sir John Hawkins, 1532-1595

Hawkins, sometimes spelled Hawkyns, was one of the architects of the new Elizabethan navy but more notoriously known as a slave trader. Hawkins became the navy treasurer, the comptroller and rear admiral and was one of the subordinate commanders in the British fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1595 Hawkins sailed for the West Indies to plunder Spanish settlements and ships and died during the expedition.

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Did You Know...

That on some slaving voyages as many as half the Africans perished.

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Have Your Say

Events of this episode took place in the Americas region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

Comment on the Americas

Ray Bolton
Informative and jaw dropping !! Exquisit work - congratulation once again. I noted that most of English historical "wrong doing" was with the permission/blessing of "God and his followers" in Rome and around the world. Some in this country(US) say Katrina was send by "God" to punish New Orleans - same mentality don't you think ?? Thanks, give us more of this sort. Ray Bolton

Eddie D'Sa
Episode 6 John Hakkins & the Slave Trade We are early in the series and let us hope that the writers will move away from narrow patriotism and propaganda and onto a more inclusive vision. The empire has gone and it is time to hear not just the story of the victors but also of the victims. In Episode 6, the series writers have been bold enough to acknowledge that ‘Hawkins was the first established English slave trader… that he was supported by the Queen… (He) kidnapped villagers… would cross the Atlantic and sell his cargo…” You may or may not know that Hawkins unashamedly adopted as his crest the figure of a slave bound heavily at the torso by rope. I’d like to suggest that you reproduce a picture of this crest on your website. As the series progresses, I’d like to request that we hear more about the treatment of the slaves, their mortality rate, the plight of women slaves, the profits made by the traders and so on. Eddie D’Sa

Keff Tibbles
Half the world may hate the English for the success that was empire, the other half for the scourge inflicted upon them, but please stop it with the apologies. It was an English (British) elite (more like a gang of thugs to begin with) that engaged with Scottish/Irish/Spanish/Portuguese/African/Indian elites (gangs of thugs) who so often colluded and betrayed their own people in deals for their own greed; the English people were equally oppressed and benefitted to nought from such enterprises. So feel no shame for English history, for that it what it is, what it was and what it could and may have been for any other peoples through history. Do the decendants of Rome need feel shame? Do those of Scandinavia, Egypt and more? England's criticisers should grow up; apologies give them succour. Can I hold my cap out because of what was done to my ancestors by the various invaders-sorry, I forgot, I cannot do that for I am English.

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Contemporary Sources

John Hawkins on the Slave Trade

"Partly by the Spanish desire of Negroes, and partly by friendship of the Treasurer, we obtained a secret trade whereupon the Spaniards resorted to us by night and bought of us to the number of two hundred Negroes. In all other places we traded, the Spaniards were glad of us and traded willingly. At Cartagena, the last town we thought to have seen on the coast, we could by no means obtain to deal with any Spaniard, the governor was so straight; and because our trade was near finished we thought not good either to adventure a landing, but in peace departed from thence the twenty fourth of July, hoping to have escaped the time of their storms, the which they call Furicanos.

"Our men being oppressed with famine died continually, and they that were left grew into such weakness that we were scantly able to manage our ship, and the wind being always ill for us to recover England. Being arrived the last day of December in a place near unto Vigo called Ponte Vedra, our men with excess of fresh meat grew into miserable diseases and died a great part of them. We repaired our wants as we might and departing the 20th day of January 1568, arrived at Mounts Bay in Cornwall the twenty fifth of the same month, praised be God therefore. If all the miseries and troublesome affairs of this sorrowful voyage should be perfectly and thoroughly written, there should need a painful man with his pen and as great a time as he had that wrote the lives and deaths of the martyrs. John Hawkins."

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