Sir John Hawkins – Father of the English slave trade

“More than half a century before the Mayflower made a chance call into port, Plymouth had played its part in North American history. Many Plymothians had been instrumental in opening up the New World and the first Englishmen to trade across the Atlantic were the Hawkins family of Plymouth.”

This placard in the Mayflower Museum doesn’t clarify the Hawkins family’s role in “opening up the New World”.

William Hawkins was a merchant, shipowner and sea captain for King Henry VIII. He is best known as the first Englishman to sail to the South Americas in about 1527 and the West Coast of Africa in 1532.

His eldest son, William, though he was also involved in shipping, is far less famous than the younger son, Sir (Admiral) John Hawkins.

Sir John Hawkins is credited as the founder of the English triangular trade in African slaves. It is also claimed by some historians1, that the failure of the third of his infamous slaving expeditions (1567-69), highlighted the need for English traders to acquire colonial bases on the African coast and in the Caribbean/ North America.

Sanitising History?

The Mayflower Museum draws attention to the pre-Mayflower history of Plymouth and the Hawkins only to then leave out the most important fact that they traded in slaves.


1 Davis, D. B, (1970) ‘The problem of slavery in Western Culture’, Middlesex, Penguine Books, p.150

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