North Star Study Group have been running ‘walks and talks’ around Plymouth monuments, looking at the alternative narratives and illuminating connections. 

Sir John Hawkins Square - time for a new name?

Many public statues and street names in the UK are being re-evaluated in light of their contentious history. 

Examples include the recent ‘Rhodes Must Fall‘ campaign, which called for the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford University to be taken down. Rhodes was a British imperialist, born in 1853, who colonised the lands of Zimbabwe and Zambia, naming it Rhodesia. He was a white supremacist, murdering thousands of black Africans through colonisation, imposing a regime of labour exploitation in the diamond mines that made his vast fortune and devising proto-apartheid policies during his time as Prime Minister of Cape Colony. 

Despite the campaign his statue still stands at Oriel College, and College still receives £100m through the Rhodes Scholarship, set up by Rhodes. We can only theorise that the £100m has something to do with the statue still being on display. 

In Bristol there are ongoing discussions around the citys’ links to the Merchant Venturer, Edward Colston. Edward Colston was born in 1636 and died in 1721. He was deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, which had held the monopoly in England on trading along the West coast of Africa in gold, silver, ivory and slaves. During his time as Deputy Governor he oversaw the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. He was a generous benefactor and has been commemorated through many Bristol landmarks such as Colston Tower, Colston Hall, Colston Avenue, Colston Street, Colston Girls’ School, Colston School, Colston Primary School and Temple Colston School. There is also a statue of Colston in the city centre. 

Over the past ten years, there have been open debates in the city around the continued commemoration of Colston through city landmarks. Different organisations have reacted in different ways. Colston Hall are going to rename the hall once their three year capital building works have been completed in 2020. Whereas Colston Girls School, after many years of debates, are keeping the name. 

There are many visual representations of Edward Colston, and other slave traders, and slave trading organisations, in the city. We know what Colston looked like, we can access his personal history and that of other slave merchants in the city. They are well recorded, these men of great wealth. What of the actual enslaved Africans? 

In 1999 Bristol opened a new footbridge in the docks area of Bristol – Pero’s Bridge, named after Pero Jones, an African man purchased by John Pinney, a slave plantation owner and sugar merchant, in the West Indies and brought to Bristol in 1765. He was the personal servant of John Pinney, and it was Pinney who renamed him Pero Jones. They lived in the Georgian House in Bristol, which is now run as a museum by the council. What did Pero look like? What was his birth name? We don’t know. There is no record of that. We know how much Pinney paid for him and what year he died (1796). That he had two sisters, also brought by Pinney. Pero is commemorated, but he wasn’t really Pero Jones, was he?

In Plymouth, round the back of the Magistrates Court, we have Sir John Hawkins Square. 

Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595) was Sir Francis Drakes’ first cousin and Britain’s first slave trader. Hawkins made so much money from kidnapping West Africans and selling them as slaves that Queen Elizabeth I granted him a special crest in the form of a bounded slave. 

Plymouth honours Sir John Hawkins with this square. 

There is also a quote from Hawkins, from a voyage in 1595 with Francis Drake to the West Indies (the voyage on which he died), inscribed on railings on Millbay road, erected in 1999. The quote reads “Serve God daily, love one another, preserve your victuals, beware of fire and keep good company”. 

And there is a wall plaque outlining the life of Sir John Hawkins on a wall on Buckwell Street, commemorating the fact he “…made a good profit buying and capturing negro slaves in West Africa and trading them for gold…” 

The are no public monuments in Plymouth commemorating the thousand Africans enslaved and killed by Hawkins.

Plymouth Council are to make improvements to Sir John Hawkins Square as part of The Mayflower 400 commemorations. How would you improve Sir John Hawkins Square?

Drake, Raleigh, Hawkins and the potato

As we can see from the above, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake have strong ties to Devon and Plymouth. We can add another ‘Sir’ to the mix – Sir Walter Raleigh. They’ve got a few things in common – they are all Devon boys; they were all sailors & commanders of ships; they are normally celebrated as “adventurers”; they were all knighted by (or on behalf of) Queen Elizabeth I, but they are all also involved in really grim stuff…here’s why they got knighted:

  • Drake (in 1581 – for plundering & looting Spanish ships, making the Queen really rich, on return from circumnavigating the globe)
  • Raleigh (in 1585 – after his part in the Desmonds Rebellion in Ireland – ‘Desmond’ is the Anglicisation of the Irish Deasmumhain, meaning ‘South Munster’)
  • Hawkins (in 1588 – after years of making Queen Elizabeth I very rich through slave-trading voyages, and for his part in sea battle against Spanish Armada).


They also have something else in common, which is they have each been credited with introducing the potato to Europe. However, this is largely mythical.

The potato as we know it was completely unknown in England before the 1500s. Potatoes originated in South America where people in the areas currently known as Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia & Chile were cultivating them as a staple crop.

The Inca, Chono, Altiplano, Andean & Mapuches nations all cultivated, ate and sold potatoes long before Spanish forces invaded & looted their lands in the early 1500s – and found them particularly useful because of their long shelf life & as a cash crop.

It’s most likely that potatoes actually made their way to Europe by being taken by Spanish colonising forces – in what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as the “Columbian Exchange” – the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, devastating diseases and ideas across the Atlantic between North, South & Central America, West Africa and Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Potatoes are here in England as a result of decades of bloody fighting, colonization and trade, alongside the changes in agricultural practices across Europe that meant potatoes became an important staple of the diet – contributing to about 25% of the population growth in Afro-Eurasia between 1700 and 1900.

There are a whole range of claims surrounding potato introduction / discovery / description.

Francis Drake was known & celebrated as “The Potato Man” in Offenburg in Germany.

John Sparke from a wealthy land-owning family in St Judes area of Plymouth – who has a  plaque in his memory on New Street on the Barbican (and there’s another one to him in St. Andrew’s Church) – sailed on Hawkins second slaving voyage in 1564 & wrote a journal – made reference, probably for the first time in English, to potatoes and tobacco, both of which he had seen in the West Indies. This is more likely to have been a description of what we’d call a sweet potato though, as these were grown in the West Indies at the time.

Herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612) used the term ‘bastard potatoes’ to distinguish the potato from the sweet potato

  • For instance, the first ‘scientific’ description of the potato in English appeared in his work of 1597, although he mistakenly believed it came from Virginia rather than South America.
  • Gerard’s lack of scientific training and knowledge led him to frequently include material that was incorrect, folklore or mythical, such as the barnacle tree that bore geese.
  • Modern-day authorities disagree as to how much of Gerard’s Herball was original – accused of plagiarism. Except for additions of some plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerard’s Herbal is largely an unacknowledged English translation of Rembert Dodoens’s herbal, published in 1554, itself highly popular in Dutch, Latin, French and other English translations.
  • Most of the 1,800 woodcut illustrations had also appeared previously in Eicones plantarum, a herbal published in Frankfurt in 1590, but one of the 16 newly commissioned woodcuts was the ‘Virginian Potatoes’ entry.