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The Queen’s Slave Trader

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When I told my wife that I was reading a book called The Queen’s Slave Trader, her immediate reaction was to ask why I was reading one of those “trashy romance novels.” But Nick Hazlewood’s new book is no bodice-ripper. It is instead a carefully researched, immaculately documented, intriguing portrait of John Hawkyns (or “Hawkins,” as his name is often transcribed), the first master of the English slave trade. On occasion, Hazlewood lets his passion for detail interfere with the clarity of his narrative, but in general he brings a novelist’s flare to the text of 16th century history.

During the 17th century, England established itself as the greatest slave-trading nation in the world even as its navy fortified trade routes from pirates and, in the words of one recent writer, “shaped the modern world.” But in the preceding century, England was frequently an afterthought on the world stage, an island kingdom tinkering on the brink of inconsequence. Spain and Portugal had taken the lead in exploration of the seas, and for their efforts the “world” had been divided between them by the Pope. England and France were each racing to gain footholds in the New World, and Hawkyns was one of the men in the forefront of the action for England.

What is intriguing to me is that Hazlewood manages to painstakingly recreate the circumstances surrounding events that also played into the development of the British Royal Navy (as recounted by Arthur Herman in his book To Rule the Waves). In that narrative Hawkyns was but one player on a grand stage; here, Hazlewood focuses on Hawkyns alone, not in order to chart the development of English economic might but rather to isolate the factors which influenced both the man and his time.

Hawkyns may have been among the most notorious figures of his day (the Spanish certainly both despised and feared him), but he was also a product of a universal culture that considered slaughter and slavery just a sidenote to progress and civilization. When Hazlewood writes of the Spanish colonization of the Carribean, one must flinch at the visuals he offers; firsthand accounts of indiscriminate savagery as soldiers killed “small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth.” According to one report, “they even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes,” even as they took infants and “dashed them headlong against the rocks.” It is against this backdrop, perhaps, that one begins to see the glimmer of such men as Hawkyns, who regarded the buying and selling of other human beings as nothing more than a route to riches.

While The Queen’s Slave Trader is undoubtedly an intriguing, engaging narrative and offers a thorough examination of Hawkyns’ personal history, I was disappointed by one thing: I anticipated a greater study of both Hawkyns, Elizabeth I, and the culture that spawned their willingness to embark upon the slave trade (for both personal and national gain). While Hazlewood documents in detail Hawkyns’ voyages and dealings with the Spanish, I felt it lacked that “big picture” analysis that the title had suggested I might find. That Hazlewood reserves for his “epilogue,” although I would still have preferred a bit more analysis. Nonetheless, his perspectives there are appropriately condemning, including the observation that the “rape of Africa” by Europeans retarded the growth of that continent, not merely because of the number of slaves taken from the population but because those enslaved were “mainly the youngest, strongest, healthiest people.” His observation is that:

[T]heir enslavement retarded development in Africa, devasatated commodity production, stifled the internal market, destroyed any chance of early industrial or technological advance, and altered irrevocably the continent’s relationship with the outside world. In short, while African labor paid for the rest of the world to be propelled into the modern era, the African continent suffered arrested development.

Perhaps in that regard it is only fitting that Hazlewood’s book ends where the book Alienable Rights begins: that in the autumn of 1619, John Rolfe, the recorder of Virginia, jotted down this note: “About the last of August came a Dutch man of war that sold us twenty negroes.” It was not John Hawkyns aboard that ship, but it was those who followed in his footsteps, and as the authors of Alienable Rights note, it was the first recorded indication of the sale of African slaves in North America. The tale of slavery began on the high seas in the wake of the discovery of the New World, and its story did not end in the fires of the Civil War or in the desegregation of this century. It is still unfolding, and books like The Queen’s Slave Trader are a worthwhile testament to the origins of not only a vile institution but the formation of the “modern world” as well.

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About Bill Wallo

  • This sounds like a great read! Thanks for the historical link into the beginning of the trade in America, too.