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JOHN HAWKINS…An English pirate in Tenerife 

Every English person has heard of Francis Drake, to us he was a hero who circumnavigated the world, ‘singed the king of Spain’s beard’ when he destroyed the Spanish fleet in Cadiz, and annoyed the Spanish to the secret enjoyment of Queen Elizabeth I. Drake was foremost among English mariners that were increasingly becoming an offence to Spain, who for many years had had a monopoly of the trade route to the West Indies and Central America. To the Spanish, of course, Drake was anything but a hero, he was ‘El Draco’ (The Dragon), the scourge of the Spanish Main (the Atlantic Ocean shipping route between Europe and the Americas), and a thorn in the side of King Philip II, not to mention being one those dreadful Protestants.

Not so well known now-adays is Drake’s older cousin by eight years, John Hawkins (born in Plymouth, 1532), from whom to a large extent Drake had learned his trade. As a young man Hawkins had become familiar with the Canary Islands sailing on merchant ships to trade for sugar. He is known to have visited Tenerife in 1560, where he already had business associates in the families of Soler, of Abona, and de Ponte, of Garachico and Adeje, who owned sugar plantations in the south of the island. From these visits Hawkins learnt that Negro slaves taken from Guinea were urgently needed by Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. There were fortunes to be made and, by entering the slave market, Hawkins broke into the ring of traders that had been exclusively under Spanish control. In doing so he was the first Englishman to traffic in African slaves.

Although the Canarian archipelago was part of Catholic Spain, a treaty had opened up the Canaries to the Protestant English and traders of other nationalities, but in any case Queen Elizabeth I allowed her merchants to trade with whoever they pleased. This concession made sense because the Canary Islands did good business with merchant ships which had to stop over to stock up with fresh food and water for longer journeys. Hawkins’ fleets were no exception, in late 1562 he called in to Tenerife with a cargo of English woollens to trade and to take on supplies before sailing on to Guinea in West Africa to capture slaves or trade for them.

Garachico was the main port of Tenerife; it was also one of several estates owned by the de Ponte family. Pedro de Ponte was the first Lord of Adeje, a descendant of Cristobal de Ponte, a Genoese merchant who had participated in the Spanish conquest of Tenerife in 1494 and been rewarded with large tracts of land on which to grow sugar. The labour needed to do this was provided by slaves from Africa. It could have been in Garachico that Hawkins found a kindred spirit in Pedro de Ponte, and despite the aggravating piratical raids on the island, the two men hit it off to become friends and business partners in the slave trade. Hawkins was invited to de Ponte’s home at Adeje, so, sailing around Punto Teno and then south east along the coast he arrived at the Caleta de Adeje, the harbour for the town.

It was Pedro de Ponte who built La Casa Fuerte (the Strong House), close to the entrance of the Barranco de Infierno (the Ravine of Hell). As well as being something of a status symbol, a strong, fortified house was necessary because Adeje was vulnerable, being remote from other communi-ties on the island. In the middle years of the sixteenth century the district was raided repeatedly by pirates from England and France. Pedro de Ponte made several requests to Prince Philip of Spain, soon to be King Philip II, for permission to build a fortified house. Finally, on 2nd May 1555, a certificate of authority was signed by Princess Juana and construction began in 1556 for La Casa Fuerte that was to become the home and the administrative centre for the agricultural estates of the de Pontes.

John Hawkins came to Tenerife again in 1564, but on his third voyage to the West Indies, when he arrived in Santa Cruz in October 1567, there was definite hostility between England and Spain because of the activities of English pirates and privateers. In short, King Philip was fed up with foreigners disrupting the affairs of his colonies. In addition to this was the widening gulf between Catholics and Protestants.

Some of Hawkins’ friends in Santa Cruz were friends no more. However, he invited those who were still speaking to him to come on board his ship for a meal and entertain-ment. Their acceptance might have been a subterfuge, because Hawkins noticed that some Spanish ships shifted their position during the night. With what intent he didn’t know, but to be on the safe side he moved his own ships out of gun range. Five days later, as Hawkins left the harbour he made what might have been intended as a conventional farewell salute by firing a cannon, but instead of using a blank charge, an actual cannonball was fired that damaged one of the houses in the town. This could have been an accident, but Hawkins’ critics believed that he had really intended to shoot at the Church of La Concepcion. This interpre-tation could be correct because, as a final gesture before leaving the Canary Islands to go to Africa for slaves, his fleet went over to La Gomera and created mayhem by burning images of Catholic saints.

Of Hawkins’ three voyages to the West Indies, the first, in 1562, was financially a great success, mainly because its novelty took the Spanish unawares, the second in 1564 was profitable but less so because the Spanish were becoming less tolerant towards the objectionable piratical tricks of the English, and the third in 1567, when he was accompanied by his cousin, Francis Drake, was a disaster. But in spite of this, Hawkins went on to become Treasurer of the Navy in 1578; he was instrumental in designing a radically new type of warship that was faster and more manoeuvrable; and he was knighted for his services in the defeat of the Spanish Armada of 1588. However his death was ignominious, on his last voyage, in 1595 to the Spanish island of Puerto Rico, he died of sickness.

But returning to La Casa Fuerte in Adeje, one of the buildings in the complex is called ‘La Cocina’, or ‘The Kitchen’, but, by studying the imposing ruin with its elaborately painted frieze, the coat of arms and the impressive view over the many acres of formerly cultivated land, it’s plain to see that in fact this was the lord’s residence, or at least the salon where he entertained his guests to impress them by the extent of his estate and his one thousand negro slaves hard at work. I’ve been inside the ruin and looked up at the first-floor windows, imagining John Hawkins and Pedro de Ponte standing there, probably with a glass of malmsey wine in hand, gazing out towards Gomera 450 years ago.