Drake was a Slave Trader

10th June 2020
Drake was a Slave Trader

Francis Drake is often celebrated as an English national hero, lauded for both his role in defeating the 1588 Spanish Armada and for being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. In this narrative, Drake is positioned first and foremost as an explorer and Admiral who, at his most villainous, was a ‘Robin Hood’ type: an underdog who stole from the mighty Spanish Empire – except that in Drake’s case, he robbed from the rich to give to the Queen. It is even said that whenever England is in danger, Drake’s Drum will sound and Drake himself will return to fight for his country. This mythologisation paints only a partial and rosy picture of the historical Drake and his relationship to wider Early Modern maritime world.

Drake existed in and contributed to a violent colonial age. Like so many of his contemporary European mariners, he engaged in colonialism, slavery and piracy. These are vital elements in Drake’s story.

Drake’s very first voyages to the Americas were as a slaver, and it was the failure of these voyages which would inspire his future raids on the Spanish Americas for which he became so famous.

The Voyages of John Hawkins

In the middle of the 16th Century the English mariner, John Hawkins, launched an abortive foray into the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which had previously been the preserve of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. So complete was their failure, that the English would not attempt to trade slaves again for nearly one hundred years. Nevertheless, the voyages of Hawkins and his crew resulted in the death of hundreds of African people, and the unimaginable suffering of hundreds more.

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Between 1562 and 1565, Hawkins commanded two expeditions to the west coast of Africa where through a combination of violence and trade, he obtained a few hundred slaves, subjected them to the arduous crossing of the Atlantic, before selling them to the Spanish in the West Indies. Queen Elizabeth I herself, who had contributed the 700-ton Jesus of Lubeck to the voyages, likely benefited from Hawkins considerable profits.

The Spanish Crown, which was incredibly protective of its trade monopolies in the New World, began to chastise the Spanish colonial governors. It forbade them from ever again trading with the English protestants, or else they would face severe punishments. Only Spanish ships were allowed to trade slaves and other goods in Spanish American ports.

Undeterred, Hawkins planned another venture. In 1566, he appointed John Lovell as captain of his fleet and signed on his young cousin, Francis Drake, potentially to serve as a minor officer. Over the period of a few months, Lovell’s ships plundered six Portuguese trading vessels which were laden with slaves and sugar and transported them across the Atlantic.

The fleet arrived at Rio de la Hacha in 1567, but under instructions from the Spanish Crown and emboldened by the strength of their shore batteries, the Spanish residents refused to trade. Defeated, Lovell abandoned ninety-two Africans on the shore at nightfall. Having been made to live for weeks in horrendous conditions and fed a measly diet of beans and water, many of the slaves were likely sick or dying. A large number of them fell into the hands of the Spanish. Lovell, Drake and the rest of the surviving English returned home.

Drake’s Second Voyage

Unshaken by his experience capturing and transporting slaves, Drake agreed to take part in Hawkins next venture the following year. Now in his early twenties, Drake became a principle officer and would soon be given the captaincy of a ship in Hawkins fleet.

With the backing of the Queen, who had contributed two warships, Drake and Hawkins set sail for the African west coast in 1567. They had two methods of gathering slaves: the first was direct and brutal raids on African villages and towns, the second was through piracy.

Hawkins first attack on a village on Cabo Verde was a failure. He had led two hundred men ashore under the cover of darkness, but they somehow lost the element of surprise and the residents of the village resisted, driving Hawkins and his men back with poisoned arrows.

Hawkins and Drake turned instead to attacking Portuguese trading ships which were operating in river inlets between Cabo Verde and Sierra Leone. Most of the vessels were lightly armed and put up little resistance to the piracy, and by January 1568, the fleet had taken one-hundred and fifty slaves.

At this point, Hawkins received an invitation from a leader of the Sapi people, who lived on the coast of Sierra Leone. They were being attacked by a Mande-speaking group who were currently residing in nearby Conga (modern day Konkaw). They sought Hawkins help in raiding Conga and agreed that in return, he may take a number of the prisoners as slaves. Hawkins saw this as a great opportunity.

The combined forces of the Sapi and the English quickly overran and burned Conga. The majority of the inhabitants were killed either during the attack, or by the Sapi following their victory. The English enslaved two-hundred and fifty people and loaded them onto their ships.

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Rio de la Hacha

It took Hawkins’ fleet nearly two months to cross the Atlantic, and when they arrived in the Americas on the 27th March 1568, they received a frosty reception from the Spanish authorities. Desperate to make good of his venture, Hawkins landed two hundred men at Rio de la Hacha to drive the Spanish out of the town and into the surrounding countryside. Hawkins vowed to hold the town until he was given a licence to trade his slaves.

At this point, a slave of the Spanish escaped his masters’ hideout in the forest surrounding Rio de la Hacha and made himself known to Hawkins. He demanded his freedom, and in return, he would show Hawkins where the Spanish were hiding their valuables. Hawkins agreed.

Hawkins used the Spanish treasures as a bargaining chip and forced the Governor of Rio de la Hacha to negotiate. Eventually, Hawkins received four thousand pesos and in return, handed over two hundred slaves to the Spanish. Perhaps as a good will gesture, he also handed over the African man who had provided him with the information and watched as he was executed.

San Juan d’Ulua

Hawkins and Drake managed to sell another one-hundred and ten slaves in Santa Maria before turning home with fifty-seven slaves left aboard their fleet. But on the 12th August, a fierce storm threatened to wreck the fleet. It is reported that one of the ships took so much damage that there were fish swimming in the ballast. It is impossible to imagine how horrendous this experience must have been for the Africans on board, most of whom would have been bound in the dark of the ships’ holds.

The fleet was forced to turn into a Spanish port, San Juan d’Ulua, to make repairs. This was a very dangerous situation for Hawkins, for whilst his ships outgunned the town, there was news that a powerful fleet was soon to arrive from Seville, and that he might be outmatched.

When the flota did arrive, there was a standoff. Seemingly neither the English nor the Spanish wanted to engage in what had the potential to be mutually destructive combat. Peaceful negotiations began, and the Spanish agreed to allow the English to make their repairs and leave.

A few days later, the Spanish launched a devastating surprise attack on the English. Hawkins managed to get away, but the assault sank a number of his vessels and resulted in large numbers of Spanish, English and African casualties. Drake managed to avoid the majority of the fighting and escaped aboard the Judith, of which he was captain. Some of his contemporaries, including Hawkins, would chastise him for abandoning the English in their time of need. Drake himself swore revenge on the Spanish and began preparing for his raids on their colonies in the Americas.

Drake never again dealt in slaves. The next time he came into contact with Africans was during his 1572 raid on Nombre de Dios, where he became closely allied with groups of escaped slaves known as the Cimarrons (read more).

Further Reading

Kaufmann, Miranda, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (Simon and Schuster, 2017)

Kelsey, Harry, Sir John Hawkins: Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader (Yale University Press, 2003)

Nicols, Philip, Sir Francis Drake Revived (Good Press, 2019)

Sugden, John, Sir Francis Drake (Random House, 2012)

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