John Hawkins was one of the most flamboyant figures of the Elizabethan Age, having left his mark as a slave trader, privateer, rear admiral, double agent, and noted shipbuilder. He was born in Plymouth, England, and was a cousin of Sir Francis Drake.
Hawkins excelled in his first seafaring ventures the transportation of slaves from West Africa to the Spanish colonies in the West Indies. This trade generated tension between England and Spain because the Spanish were vainly attempting to maintain a closed imperial system in which no foreign ships could participate.
Hawkins initial voyage of 1562-63 was so successful that Elizabeth I invested in the next venture (1564-65). Hawkins expanded his operations by preying upon Spanish shipping, as well as delivering slaves to forbidden ports.
A third voyage (1567-69) was not so fortunate. Hawkins met with initial success by selling his cargo of slaves, but was forced to put in to the Spanish port at Veracruz for repairs. A Spanish fleet attacked and only two of Hawkins six ships managed to escape.
Despite this setback, Hawkins relationship with the queen grew stronger. He served her well by helping to uncover the Ridolfi Plot (1570-71), in which Spanish agents plotted with English Roman Catholics for the overthrow of Elizabeth and the installation of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Hawkins appeared to have betrayed the monarch, but foiled the coup by turning over incriminating evidence to English authorities. In 1571, he entered Parliament.
Hawkins became treasurer of the navy in 1577. In that post and other later ones, he conducted a series of badly needed naval reforms. Most significantly, he began to replace the older and slower galleons with newer, more maneuverable and more heavily gunned vessels. Hawkins realized that war with Spain was inevitable and worked diligently to prepare for it. Like any high-ranking official, Hawkins had political enemies. On one occasion, he was charged with the misuse of royal funds, but was eventually exonerated.
Hawkins was a rear admiral aboard the Victory and third in command during the confrontation with the Spanish Armada (1588). His overhaul of the English fleet was a vital component of victory and he was knighted for his service.
The lure of the sea remained strong. In 1589-90, Hawkins and Martin Frobisher attempted to intercept treasure-laden Spanish ships on the Atlantic, but their foray into piracy met with little success. In 1595, Hawkins accompanied Drake on a new venture against Spanish positions in the West Indies; before action commenced, however, Hawkins died of illness and was buried at sea.
John Hawkins was a prime player in the effort to erode Spanish power on the seas. The eventual success of that struggle freed England to colonize North America.