Weight of the past is felt today
Bristol writer and broadcaster Richard Hope-Hawkins explores his family history – and wonders whether slavery really was abolished all those years ago Skeletons in the cupboard – Family History Piracy and Slavery in History and Today
ONE cannot help one's birth history and ancestors. In my family tree there are some people I am tremendously proud of: author Kenneth Grahame, who wrote the children's classic The Wind in the Willows; Anthony Hope Hawkins, who penned the Prisoners of Zenda inventing the fictional kingdom of Ruritania (25 of his novels were published in Bristol by Arrowsmith); and numerous family members fought bravely in two World Wars.
But then there was Judge Henry Hawkins (Baron Brampton) who was known as "hanging Hawkins" for his harsh sentencing of criminals, and Neil Frances Hawkins, who in the 1930s became Sir Oswald Mosley's right-hand man in the British Union of Fascists. My late mother told me of seeing him alongside Mosley at a huge fascist rally held at the Colston Hall in 1936.
I was christened Richard John after two notorious Tudor ancestors, Sir Richard and Sir John Hawkins, both of whom, to my own personal shame, were instrumental in despicable crimes.
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Sir Richard (1562-1595), son of Sir John, was known as a courageous sea captain who led numerous expeditions, one to Brazil where he plundered towns. His main exploits were to the Spanish Main and coasts of Portugal; captured by the Spanish in 1597, he was released knighted and made a vice-admiral.
My most notorious ancestor is Sir John Hawkins (1532-1662). He was involved with Philip II in 1571 to assassinate Elizabeth I, however he changed sides and his information helped to have the main conspirators arrested and executed. He was rewarded by being appointed Treasurer to the Navy.
John Hawkins, known as "Queen Elizabeth's Slave Trader", became a legal pirate on behalf of the Queen. As a merchant adventurer, in 1562 with three ships he sailed from Plymouth and violently captured 400 Africans, trading them in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola (now Haiti) and returning to England with pearls, spices, hides, gold and ginger.
Thus he was the first British person to deal in slavery; trafficking in the pernicious and inhuman transatlantic trade of human souls – a fact so abhorrent to me that I sometimes struggle to comprehend his evil acts.
Slaves captured and chained together were often violently beaten and suffered endless terrors and distress; many did not survive the journeys. Hawkins made huge profits for the government with slave trading, sailing sometimes with his cousin Francis Drake. It was stated that on one voyage he oversaw the killing of at least 1,500 slaves and captured 1,200 more on another voyage.
Many of his voyages were personally financed by the Queen; his acts included sending hundreds of sailors ashore to plunder and loot with burning and shooting parties, enabling them to capture slaves.
His own coat of arms had a bound slave on the crest.
Bristol eventually became the country's second largest port after London, alongside Liverpool, dealing with slavery, monies made by human bondage sponsored by the Bank of England, Barings and Barclays bank. Many Bristol families who gained wealth from slavery include the well- known names of Cave, Colston, Tyndall and Elton.
In 1552, The Society of Merchant Venturers was formed – its aim was to promote Bristol's trading interests, including slavery.
Half-a-million African slaves were imported to Bristol between 1698 and 1807, and 90,000 more died during their voyages.
In 1577, John Hawkins was made Treasurer to the Navy and was responsible for constructing galleons whose speed and guns ensured victory in the fight against the Spanish in 1588.
He was a man who committed treason, murder and adultery at various points in his life. Yet he was knighted for his role in defeating the Spanish in the battle of the Armada.
Little-known facts are that John Hawkins introduced the first imports of potatoes to England in 1563. During his second voyage's journals, he mentions natives in Florida smoking "ltobaccoj" (tobacco), which he brought back and introduced to England. Smoking, of course, has inflicted ill- health and death on millions.
While on a treasure-hunting voyage with Francis Drake in 1595, both fell ill with dysentery and on January 27, Hawkins died and was buried at sea off Porto Belo.
I can never deny, hide or distort the truth about the Hawkins clan, as some descendants have tried to do. My ancestors were guilty of despicable criminal acts, slavery, torture and misery, motivated by greed and financial rewards – and in one ancestor, anti-Semitism.
Today there are more slaves than at any point in history. Anti-Slavery International stated in 1999 that 27 million people worldwide were described a slaves, while 12.3 million people work in forced labour.
Countries that trade in slavery and forced labour include Sudan, China India, the Ivory Coast, Iraq, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and the Congo.
In Haiti, children known as "asrestcvects" are used as unpaid household servants.
In Africa, more than 666,000 people are working as unpaid slaves, including working in gold mines, and children are captured to fight in wars.
US President Barack Obama spoke this year on human trafficking in Afghanistan and Pakistan, quoting an Afghan newspaper advertisement stating "Out of Money Sell Your Daughter". He went on to state that child labour in Afghanistan and Pakistan is rife and thousands of young people are kept as unpaid workers, especially in factories and carpet weaving sweat shops.
The UK is not immune – 5,000 people are trafficked in the UK at any one time for prostitution, begging, domestic service and forced labour.
In Bristol, women mainly from middle European countries, China and the Far East are traded as street workers and prostitutes.
Illegal immigrants found working in factories, restaurants and takeaway shops are often poorly housed and work long hours for little money – how can they complain? Fear of being caught and deported must play on their minds. Yet some are here to escape torture, poverty and persecution in their native countries devoid of democracy.
Sir John Hawkins' slavers and merchants dealt in gold, silver and spices.
Today, worldwide illicit currency is related to sex trafficking, drug smuggling, drug cartels, wars and death.
Exploiting people for labour and slavery, no matter what the human cost, has not changed worldwide – it has simply increased.