|The Atlantic slave trade resulted
in the enforced scattering of millions of Africans to the Caribbean,
the Americas and elsewhere - including Britain. A significant early English figure was John Hawkins. His
father, William Hawkins, made the first English expeditions
to West Africa in the1530s. William Hawkins was an adventurous
trader who set out to explore the Guinea coast. His voyages
were made in search of commercial materials such as dyewoods.
Exploration and trade were the most significant reasons for
people to move around the world during the 15th and early
16th centuries. The French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch
sent their merchant seamen to Asia, Africa and the Americas,
where trade developed rapidly. The English, anxious not to
miss out on this bounty, became experts in shipping, finance
and insurance and thus major players in overseas commerce.
'The King of this Country is adored
the common people' (119k)
From 1553, a group of London merchants began a series of
ventures to develop English overseas trade. Two years later
these adventurers returned carrying ivory, gold, Malaguetta
pepper and, significantly, five Africans from Shama, in
modern Ghana. These Africans were brought to England to learn
English, and returned to Africa as interpreters for visiting
Queen Elizabeth I assisted the early merchant adventurers
in 1561 by supplying ships and provisions. When they returned
to English ports they brought not only valuable cargoes of
commodities, but also more Africans, some of whom had probably
become sailors on these merchant ships. Queen Elizabeth soon
realised the economic value of this overseas trade. She granted
a patent to eight merchants from London and Exeter to trade
exclusively with Senegambia, between the Senegal and Gambia
rivers, for a 10-year period.
European traders thus initially met Africans at a time long
before colonial rule, when African societies possessed freedom
of action and political power. As commercial trade and enslavement developed over the next 250 years, millions of Africans were transported from one continent to another. Some of those uprooted by the slave
trade were also to end up in Britain - many as servants and
Commission of Inquiry
into Hawkins' Third Voyage
|In 1562, John
Hawkins set out on a voyage that would mark the beginning of
the English slave trade. Documents reveal that he left Plymouth
with the purpose of capturing Africans along the Guinea Coast.
The travel writer Richard Hakluyt (c.1552-1616) says that Hawkins
'got into his possession partly by the sworde and partly by
other meanes to the number of 300 negroes'. In Sierra Leone,
he took a ship laden with ivory, wax and 500 Africans.
Hawkins, commanding the ship Salomon, then made
the voyage from the Guinea coast to the West Indies. He arrived
at the port of Monte Christi, in what is now the Dominican
Republic, where they 'did deposit 125 slaves at 100 ducats
each' (about £25-30 in present-day terms). The Africans
were offered for sale to estate owners in the Americas, who
required a constant supply of cheap labour for their sugar
and tobacco plantations.
Pioneer of the
|News of the slave merchants' success
spread and they soon attracted wealthy, powerful backers, and
additional support from Queen Elizabeth. In 1564 the queen sponsored
Hawkins by lending him her very own 700-ton vessel, Jesus
of Lubeck. Now John Hawkins, freeman
of the city of Plymouth, left Plymouth specifically for
the purpose of capturing Africans on the West African coast.
Hawkins, in his own words, as noted by Hakluyt, 'profited
by the sale of slaves' - so much so that he included a bound
slave wearing a necklace and earrings on the crest of his
coat of arms. His final voyage turned out to be a disaster
for Hawkins, as he lost his ships and men to the Spanish.
This event precipitated hostilities between England and Spain.
John Hawkins' Coat of Arms
These early voyages proved to be early, tentative steps towards what was to become a highly organised trade in humans - and a major source of income for British merchants for some 300 years to come.
References and Further Reading
Churchill, W., History of the English Speaking Peoples,
vol. 4, London, 1956-8
File, N. and Power, C., Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958,
Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black
People in Britain, London, 1984
Williamson, J. A., Sir John Hawkins: The Time
and the Man, Oxford, 1927