Sir John Hawkins Square – time for a new name?​

Originally published: September 2019

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 city’s 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?

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