- Historic Sites
The Elizabethans And America
“To push back the consciousness of American beginnings, beyond Jamestown, beyond the Pilgrims, to the highwater mark of the Elizabethan Age” -- Part One of a New Series.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
By the truce of 1556 France accepted Philip II of Spain’s demand for prohibition of trade in the West Indies, except by special license from him—which was not readily forthcoming, we may suppose. The French sea captains refused to accept this, but they were without the support of their government. Contrast England under Elizabeth. The fact that England went Protestant was an inestimable advantage: it gave us a free hand; we were no longer hampered and held back as the French were by religious conflict.
In the years 1562–65, under the inspiration of Gaspard de Coligny as Admiral of France, three French colonial expeditions were sent to Florida, the first headed by Jean Ribault and the Breton Protestant René Goulaine de Laudonnière. But the settlers, like the English later, failed to cultivate the soil and suffered great privations. Disheartened, they were ready to return when a powerful reinforcement arrived, sent out by Coligny. Ribault made a settlement at Saint Augustine, then—with most of his forces—was caught and wrecked in a hurricane. Pedro de Menendez had been commissioned by Philip to destroy them; here was a divine opportunity. He got the wrecked men to surrender in expectation of terms, and then in three successive massacres wiped them out. Some few French took refuge among the Indians; very few ever got away. Among these was Laudonnière, who not unnaturally took to a life of privateering against the Spaniards, like Sir Francis Drake after a similar experience at their hands at San Juan de Ulúa a couple of years later.
Such incidents were raised by Protestant polemicists to the level of a debate, before the bar of European opinion, over the rights and methods of Spain in America. They added fuel to the growing Protestant detestation of Spain, to the campaign against the treachery and ruthlessness of her methods, and to the humanitarian propaganda—based on the revelations of her own Bishop Las Casas—against the barbarity of her treatment of the natives. The shock of these events was felt most acutely in England, still on terms of amity and alliance with Spain. This situation John Hawkins was trying to take advantage of, with the official backing of the Queen, to try out a licensed trade with the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean—if possible with Philip’s approval—for the colonists certainly needed and wanted the trade.
There is a popular idea that Hawkins began the slave trade to America. This is, of course, a delusion; I may as well correct it here. The Spaniards brought a few Negroes as slaves into Hispaniola as early as 1502. Since the aborigines proved hopeless for labor, a steady stream of Negroes began to flow across the Atlantic. The slave trade was no innovation: slaves had been imported into Spain from West Africa regularly for the past half-century. In 1518, the Spanish Crown granted a sole license for the transport of 4,000 Negroes a year direct from Africa to the West Indies, and these were supplied by Portuguese merchants who had the monopoly of the African coast trade.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, most of the contractors who purchased the right were German, Flemish, or Italian subjects of the Emperor or his son. But the supply of slaves was never enough for the demand, and Portuguese interlopers were the most persistent of those who sought to serve the market outside the Crown’s license. It was into this well-established trade that Hawkins sought to insert himself and, if possible, to gain Philip’s license—since he had been, in some sense, a servant of Philip’s in England. This may have been too much to expect, and on his third venture he narrowly escaped destruction. But he was in no sense an initiator in a trade of which, in any case, the dominant ethical standards of the sixteenth century did not disapprove.
This is the significance of Hawkins’ three famous voyages, on the last of which the young Drake served as captain of the barque Judith. King Philip’s answer was the piece of black treachery in the harbor of San Juan (now Veracruz), when the Spanish viceroy Don Martin de Enriques broke his pledged word. Hawkins’ ships were suddenly attacked, his voyage overthrown, more than a hundred of his men lost to imprisonment, the lash, or death at the hands of the Inquisition; Hawkins himself returned across the Atlantic, enduring unspeakable sufferings on board his ship, with only a handful of men left to bring her into Mount’s Bay. This experience was never forgotten or forgiven by the English seamen.
The French were driven out. The confusion of French policy, the inner conflicts of the religious wars, made it impossible to follow any consistent course and lost France her opportunities in America. But we must draw attention to what the English learned from the French in these matters, from their experience and example, and from the knowledge they had gathered about the New World, alluring, exciting, dangerous. The fact is that in these middle decades of the century there was something like an Anglo-French Channel community, particularly in evidence at the western end of the Channel, between Protestants on both sides of it. When one was in trouble, in opposition, or beyond the law, the other came to the rescue.