John Hawkins: The Father of the English Slave Trade and His Infamous Slave Ship, the Jesus of Lübeck

John Hawkins was an English naval commander and merchant who played a significant role in the early development of English involvement in the transatlantic slave trade during the 16th century. Infamous for his expeditions along the West African coast, Hawkins engaged in the deplorable practice of kidnapping villagers with the aid of corrupt African chiefs. These unfortunate captives were then forcibly transported across the treacherous Atlantic to be sold as slaves in the Americas.

John Hawkins: The Father of the English Slave Trade and His Infamous Slave Vessel, the Jesus of Lübeck

Born in 1532 in Plymouth, England, into a family of shipbuilders, Hawkins grew up in a maritime environment and developed a deep understanding of ships and navigation from an early age. His family’s involvement in shipbuilding provided him with the necessary knowledge and skills to excel in the naval and merchant spheres.

Jesus Of Lübeck: How England’s First Slave Trader Lured Africans Into His ‘Jesus’ Ship
John Hawkins

Inspired by his family’s trade, Hawkins embarked on a career at sea, venturing into the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean. However, it was his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade that would earn him infamy in history books. Hawkins became a prominent figure in the early stages of English participation in the slave trade during the 16th century.

In 1562, upon learning about the Atlantic slave trade in the Canary Islands, Hawkins embarked on his first significant voyage to Africa, where he commanded three ships.

During this voyage, Hawkins followed a path along the West African coast, employing a combination of force and collusion with corrupt African chiefs to kidnap villagers and transport them to the Americas. He captured approximately 300 individuals and subsequently traded them for valuable commodities such as pearls, hides, and sugar in the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean.

The enslaved Africans sold by Hawkins were forced into backbreaking labor on coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar, and cotton plantations, as well as in domestic service. Their lives were marked by unimaginable suffering and the deprivation of basic human rights.

Hawkins’ participation in the slave trade proved immensely profitable, and his success earned him recognition and favor within English society. Upon his return to England, he was granted a coat of arms by the College of Arms, an honor that prominently featured an enslaved male. This coat of arms symbolized his wealth and social standing derived from the exploitation of human beings.

Jesus Of Lübeck: How Africans Were Lured into England’s First Slave 'Jesus' Ship
Queen Elizabeth I gifted John Hawkins gave a unique coat of arms bearing a bound slave

It is important to recognize that while other English traders had already engaged in slave trading prior to Hawkins, he was the one who established the pattern that later became known as the English slave trade triangle. This triangular trade involved the sale of supplies to colonies ill-supplied by their home countries, the transport of enslaved Africans to the Americas, and the acquisition of valuable commodities to be sold in Europe.

Hawkins’ second voyage, undertaken with the support of Queen Elizabeth I, further solidified his position as a key figure in the English slave trade. The queen provided Hawkins with financial backing and even chartered her ship, the Jesus of Lübeck, for his venture. This ship, named after the German city of Lübeck where it was constructed, was specifically designed and outfitted for the purpose of transporting enslaved Africans. The Jesus of Lübeck represented a significant milestone in the evolution of English involvement in the slave trade.

Jesus Of Lübeck: How England’s First Slave Trader Lured Africans Into His ‘Jesus’ Ship
Jesus Of Lubeck

Setting sail in October 1564, Hawkins acquired over 400 enslaved individuals from Africa, employing various means of acquisition, including purchases from the Portuguese and direct kidnappings.

Upon arriving in South America in April 1565, Hawkins sold a significant portion of his enslaved captives and received valuable payments in return. He also secured future orders for additional voyages, further perpetuating the cycle of enslavement and profit.

However, Hawkins’ third and final voyage took an unfortunate turn. After successfully selling over 500 enslaved people, whom he had kidnapped from West Africa with the help of an African king, in the Americas, he was returning to England in 1568 when his fleet encountered a Spanish fleet near San Juan de Ulúa. The encounter escalated into a fierce battle, leading to the disabling and capture of the Jesus of Lübeck by the Spanish forces. The heavily damaged vessel was later sold to a local merchant, bringing an end to its infamous role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Despite the loss of his ship, Hawkins continued his involvement in naval and military affairs. In 1578, he was appointed Treasurer of the Navy, and he served as a Vice-Admiral during the English victory against the Spanish Armada in 1588. As part of the war council, Hawkins held a prominent position and was third in command overall.

Tragically, Hawkins’ life came to an end on November 12, 1595, off the coast of Puerto Rico. He was on his way to rescue his son Richard, who was held captive by the Spanish in the South Atlantic. It was a fitting end for a man whose actions laid the foundation for centuries of oppression and suffering.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.


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