Sir John and Sir Richard Hawkins or Hawkyns would have preferred to be called seamen, or navigators, or simply sailors. That is how British history books describe them. French, Dutch and especially Spanish historians prefer to say corsarios or piratas. But then most European historians describe any man (or woman) who sailed across the seven seas with a crew and attacked other shipping or a passing port – as long as they were British – as pirates or corsairs. The Spanish even call Admiral Lord Nelson a pirate, despite the awkward fact that he was a professional navy man who assaulted Spanish-held ports or Spanish ships when England was officially at war with Spain (or France for that matter). One could claim that that was his job. Hawkins however was by no means indefatigable, losing a sea battle to the Spanish at San Juan de Ulúa
John’s father William had been a confidante of Henry VIII. He was also a sailor and navigator and had started building a navy for England while Henry was losing and finding wives. John Hawkins was born in 1532, more than two hundred years before Nelson and the Napoleonic Wars. Around 1560, mainly financed by ‘a royal purse’, he became involved in the slave running racket, and took part in early punitive privateering raids in the Spanish West Indies. He was of course the captain of his own ship, and knew what he was doing. Any loot he collected during these assaults was divided into a portion for his crew and himself, and a portion for the owner of the royal purse. She was always grateful.
In 1573 she was so grateful she made John Hawkins her Treasurer of the Navy. This was wise because he quickly built up an efficient flotilla of very fast, heavily armed small ships with (mostly) volunteer crews, men from the West Country of England in particular. In 1558 King Philip of Spain sent the first of several Grand Armadas full of troops to invade England, and most students know what happened to these enormous fleets (q.v.). The smaller, lower and faster English navy played merry hell with the huge, cumbersome, over-gunned and over-weight galleons, and hounded them towards Calais, where more were waiting. Sadly for Spain, the great sailor Santa Cruz who should have been leading the vast armada had died before it could set sail from Lisbon. The Invincible Armada was commanded by another aristocrat, Medina Sidonia, who by his own reckoning could hardly have sailed a model boat.
John Hawkins was not among the English captains who fought the Spanish fleet; he died at sea while commanding an unsuccessful expedition to the West Indies. The year was 1595.
Sir Richard Hawkins (or Hawkyns) was John’s son, born in 1560. In no time at all he followed family tradition and became a sea captain, up to no good on all the world’s oceans while Britain was at war with Spain. At the young age of twenty-eight he commanded his own fighting ship in the great sea battle with Spain in 1588, which he survived.
In 1593 he left England’s shores with the intention of making a survey of Eastern Asia, where he (and the royal purse which paid for it) intended to found an English trading empire. Not exactly by chance, he decided to plunder Valparaiso (a Spanish possession) on the way, but was caught. He then survived Spanish prisons until he was finally released in 1602 after a sizeable ransom had been paid for him.
Richard Hawkins died twenty years later. Both Hawkinses, along with Frobisher and Drake and others, formed an important part in the gradual build-up of what would become the British Navy which, as the song has it, ‘ruled the waves’. Neither father or son were angels.
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