Intolerable Cruelty | The Nation


Intolerable Cruelty

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Nick Hazlewood's The Queen's Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the Trafficking in Human Souls is a far more tough-minded work. What gives it its bite is the fact that it deals with an otherwise heroic period in English history, one in which Protestant sea dogs were pulling the beard of Spain's Philip II, defending little England against his "Invincible Armada," and generally fighting the good fight against the royal absolutism that was threatening to engulf Europe. But less well known is that those same freedom-loving Protestants were angling all the while to break into the Spanish- and Portuguese-dominated slave trade.

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Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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Their motives are clear: While the risks were huge, the rewards were even greater. Spanish and Portuguese America suffered from an acute labor shortage, and, despite efforts to ban outsiders, there was every reason to believe that planters would pay a premium to anyone able to provide them with fresh slaves. The death of England's pro-Spanish Queen Mary in 1558 was a signal for English Protestants to leap into the breach. Four years later, a sea captain named John Hawkyns--although the history books usually render it "Hawkins," Hazlewood says the family more often spelled it with a "y"--prepared to do just that. Leaving Plymouth at the head of a small fleet, Hawkyns seized four Spanish ships off the Western Sahara before turning his attention to the more heavily populated estuaries, rivers and inlets to the south. Where the Spanish and Portuguese had already learned by this point to rely on local chiefs and kings to supply them with slaves, Hawkyns preferred a more direct approach. He and his crew simply pounced on anyone they spotted along the shore, dragging him from his home or fishing canoe and throwing him into the hold. Spying a vessel in today's Sierra Leone, he and his men clubbed the crew into submission, according to Portuguese accounts, and made off with both the ship and its cargo of up to 500 slaves, not to mention ivory, wax, and gold. He seized a Spanish vessel with 200 more slaves, a third boat with seventy and a fourth with sixty.

Loaded to the gunwales, Hawkyns dashed across the Atlantic in an effort to sell off his captives before they perished from disease. He did not have permission to land in Spanish territory, he did not have a license to trade, his goods had not cleared customs and at least one of his ships was stolen. But by claiming that one of his ships needed repairs, he bluffed his way ashore and set up shop in what is now the Dominican Republic. After selling off a portion of his cargo, he sailed another thirty miles along the coast and began trading slaves for cattle hides. Finally, in June 1563, he set sail for home. Portuguese slave traders seized one of his ships on the way back, and Spanish authorities confiscated another. Still, says Hazlewood, the profits from the remaining cargo were enormous.

This is what international trade was like in the early modern period: a thinly veiled form of piracy and kidnapping. Hawkyns exhibited absolutely nothing of what we today would regard as a moral sense. Or, to put it another way, the only moral sense he displayed was one composed of equal parts religion, patriotism and egotism. If his efforts benefited England, hurt Catholic Spain and made him rich in the bargain, they were "good." If they didn't, they were "bad." This is not to say that the English of the sixteenth century were incapable of human sympathy. "If any African were carried away without their free consent," Elizabeth said of Hawkyns's first voyage, "it would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers." But Elizabeth had a change of heart once she realized how much money was at stake. Along with several of her top courtiers, the Queen signed on as a backer of Hawkyns's second voyage, providing him with a ship, the Jesus of Lubeck, for which she expected a full sixth of the profits in return.

Even the most jaded among us cannot help but be taken aback that Elizabeth, "the English Deborah," would lend her name to such an enterprise. But freedom in the sixteenth century was a zero-sum game: If England gained, then someone else had to lose, in this instance the Africans. Hawkyns's second haul was also considerable, although a third voyage, which he sent out under the command of a deputy (with Hawkyns's probable cousin, the young Francis Drake, as a member of the crew), ended badly when Spanish authorities prevented the ships from unloading their wares. On the other hand, a fourth voyage, which began in October 1567 with Hawkyns once again at the helm, started out on a much more promising note. After vandalizing a few Catholic shrines in the Canary Islands, he and his crew headed for West Africa, where they interceded in a tribal war and took up to 600 prisoners. Filled to the brim, Hawkyns once again headed for the Caribbean, where he succeeded in unloading a good portion of his cargo along what is today the Colombian-Venezuelan coast.

But then Hawkyns found himself in a tense standoff with a Spanish fleet near the Mexican port of Veracruz. He negotiated a truce that he trusted would hold until he finished repairing his ships. And it did hold, for a bit. But on a signal from their officers, Spanish sailors suddenly turned on the Englishmen with whom they had just been chatting and plunged knives deep into their chests. Up to 150 died. Aboard one of Hawkyns's ships, crewmen engaged in desperate hand-to-hand combat with 300 Spanish sailors trying to scramble aboard. As the English struggled to get away, Spanish cannon fire smashed through their fleet, sinking one vessel and crippling three others. Ultimately, the Spanish forced them to abandon their biggest ship, the aforementioned Jesus of Lubeck, laden with treasure and still carrying more than thirty valuable slaves. It was a cruel blow--for the English. For the slaves, of course, it was all supremely irrelevant. Regardless of which side won, their bondage would continue. Their only interest was in survival, in the most immediate sense of the word.

Hazlewood brilliantly reconstructs the chaotic struggle on land and sea that raged for some eight hours. He throws in some delightful touches, including a scene in which Hawkyns pauses mid-battle to order a beer and then, when a Spanish shot blows the cup away, declares, "Fear nothing! For God, who hath preserved me from this shot, will also deliver us from these traitors and villains!" It would make a fine Hollywood movie--if Hollywood had a sense of irony, that is. Although the historical data are sketchy, Hazlewood paints a persuasive portrait of Hawkyns as a brave, intelligent and resourceful man, but with the ethics of a thug. Given his brutality and ruthlessness, he would probably have done well as a modern-day narcotraficante or perhaps a member of George W. Bush's inner circle. Meanwhile, his ill-fated final voyage was a sign that England was not yet ready for the big leagues. Not until the 1650s, under Oliver Cromwell, would it re-emerge as a contender for naval supremacy.

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