Alan Hamilton, Times (UK), June 22, 2006
A DESCENDANT of England’s first slave trader knelt in chains in front of a crowd of 25,000 Africans this month and asked forgiveness for his ancestor’s actions.
Andrew Hawkins, 37, a youth worker from Liskeard, Cornwall, offered his apologies during an ethnic festival in the former West African British colony of The Gambia, as a gesture of reconciliation between Europeans and Africans. He was forgiven by Isatou Njie Saidy, Vice-President of the country, which remains a Commonwealth member and is now a popular tourist destination.
Sir John Hawkins was an Elizabethan privateer and cousin of Sir Francis Drake. He was the first to kidnap the native African population and sell them in Europe or America. He was knighted for his part in helping to defeat the Spanish Armada.
His descendant travelled to Africa under the auspices of the Lifeline Expedition, a Christian charity based in southeast London set up in 2000 to foster contacts between countries on the Greenwich Meridian. Seeking forgiveness for the slave trade has become one of its major aims, alongside attempts to set up Christian schools in post-communist Eastern Europe.
Mr Hawkins and a group of 20 friends locked themselves in chains of the type used to imprison slaves. At the festival they knelt down in front of a large crowd from across Africa and asked to be forgiven for past sins.
“There was a huge procession of people representing cultural groups from around Africa,” Mr Hawkins said on his return to England yesterday. “We came in last and the atmosphere changed as we walked up. We knelt down and everything went very quiet.
“We made our apology in French, English and German. I apologised on behalf of my family. I apologised for the adults and children taken. There was a long pause and we didn’t really know what to expect. They could have said: ‘We don’t accept your apology. Go away.’ “
But the Vice-President was in a forgiving mood. “She came forward and accepted the apology very graciously. She offered her forgiveness and then came forward and took the chains off. That was entirely impromptu and very moving,” Mr Hawkins said. “It was one of the most memorable things I have ever done. You see just how deep the wounds left by the slave trade really are. As someone with family links to the slave traders, it was a very difficult thing to see the consequences of their actions.”
During their visit to The Gambia, Mr Hawkins and his party again wore chains and staged a “reconciliation walk” through the rural village of Juffureh. The local elders were not impressed by the gesture, Mr Hawkins admitted, although their attitude softened after talks with the vistors.
“I think they wanted to see an emotional connection from us, and to see that we had gone there in humility,” Mr Hawkins said. “All I could say was that we have got to do more listening and learning.”
He believes that not enough is taught about Britain’s participation in the slave trade and its effect on Africa. Next year he and colleagues plan to walk from London to Liverpool, Bristol and Plymouth, all major slaving ports, to mark the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
Sir John Hawkins first captured natives of Sierra Leone in 1562 and sold them to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean
His cousin Francis Drake joined him in the trade in 1563
In 1571 Hawkins was involved with Philip II of Spain in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I but changed sides and informed on his co-conspirators
Between 1450 and 1850 an estimated 12 million Africans were sold
At least four million died from forced marches, disease, beatings or appalling conditions on ships where they were chained below decks
Muslim traders exported at least as many, if not more, African slaves to India, the Middle East and North Africa between 1500 and 1900
The US outlawed slavery in 1865. It was not banned throughout the Americas until Brazil did so in 1888