Francis Drake’s forgotten role in the English slave trade

He was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most renowned sailors, famed for his role in the English victory against the Spanish Armada attack of 1588 and knighted on his return from his epic circumnavigation of the globe. But Francis Drake also played a central role in the foundation of England’s involvement in the slave trade and was, says Professor Claire Jowitt, a murderer. How was Drake involved in the slave trade and why has this part of his life and career been largely overlooked?

Francis Drake portrait

Here, amid calls to remove statues of the controversial Tudor sailor in Tavistock and Plymouth after protesters tore down the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, MP and philanthropist, in Bristol earlier this month, Jowitt examines Drake’s role in the English slave trade…

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Who was Drake, what is he most famous for, and how involved was he in the slave trade?

The top-line summary about Francis Drake (1540–96) in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written in 2004 by Harry Kelsey describes him as “pirate, sea captain, and explorer”; to this, we should certainly add “slave trader” and, more controversially, “murderer”.

Drake was a contentious figure even in his own lifetime. Immensely successful in naval campaigns for his country when at war (from 1585 England and Spain were at war), and spectacular in plundering treasure and bullion from the Spanish treasure fleet throughout his maritime career, he was knighted in 1580 by Queen Elizabeth I on his return from his epic circumnavigation of the globe. This was first English voyage to have passed through the Magellan Straits from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and only the second circumnavigation in history. Yet, on the circumnavigation, Drake executed his sometime friend and fellow commander Thomas Doughty in dubious circumstances, and callously abandoned a pregnant black woman, Maria, on an island in Indonesia.

Who was Francis Drake?

Born: c1540 in Tavistock, Devon

Died: 28 January 1596, off of the coast of Portobelo, Panama

Remembered for: Being one of the most famous seamen of the 16th century and for becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

Family: Drake was the eldest child of farmer Edmund Drake, who later became a Protestant preacher, and Mary Mylwaye. Drake had 11 younger brothers.

In 1569 Drake married Mary Newman, who died in 1581. Drake’s second marriage was to Elizabeth Sydenham, in 1585. He had no children from either of these marriages.

Read more about his life here

In terms of Drake’s involvement in the slave trade, he spent the first years of his maritime career participating in highly lucrative slaving voyages. On a 1568 slaving voyage in San Juan de Ulúa in the Spanish New World, Drake was accused by his commander and kinsman John Hawkins of cowardly abandoning him to an attack by the Spanish.

Processes of memorialisation about Drake began even during his own lifetime, at his own instigation. His supposedly fervent Protestant religious beliefs were used to fashion his mythography, despite their being little evidence of any particular religiosity. In the 19th century, when ‘Great man’ history became the dominant way of thinking about the past, and imperial rule and colonial power were central to British identity, Drake and the English ‘seadogs’ such as Walter Ralegh, John Hawkins and his son Richard, received renewed attention and admiration for their roles in what has been popularly termed ‘The Age of Empire’. The historical and cultural legacies of these ways of thinking ‒ Europeans’ beliefs about the superiority of their value systems, and their physical and mental characteristics ‒ persist not least in the commemorative statues to ‘Great’ men that pepper Europe, and indeed the globe, such is the continued reach and power of Europeans’ colonial and imperial past.


Listen to historian Christer Petley chart the history of slavery within the British empire and consider how it should be reflected upon today. Plus, author and broadcaster Afua Hirsch offers her thoughts on the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue:


What was Drake’s relationship with Sir John Hawkins? Is it correct to say that Hawkins was the first Englishman to benefit from the triangular trade?

Drake was related to the Hawkins family and grew up with them in Devon. It is through the connections of William Hawkins (John’s father), a prominent Plymouth merchant and ship-owner and the first Englishman to establish a triangular transatlantic trade, that Drake learnt seamanship and navigation. Drake was from yeoman stock with his father a shearman in the cloth trade. His kinship with such a powerful Devon maritime family was crucial in furthering his opportunities, including through serving on lucrative slaving voyages to the coast of West Africa.

In the 1530s, William Hawkins had established a triangular trade between Guinea, Brazil, and Europe. He traded English goods such as cloth, hatchets, knives, copper, lead, combs and even nightcaps, for ivory, gold, and pepper in Africa, with return voyages crossing the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil, probably south of Pernambuco, where he bought local produce, including brazilwood, which was highly valuable in the dyeing industry. These voyages were dangerous, since Portugal – which had colonised Brazil from 1500 – claimed a trade monopoly with the West African coast and objected diplomatically and through armed response to trade incursions by other Europeans. Yet, because the trade was so profitable – net returns from each voyage could be up to 1,000 per cent – conflict between European colonial rivals was inevitable.

What were the circumstances that led to the development of the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century?

Henry the Navigator of Portugal first established the West African slave trade in the 15th century, and it was given papal sanction in 1455. Pope Nicholas V awarded Portugal the rights to trade for slaves in West Africa as long as they converted slaves to Catholicism, so all slaves were baptised prior to shipment. The Portuguese crown controlled the trade, and soon Lisbon and the Algarve in particular (where shortage of labour was most acute) were annually importing thousands of West African slaves.

In 1526, the Portuguese undertook the first transatlantic slave voyage to Brazil, since colonisation there was only possible with a large enslaved workforce. Other European nations quickly established triangular trade systems, enslaving Africans and exporting them as cargo as quickly and cheaply as possible to undertake manual work in mining and agriculture. Spanish conquistadores in South America and the Caribbean needed enslaved African labour since the Spanish encomienda system ‒ where conquerors owned subject peoples’ labour – and imported diseases had devastated indigenous populations by the beginning of the 17th century leading to major shortages of labour.

Where does England fit into this history?

In the 16th century, England did not possess a colonial empire. After Spain ‘discovered’ in 1492 what Europeans called ‘the New World’, Pope Alexander VI divided ownership of both the known and unknown worlds between Spain and Portugal, excluding other Christian nations from seeking trade or territory. As a result, Iberian power increased both in regions remote from Europe, and in Europe itself, as colonial bullion funded Iberian activities.

England, and other Northern European states, excluded from colonial/imperial expansion, valuable natural resources and trading opportunities in distant regions, and feeling the impact in Europe of the newfound colonial wealth of the Iberians, responded with both open piracy and privateering (the same activity under licence) to break Iberian domination.


Listen: Following calls for statues of Drake to be removed for his role in the slave trade, Claire Jowitt explores a dark chapter in Tudor history


Why did Hawkins start slaving and from where did he get the idea?

It was in the late 1550s and early 1560s that John Hawkins started to plan to break into the West African slave trade. By 1561, Hawkins had made several voyages to the Spanish Canary Islands, where he established a trade in malmsey (a sweet fortified wine) and from his local associates there learnt about the profits to be made from trading slaves, bought from Portuguese slave traders on the coast of Guinea, and sold in the Spanish New World colonies.

Hawkins had also recently moved to London from Devon and with the support of a syndicate of well-connected and wealthy backers from the city, he initiated in 1562–63 a slave trading expedition from Plymouth with just three ships and approximately 100 men, including Drake.

Where did Hawkins and Drake get the enslaved people from, and to where did they take them? How did their operation work?

Hawkins and Drake undertook three slaving voyages together, in 1562–63, 1564–65, and 1567–69. On the first voyage, Hawkins reported that he captured “at the least” 300 African slaves in Sierra Leone through a campaign of destruction and violence; it is likely that he also attacked Portuguese ships for their cargo of slaves, ivory, wax, and gold. The Portuguese slave traders, embargoed from trading openly with English ships, claimed they were brutally attacked, and Hawkins certainly did use the largest Portuguese ship to transport the slaves across the Atlantic.

On reaching Hispaniola in the Caribbean Hawkins sold them without violence, at small north coast ports of Isabella, Puerto de Plata, and Monte Christi, primarily trading for hides, and being careful not to appear as a pirate. Hawkins’ three ships returned to England in August 1563, but he attempted to negotiate a licence with the Spanish colonial authorities in Seville to trade in the Spanish Caribbean by sending two additional ships to Spain.

Hawkins lost these ships, later claiming that their seizure cost him £20,000, though the voyage still made a considerable profit. What this voyage also proved was that it was possible to re-establish English triangular trade with a new commodity, African slaves, in a new Caribbean destination, where Spanish colonists needed slaves to maintain their own internal economy. Indeed, the English could supply slaves more cheaply than the colonists’ own compatriots were able to provide from Seville.


In this podcast historian James Walvin describes how enslaved people fought for their freedom and ultimately helped to bring down the Atlantic slave empires:


Was this in any way state-sponsored or sanctioned activity by the Elizabethan government?

Since the first voyage was so successful financially, and because Anglo-Spanish relations had worsened further, Hawkins’ second and third slaving voyages were semi-official ventures, with Secretary of State William Cecil clearly involved in overseeing them. In addition to backers from the city, three privy councillors invested in the second voyage: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke; and Edward Clinton, the Lord High Admiral. Hawkins also had Queen Elizabeth’s support since he chartered the old and leaky 700-ton Jesus of Lubeck from her and sailed under the royal standard.

Jesus of Lubeck
Jesus of Lubeck. (Photo by Abbus Acastra/Alamy Stock Photo)

This voyage clearly yielded a good profit since, in reward, the queen granted Hawkins a coat of arms: the crest, a demi-Moor proper bound in a cord – directly references his slaving activities.

Hawkins' coat of arms. (Photo by ART Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)
Hawkins’ coat of arms. (Photo by ART Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

The queen was a shareholder in the third voyage too, supplying the Jesus for a second time and another old 300-ton vessel, the Minion, though no list survives of the other investors in this voyage. Though the Spanish ambassador protested about the planned expedition, through playacting and camouflage on the part of the government about its true purpose, the voyage departed. Having captured enough West Africans to assemble a cargo of slaves, Hawkins then headed West across the Atlantic. Here he ran into serious trouble, because having completed his business with the colonists and while in San Juan de Ulúa repairing the Jesus for the voyage home with what he believed was Spanish acquiescence, they attacked his fleet. Only two ships, the Judith, captained by Drake, and the Minion survived, but then Drake left for England in the Judith with all the provisions onboard, leaving the Minion, leaking and without supplies, to struggle home alone.

Fewer than 15 of the crew made it back to England on the Minion, and while Drake’s reasons for leaving remain unknown, it is clear that Hawkins had not specified a rendezvous point if the ships became separated. Nevertheless, the voyage was not a financial disaster for the English since at least part of the treasure of gold, silver, and pearls arrived in England, as well as a number of surviving West Africans, who, as recent work by historians such as Onyeka Nubia and Miranda Kaufman has shown, assimilated into life in Tudor England.


Listen to Miranda Kaufmann exploring the lives of several Africans who resided in 16th-century England:


Was there any contemporary reaction in England to slaving activity – was it widely known about, were there any reservations expressed?

After San Juan de Ulúa, English slaving voyages ceased and open attacks on Spanish cities and treasure ships replaced them. This change in activity was not, however, due to ethical reservations but was instead caused by further deterioration in Anglo-Spanish relations. Early Modern English men and women, like other Europeans, believed that the conversion to Christianity of Africans justified their enslavement, since Christianity gave converts everlasting life, and converts’ labour, land, and even freedom were merely temporal and ephemeral matters.

Indeed, in the 16th century English concerns about inhumane behaviour was largely reserved for indigenous Americans mistreated by Spanish conquistadors. Here too there was an obvious political motive. Bartolemé de las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1552), which described Spanish atrocities committed against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, was printed in English for the first time in 1583. Spain’s Protestant Northern European rivals used this account to demonise the Spanish Empire and counter its influence and power. English commentators and writers, such as Richard Hakluyt in his influential and vast collection of English travel accounts, entitled The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), certainly amplified Catholic mistreatment of indigenous Americans in order to suggest an apparent contrast with English ‘reformed’ behaviour.

Any difference was only paper based: English explorers and traders also killed, raped, maimed, stole, destroyed and greedily laid waste to all they encountered, unable to recognise the culture or humanity of peoples they encountered.

Why doesn’t the slaving part of Francis Drake’s life and career get much attention?

Over a 400-year period, estimates suggest that the Atlantic trade enslaved more than 12 million Africans, and Drake certainly played a central role in the foundation of England’s involvement in the slave trade.

Yet, there are other aspects of Drake’s extraordinary life, no less brutal, that are equally significant. Drake was a skilled navigator and tactician, a brave fighter able to inspire men in the heat of battle, and a successful pirate – all skills that Elizabeth I put to use in both the undeclared and declared war with Spain that dominated geo-politics during her reign. Drake’s achievement in circumnavigating the globe on a galleon only about 102 feet long; his ability as a pirate and privateer in capturing treasure from Spain; and his role in the English victory against the Spanish Armada attack of 1588, have created a mythography of him as a plucky little English David fighting a monstrous and massive Spanish Goliath.

Yet, this too is a rhetorical construct, which disguises the horror, pain, and cruelty of England’s colonial and imperial past and Drake’s place in it. We should never forget this history.

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Claire Jowitt is professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of East Anglia and co-editor of Routledge Companion to Marine and Maritime Worlds, 1400–1800 (2020).