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Throughout history, blame for the introduction of slavery in America has been squarely placed upon the slave traders who ravaged African villages, the merchants who auctioned off human lives as if they were cattle, and the slave owners who ruthlessly beat their helpless victims. There is, however, above all these men, another person who has seemingly been able to avoid the blame due her. The origins of slavery -- often described as America's shame -- can actually be traced back ...
Throughout history, blame for the introduction of slavery in America has been squarely placed upon the slave traders who ravaged African villages, the merchants who auctioned off human lives as if they were cattle, and the slave owners who ruthlessly beat their helpless victims. There is, however, above all these men, another person who has seemingly been able to avoid the blame due her. The origins of slavery -- often described as America's shame -- can actually be traced back to a woman, England's Queen Elizabeth I.
During the 1560s, Elizabeth was encouraging a Renaissance in her kingdom but also knew her country's economy could not finance her dreams for it. On direct orders from Her Majesty, John Hawkyns set sail from England. His destination: West Africa. His mission: to capture human lives.
After landing on the African coast, he used a series of brutal raids, violent beatings, and sheer terror to load his ships. As the first major slave trader, Hawkyns's actions and attitudes toward his cargo set the precedent for those who followed him for the next two hundred years. In The Queen's Slave Trader, historian Nick Hazlewood's haunting discoveries take you into the mind-set of the men who made their livelihoods trafficking human souls and at long last reveals the man who began it all -- and the woman behind him.
John Hawkyns had tasted blood at a very early age. His killing of a barber in his hometown is recorded in the Calendar of Patent Rolls for July 1552:
Because the king learns by the record of Nicholas Slannyng, coroner within the borough of Plymouth, Devon, upon view of the body of John Whyte, late of Plymouth, "barbour," that John Hawkins killed him in self-defence:
Pardon to the
said John Hawkins
for the said death.
At the time of the royal pardon Hawkyns was barely twenty years old. No more is known of the events leading up to the tragedy, and nothing is known of how John Whyte was killed. It certainly involved violence. Whether Hawkyns's innocence is really established by the pardon is neither here nor there -- such pieces of paper could be purchased by rich and powerful families. What it does illustrate, however, is that even as a young man from a wealthy background, John Hawkyns was very much a product of the brutal time, place, and family that he was born into. From what is known of the Hawkyns family, the killing of Whyte could have resulted from the unpremeditated pub brawl of a young man, or from the serious factional fighting in a town that in its political rivalries and patronage, often presaged the boss politics of great modern cities such as Chicago.
John Hawkyns was born into one of the two or three wealthiest merchant families in the important seaport of Plymouth, a family that boasted a rich West Country pedigree and that would imbue him with a craving for luxury and intrigue, and quite possibly the lust for power that was to characterize all aspects of his life. There is uncertainty about his date of birth, but 1532 is the year etched onto a contemporary memorial tablet to him and is the most commonly accepted. His mother, Joan Trelawney, was a daughter ofWilliam Trelawney of Cornwall. His father, William, was the offspring of a powerful Tavistock merchant and the heiress of King Edward IV's sergeant-in-law, William Amadas of Launceston. As one seventeenth-century commentator noted, William Hawkyns was "a gentleman of worshipful extraction by both his parents and several descents."
John had a brother William, thirteen years his senior, who in years to come would be his business partner, and quite probably a sister whose existence is almost completely absent from the records, except for the fact that she had a son called Paul. They lived together in a smart town house in a narrow lane at the end of Kinterbury Street, in the southwest quarter of Plymouth's old town. The house, bought when John was five years old, was clear evidence of the wealth of the Hawkynses: from their small back garden they could look down at the indisputable evidence of their familial power, the wharves and warehouses of Plymouth's inner harbor, Sutton Pool, where they ruled the roost over the bustle and business of the docks.
The patriarch of this family, William Hawkyns, was an immense presence in the affairs of the town, and a profound influence upon both of his sons. The elder Hawkyns moved in powerful circles. Political manipulation, maneuvering, and, no doubt, graft and patronage meant that he collected positions of power and influence. In 1523 he became collector of the subsidy for Devon, and the next year was made treasurer of Plymouth. He was elected mayor on two occasions, in 1532 and 1538, and member of Parliament in 1539 -- when he witnessed the final dissolution of the monasteries by the government of Henry VIII -- as well as in 1547 and 1553. In the year before he became town treasurer, William Hawkyns's personal income was a massive £150 a year. At not much more than thirty years of age, William Hawkyns was one of the five richest men in town.
In order to achieve high office William Hawkyns did not balk at using foul play. In 1527 he was ordered before the court of common pleas in Westminster to answer allegations that, along with Peter Grisling, James Horsewell, John Coram, John Grace, and Lucas Cocke, he did beat and wound one John Jurdon from Plymouth "so as to endanger his life." The charges resulted in little in the way of punishment. Soon after, Hawkyns became entwined in a bitter feud with one of his fellow bullyboys, Peter Grisling. In 1535 the struggle for power resulted in William Hawkyns being hauled to Westminster to appear before the secretary of state, Thomas Cromwell, who imposed on him a temporary ban from membership in the corporation of Plymouth. Nevertheless, the feuding and scheming continued until Grisling conceded defeat and moved off to nearby Saltash, from where as mayor he unsuccessfully attempted to gain control over the harbor dues for the whole of Plymouth Sound.
Shipping and mercantile activities were the cornerstones of William Hawkyns's life. As an energetic and successful businessman, he was a part of a thrusting, ambitious class that was pushing its way to the surface as England finally emerged from the dark ages of the Hundred Years War and the internecine conflict and regicide of the Wars of the Roses. This aspiring new middle class consisted of men who were to benefit from the centralization of government, the broken stranglehold of Roman Catholicism, the spread of Protestantism, and a growing sense of national unity. They were men increasingly able to exploit a sophisticated network of commercial trading routes established by the Hapsburgs, linking southern Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and England. And William Hawkyns was among them, taking advantage of this lucrative system from a very early age, making a huge pile from exporting tin and cloth to the Continent while importing wine from Spain, Portugal, Bordeaux, and the Canary Islands, pepper and sugar from Portugal, salt from La Rochelle, and fish from Newfoundland ...
Excerpted from The Queen's Slave Trader by Nick Hazlewood Copyright © 2005 by Nick Hazlewood. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 24, 2007
This is an exceptional work of historical reasearch and writing. At times, it feels as though you're reading a novel. I would recommend this book to anyone with even a slight interest in Tudor England and / or the beginnings of the trans-atlantic slave trade.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.