This brief account will be the last of my flitting references to those honourable pirates, corsairs, valiant admirals, call them what you may, who touched the Canary Islands with their blades, cannonballs or hearts between the middle of the 15th and early 19th centuries. There is enough evidence of their activities to fill a thousand pages but I prefer to leave that task to more patient and accomplished investigators.
Nevertheless I can’t sheathe my pen without tiptoeing upon the connection which just one of those marauding seamen, Sir John Hawkins, ship-builder and distinguished admiral, had with the Canary Islands.
Born in 1532 into a wealthy Plymouth family of ship-owners, seafarers and merchants, Hawkins made several voyages to the Canaries trading mainly textiles for sugar and wine, although many accounts suggest he tampered with piracy from a very young age. He also became aware of the profits to be made emulating Portuguese merchants who needed manpower for their Brazilian plantations and transported Africans from the Gold Coast and Guinea to the New World. There were other Englishmen who dabbled in slavery, like London trader John Lok, believed to have taken the first five slaves from Guinea to England in 1555, but John Hawkins is acknowledged to have been the first English slave-trader, making three slavery voyages in the 1560’s. It was he who developed the slave trade triangle between England, Africa and the Americas.
Within that triangle, the Canary Islands became an important and strategic point where traders refurbished their ships or took shelter from other cunning brigands. They had also become home to very wealthy merchants who required foreign visitors to deal and exchange with. One of these, who became a great friend of our John Hawkins, was Pedro de Ponte of the powerful Canary Island merchant family.
It isn’t clear on which of his many visits Hawkins met Ponte but Spanish historians admit that one of their most important merchants and landowners in the Canary Islands assisted a gentleman they refer to as a treacherous English pirate. One can understand their desire to brand him. After all, it was Hawkins, years later, who ordered design improvements to the Royal Navy vessels which were tested in 1588 against the Spanish Armada, making them faster and highly manoeuvrable and it may have been he who organised the fire-ship attacks against the Spanish fleet at Calais. Besides, although he won Queen Elizabeth’s favour and she loaned him a huge ship called the Jesus of Lubeck, later known as The Good Ship Jesus, thus partnering him in his slavery enterprise, one would be forgiven for imagining him as a ruthless and cruel businessman worthy of being referred to as a pirate.
However, there is little doubt that a genuine friendship existed between Pedro de Ponte of Adeje and Garachico and the English slave-trader, and that Hawkins was a frequent and welcome guest at the Ponte fortress on the southern slopes of Tenerife, La Casa Fuerte. In fact, some suggest the fortress-mansion became his temporary residence on the island.
It was also in La Casa Fuerte, possibly in 1561, where he and his Spanish friend struck their most important deal, a secret agreement which also made them partners in the slave trade. Ponte was to provide the Englishman with food, water, a warehouse and intelligence about other merchants. Historians suggest the warehouse in Adeje may well have been used for “storing” slaves before shipping them off across the Atlantic. Ponte was also to loan Hawkins his personal pilot, Juan Martínez, to see him and his ships safely through the dangerous South American and Caribbean waters in search of clandestine trade at ports like Monte Cristo on the island of Santo Domingo. Spanish biographers suggest English navigators were not up to the task, but it is also true to say that English sailors and imports were not welcome in the Spanish and Portuguese American colonies. In return, Pedro de Ponte would not only receive fine English merchandise but also a share in the profits obtained from the trade in African slaves.
Hawkins became so well known on the island that he was known as Juan Acles, Juan Aquines or just simply Acles el inglés. His relationship with Pedro de Ponte lasted for over ten years, at least until October 1576, when local historians believe Hawkins may have made his last appearance on Tenerife. Internal politics on the island had begun to raise concerns about Ponte’s friendship with Hawkins. The authorities and his commercial competitors questioned the morality of assisting possible enemies of Spain for personal gain.
Hawkins sensed trouble or received a tip-off. So, when Spanish vessels apparently moved from their anchorage between the shore guns on the governor’s fort and Hawkin’s ship, he believed it to be a deliberate manoeuvre to expose the Jesus de Lubeck to the Spanish guns. He immediately set sail for San Sebastián on the island of La Gomera where the remainder of his fleet awaited.
Spanish sources suggest that, as he departed from Santa Cruz, in gratitude for years of good will, Hawkins ordered his ships to fire a volley towards the shore, nearly hitting the chapel. Acles el inglés would never again be welcome on the island of Tenerife.
John Reid Young, author of