Elizabethan Sea Dogs

Stephen Coote
Simon & Schuster 337 pp  £20  
ISBN 0-7432-2007-2

In Britain, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake have been painted as heroes of the realm, but these famous sea dogs of Elizabethan England have enjoyed a somewhat less noble reputation in Spain. Two recent biographies explore the dichotomies in the personas of these cousins and comrades in arms.

Harry Kelsey, whose 1998 biography of Drake was well received, now turns his attentions to Hawkins. He has produced a scholarly but highly readable biography of the man told against the backdrop of a remarkable period in the history of international power politics of England, Spain and its American colonies. With four appendices and 67 pages of notes, the documentation of this book is impeccable.

Kelsey’s Hawkins is a complex figure who evolves from a treasure-seeking young man who is a pirate and slaver, to an influential international player with ambiguous loyalties, to a fully committed and able administrator of Elizabeth’s navy in his maturity. Early in his career, he identified an opportunity to inject himself in the lucrative Caribbean slave trade. This odious business involved obtaining the human cargo at the ports of West Africa, shipping to the plantations of the Caribbean where the slaves were eagerly sought by Spanish colonials, and returning to England with a treasure.

The major obstacle to this plan was the Spanish resolve to maintain this trade as their monopoly, which was backed up by royal proclamations forbidding trade with non-Spanish ships. Ever adaptable, Hawkins quickly developed tactics to fit the situation, becoming more aggressive and ruthless in obtaining the slaves in West Africa and ever more duplicitous in his dealings with the Spanish plantation owners in the provincial outposts. Numerous times in different Caribbean ports, Hawkins’ modus operandi was to approach a port and claim the need to land for ship repairs. He would offer to sell his cargo and, met with a refusal from the Spanish, he would threaten violence. If this did produce an agreement to trade, he would let his sailors loose on the town, and after a day or two of this havoc, trade would commence, sometimes surreptitiously as the colonials attempted to avoid retribution from the royal governor. The Spanish colonials were vulnerable because they were being pulled in several directions: their need for slaves, the royal prohibition against trade with the English and the desire to protect their property from Hawkins’ marauding crew.

Unlike Drake, who seems to have had an absolutely inflexible attitude toward the national and religious conflicts of the period, Hawkins appears more ambivalent. For example, as Kelsey explains, Hawkins apparently played a role in the Ridolfi plot which aimed at the removal of the Protestant Elizabeth and her replacement with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. He also reportedly considered seriously an offer to convert to Catholicism and enter the service of Philip II of Spain. In discussing these events, Kelsey does an excellent job of highlighting the unreliability of contemporary written sources. According to this author, almost every document produced in this period was written for or by a person who had a motive or a position to protect. In this regard, Kelsey’s evaluation of sources is most useful in allowing the reader to form his or her own opinion of the loyalty or disloyalty of Hawkins. 

Stephen Coote’s book on Drake is of a quite different style. It reads almost as a novel, with dramatic flourishes and speculative analysis of the characters’ motives and dialogue. Nonetheless it presents a vivid picture of this legendary but flawed hero. The author does not shy away from using terms such as ‘state sponsored terrorism’ and ‘regime change’ to describe events of the Elizabethan period. Their use will resonate with readers as they struggle to place Drake’s behaviour, which by today’s standards must be deemed racist, terrorist and criminal, into the value system of the sixteenth century.

Even applying the more fluid standards of the time, it must have been difficult for contemporaries not to question the actions of Drake (and his cousin Hawkins). Drake attempted to justify his piracy, kidnapping and slave trading by cloaking his actions in religious righteous-ness or national defence. Nonetheless, none of this seemed to make much of an impression on the Spanish or their Catholic allies.

The circumnavi-gation of 1577-78 is the centrepiece of Drake’s career and also of Coote’s book, and the extraordinary seamanship of this achievement is respectfully documented. As counterpoint to the praise, Coote also provides a detailed critical examination of Drake’s personal conflict with Thomas Doughty during the early stages of the voyage and its fatal consequences. His description of this episode is an unvarnished exposé of a leader who was never fully confident of his powerful status in conflict with his humble origins.

Hawkins and Drake shared kinship and occasional collaboration on projects early in their careers. However, there are two other factors which tie together these two men, and thus these two books: relations with their prevaricating sovereign, Elizabeth, and the defence of her crown in 1588. Both books provide fascinating glimpses of Elizabeth and the tightrope she walked as she participated in the illegal activities of these two pirates while trying to maintain constructive international relations. In this regard the present-day term ‘plausible deniability’ comes to mind.

On their role in 1588, however, there is little ambiguity. Each in his own way fulfilled his duty for Queen and Country. Drake’s raid on Cadiz in 1587 weakened and delayed Spanish invasion plans, while Hawkins gave Elizabeth’s forces the tools they needed through his consistent and disciplined efforts to design better ships and maintain them in fighting trim.

These books together give a comprehensive picture of Elizabethan sea power. Serious researchers, however, may wish to balance Coote’s popular style by taking a look at Kelsey’s Sir Francis Drake, the Queen’s Pirate .

  • Richard Pflederer is on the Editorial Advisory Board of Mercator’s World Magazine.
Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5