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History of slave owner Sir John Hawkins who had road, hospital and car park named after him in Medway

To modern eyes, Sir John Hawkins would seem far from being a hero to be commemorated or celebrated. Despite being knighted for gallantry against the Spanish Armada and being largely responsible for creating the fleet which his cousin – Sir Francis Drake – led to victory in the famous 1588 battle, his legacy also has a distinctly sinister side. Nicola Jordan found out more.

Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre picture of Sir John Hawkins
Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre picture of Sir John Hawkins

In today's terms, he was little more than a pirate who also found time to more or less invent the slave trade.

If that were not bad enough, he and his crew also imported the habit of smoking tobacco to Britain.

Born to a wealthy maritime family in Plymouth in 1532, by the time he was 30, Hawkins was embarking with his own flotilla of three ships – with backing from Queen Elizabeth I – on a mission to intercept Spanish treasure boats heading back from South America laden with gold and silver.

And this at a time, England and Spain were not officially at war.

Hawkins had also formed a consortium with wealthy merchants to supply colonies in the Americas which were being neglected by their home countries.

A painting depicting the Spanish Armada from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
A painting depicting the Spanish Armada from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

On the way he sailed to Sierra Leone in west Africa and captured 300 people who he ferried across the Atlantic to be sold as slaves to plantations in Spanish Santa Domingo and Venezuela.

He had become the first Englishman to become involved in the human trafficking and slavedom that was to scar the histories of many European countries for three centuries and whose legacy still reverberates today.

Those original slaves of 1567 were sold in exchange for pearls, hides and sugar.

It established a trade that subsequently boomed, creating the wealth, which in Britain funded the building of cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Six-person slave-chain
Six-person slave-chain

But back to that expedition of 1567 and Sir John's other dubious claim to fame – albeit one that is far less well-known.

On his return voyage, he and his shipmates found themselves short of water and decided to stop off at a French colony in what is now Florida to replenish their supply.

While there they watched and were fascinated as the locals stuffed dried leaves into a clay pot, set fire to it and inhaled the smoke through a hollow cane.

They were smoking tobacco and the English sailors took some of the leaves home with them to Britain, thus importing a habit that for many was to prove harmfully addictive.

To be fair though, the smoking habit did not catch on immediately.

Sir John Hawkins Hospital Almshouses in High Street, Chatham
Sir John Hawkins Hospital Almshouses in High Street, Chatham

Only years later did it become popular, probably after that more famous adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh, bought home more tobacco, and, of course, potatoes.

In later years, as Hawkins' wealth grew from his officially sanctioned plundering, piracy and slave trading, he was becoming an increasingly more influential figure in British society and, in particular, within naval circles.

Eventually he became Treasurer of the Navy in 1577 and immediately began fashioning it into a more formidable force.

Older ships were refitted or rebuilt and new, faster vessels, were built.

Much of the work would have been carried out at Chatham Dockyard, established by Elizabeth I in 1567 as the the Royal Navy's first base.

In this picture from 1980, Macklands House in Lower Rainham, which once belonged to Sir John Hawkins
In this picture from 1980, Macklands House in Lower Rainham, which once belonged to Sir John Hawkins

It was these ships, along with a ferocious storm, which were to see off the Spanish Armada.

Hawkins, Drake, Raleigh and Sir Martin Frobisher – known collectively as the Sea Dogs – were a group commissioned by Elizabeth I to attack and loot the Spanish fleet.

While it was famously Drake who was in overall command against the Armada, Hawkins also served in the battle as a vice-admiral and it was here that earned him his knighthood for gallantry.

He continued as Treasurer of the Navy and commander of his own private ships becoming known as the architect of the Elizabethan navy until his death in 1595, an event which is surrounded by a certain amount of mystery.

Two years earlier, his son Richard had been captured by the Spanish in the Atlantic and Sir John, along with Drake, put together a fleet of 27 ships to attack the Spanish in the West Indies – and rescue him.

Demolition work on the Sir John Hawkins Flyover in July 2009
Demolition work on the Sir John Hawkins Flyover in July 2009

But the mission was doomed to failure, thanks to a combination of tropical storms and Spanish naval resistance.

In circumstances which are not clear, Hawkins died at sea off Puerto Rico at the age of63.

He had a home in Lower Rainham – Macklands House – but his connections to Chatham do not seem to be specific, except it is believed he may have bequeathed money to the Sir John Hawkins Hospital in the town.

Founded in 1594, the almshouses were originally intended to accommodate needy and disabled ex-members of the Royal Navy and civilians who had worked at Chatham Dockyard.

There was also a Sir John Hawkins flyover, which was part of the Chatham town centre and demolished in 2008.

The building of the Sir John Hawkins flyover in 1987 which was part of the Chatham ring road aimed at easing traffic congestion in the town. Picture from the book 'Images of Medway'
The building of the Sir John Hawkins flyover in 1987 which was part of the Chatham ring road aimed at easing traffic congestion in the town. Picture from the book 'Images of Medway'

It is fair to assume though, that in his role as treasurer and his mission to modernise the fleet, he would have been a frequent visitor to the town.

And his influence and fame from the victory over the Spanish Armada may have prompted the commemoration of his name in Medway.

But at least one of his descendants does not think his memory should be celebrated.

In 2006, Andrew Hawkins publicly apologised for his ancestor's role in the slave trade in front of 25,000 people in the Gambia.

He and other members of the Christian Expedition charity knelt in chains to ask for forgiveness.

The John Hawkins car park in Chatham
The John Hawkins car park in Chatham

Their shackles were removed by the country's vice president Isaton Njie Saidy in the spirit of reconciliation.

Compared to that, the argument over whether Sir John should be remembered in the name of an unloved car park in Chatham town centre would seem to pale into insignificance.

Last month Medway Council's Labour group tried unsuccessfully to change the name of the carpark in Waterfront Way.

Group leader Vince Maple, speaking at full council, said: "Having England's first slave trader having a car park named after him, shouldn't happen ever and shouldn't happen in the 21st century."

A cross-party working group has been set up to look at memorials across Medway to see if they're appropriate in modern times.

There have been calls to rename it after black railway worker Asquith Xavier who managed to change British labour laws in the 1960s.

Read more: All the latest news from Medway

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