Sir Richard Hawkins

IMG 6044Sir Richard Hawkins
(1560 - 1622)

Hawkins [Hawkyns], Sir Richard (c.1560–1622), naval officer, was born in Plymouth, the only son of Sir John Hawkins (1532–1595) and his first wife, Katherine Gonson (d. 1591). He had the sea in his blood on both sides, because Katherine was the daughter of Benjamin Gonson [see under Gonson, William], the treasurer of the navy whom John Hawkins succeeded in 1577. Where Richard received his education is not clear. He seems never to have attended a university or inn of court, but he had a respectable command of Latin and of the intellectual skills by that time expected of a gentleman. Consequently, although he is reputed to have been 'brought up among ships and seamen', he must have enjoyed some sustained period of schooling, probably in Plymouth. Much of what is known about his life and career is derived from his autobiographical Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, knight in his voyage into the southern sea, anno domini 1593, which he wrote in the last years of his life and which was published shortly after his death. There is no reason to doubt either the substance of his story or the self-revelation of Hawkins's character, though details, where verifiable, do not always appear to be correct.

His first known voyage took place in 1582, when Hawkins sailed under the command of his uncle William Hawkins to the West Indies. Three years later he was given the command of the galliot Duck in Drake's raid on the West Indies and Florida, and was the first to bring back the news of the success of that expedition. At 20 tons, the Duck was not much more than a rowing boat, so its young captain must have possessed considerable skill. By 1588 he was well enough established and regarded to be entrusted with the 360 ton Swallow in the campaign against the Armada. He sailed in the squadron commanded by his father, and acquitted himself with credit, if no particular distinction. At this stage in his career he was very much in the shadow of his father, for whom he had the warmest admiration, but he seems to have been ambitious to establish his own individuality. In 1590 he again accompanied Sir John, first to the coast of Portugal, in command of the Crane, and later to the Azores, when he was vice-admiral and captain of the queen's ship Nonpareil. By this time his great project was already in the planning stages. Later, in 1622, he claimed that his intention had been to sail around the world 'to make a perfect discovery of all those parts where he should arrive'. However, the commission under which he sailed authorized him 'to attempt some enterprise against the king of Spain', and his subsequent actions appear to confirm that priority. Perhaps the two aims were not entirely incompatible, but in 1593 his expedition was an act of war.

Hawkins left Plymouth in the Dainty about the middle of June, accompanied by a pinnace and a victualler. By this time he had married, probably about the end of 1591, Judith Hele (c.1565–1629), the daughter of a west country merchant family similar to his own, and their first child, a daughter, was born in November 1592. The first part of the voyage was marked mainly by the routine hazards of storms and scurvy. Remarkably, he appears to have had on board some apparatus for distilling sea water, and even more remarkably gave up using it after a while. Perhaps it was not very effective, or too heavy on fuel, but the idea is extraordinary at that date. By early November he had reached the Santa Anna Islands to the north of Cape Frio, where they emptied out and burned the victualler, presumably in accordance with plan. Not in accordance with plan was the disappearance of the pinnace, which at this point deserted and made her way home. After leaving the coast of Brazil about the middle of December, on 2 February 1594 Hawkins sighted land, apparently in the modern Falkland Islands, which in honour of the queen he named Maidenland (the name continued to be used for the Falklands on some charts into the late eighteenth century). On 10 February the Dainty entered the Strait of Magellan, and after an eventful passage reached the Pacific safely about the end of March, revictualling at the island of Mocha on 19 April. During May Hawkins attacked and plundered the town of Valparaiso, but the Pacific coast was no longer the soft touch that it had been sixteen years earlier, and on 19 June the Dainty was caught at San Mateo by two large and well armed Spanish galleons, which had been sent out specifically for that purpose. The reduced crew of the English ship now numbered no more than seventy-five fit men and, uncharacteristically, its guns were poorly serviced and maintained. Whether this was mainly the fault of the master gunner, whose responsibility they were, or of Hawkins himself, who had a misplaced confidence in his subordinate, is not clear, but the consequences were fatal. The Dainty held out for three days and then, with Hawkins severely wounded and the ship virtually knocked to pieces, surrendered.

The Spanish commander, Beltran de Castro, pledged that the prisoners of war would be spared and returned to their own country. The first part of his pledge he was able to honour without difficulty, and Hawkins recovered from his injuries. However, the Inquisition then attempted to claim them and, though Beltran managed to stall off the Inquisition, release became virtually impossible. After being held at Lima for almost three years Hawkins was transferred in 1597 to a prison in Seville, to Beltran's indignation and chagrin. In September 1598 he attempted to escape, but was recaptured and confined more strictly. His Observations come to an end with his capture at San Mateo, but he wrote a separate account of his unsuccessful breakout, which he addressed to the earl of Essex and was able to smuggle out, probably in 1599. He was then confined to a close prison in Madrid, whence he wrote a number of letters to the queen, and to the English ambassador in Paris, begging for their good offices. Meanwhile his father had died in 1595, leaving in his will the large sum of £3000 towards his son's ransom, a sum which Sir John's second wife apparently attempted to withhold, although there is no clear evidence that it was ever called for. Beltran was still exercising what influence he had on Hawkins's behalf, and the war was becoming desultory on both sides. In June 1602 Richard addressed a plea to Sir Robert Cecil which was finally successful, and he was released after eight years in captivity.

Hawkins returned to Plymouth late in that year and picked up the threads of his disrupted life with surprising speed. In 1603–4 he was mayor of the town and on 23 July 1603 was knighted by the new king (who was generous with such honours). In 1604 he was elected to serve for the town in parliament and was appointed vice-admiral of Devon, effectively taking up the local responsibilities to which he was entitled as head of the Hawkins family. Neither his faculties nor his energy seem to have been impaired by imprisonment. In 1604 he wrote to the commissioners charged with the negotiation of peace with Spain, making extravagant claims for compensation from the Spanish government. These went back to losses allegedly incurred by his father at San Juan de Ulúa in 1568. It is unlikely that he expected these claims to be met and the real purpose of his petition was probably contained in the rider that if no 'clause of satisfaction' for him could be included in the peace terms 'that I may not be concluded by them, but left free to seek my remedy according as the law of God and nations alloweth'. In other words, he wanted to be permitted to wage his own private war until he chose to regard his claim as satisfied. Needless to say, no such permission was granted, and the king of Spain proved unforthcoming. Hawkins seems to have regarded this lack of satisfaction as sufficient pretext for extensive abuse of his office as vice-admiral. He 'had dealings with almost every pirate of note who set foot in the west country' (Senior, 131), using his office to enrich himself and pervert the course of justice. He took a share of the loot and in return issued them with discharges over his signature, sometimes blank. One John Payne is noted as having paid him £40 for such a discharge. He did not confine his patronage to those attacking Spanish ships. In 1605 the Venetian ambassador complained bitterly that valuables belonging to him, which had been looted out of a French ship from Toulon by English pirates, had ended up in the possession of Sir Richard Hawkins. At the same time he was unwise enough to quarrel with one of his successors as mayor of Plymouth, who also denounced him to the council.

This combination of local and international pressure forced the lord admiral, the earl of Nottingham, to send his secretary Humphrey Jobson to Plymouth with a commission to investigate. Hawkins did everything in his power to obstruct Jobson, and there was a furious quarrel. He was suspended from office, fined, and briefly imprisoned in August 1606 but had sufficient local influence, and enough friends at court, for this set-back to be only temporary. He was allowed to purge himself and in April 1607 was restored to his post. The fact that he was not reappointed after 1610 may reflect the fact that his misdemeanours were well enough established, and that his friends had been mainly concerned to save his honour. He did not retire because of advancing age or ill health, being no more than fifty and active in other respects. In 1614, when the governors of the East India Company were planning to send an expedition through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific, he was named as commander and was eager to accept the mission. However, the plan was aborted, possibly to avoid causing offence to Spain, with whom relations were at a delicate stage. In 1617 he was again considered for the command of a company fleet, but nothing came of the proposal.

During these years Hawkins seems to have been at sea for other reasons, and was not losing his sea legs ashore, but fleeting glimpses do not give any indication of what he was about. There were no further complaints against him and he seems to have become increasingly prosperous, so probably he had resumed the family business. In the later years of his life he left Plymouth, perhaps seeing no further advantage in involvement with the town's affairs, but more likely to build up his credentials as a country gentleman. He went to the manor of Slapton, 22 miles to the east, where he had a small estate, but this withdrawal does not seem to have impaired his active participation in business; Richard Hawkins was not of a retiring disposition. In 1620–21 he was appointed vice-admiral under Sir Robert Mansell of the fleet sent into the Mediterranean against the Algerian corsairs. He commanded the 600 ton Vanguard, probably the largest ship he had ever sailed in. At this point he was described as 'a very grave, religious and experienced gentleman', which may reflect no more than a normal progression from an adventurous youth and a somewhat lawless middle age. A serious but not obsessive puritanism seems to have characterized him throughout his life, as it had such kindred spirits as his father and Sir Francis Drake. The expedition against Algiers was prolonged, exhausting, and eventually a miserable failure, all of which factors were calculated to undermine the health of a man already over sixty. When he made his will on 16 April 1622 he was already sick, but not, it would seem, too sick to attend the privy council the following day on business. There, apparently in the council chamber itself, he died of a stroke. His wife, Judith, survived him until 1629. After an enforced interval she had presented him with three more daughters and two sons: John, who went to sea with no very great success, and Richard, who remained quietly ashore and ensured the continuity of the Hawkins family in south Devon.