Said Francis I of France to Charles V, King of Spain: 'Your Majesty and the King of Portugal have divided the world between you, offering no part of it to me. Show me, I pray you, the will of our father Adam, so that I may see if he has really made you his only universal heirs!' Then Francis sent out the Italian navigator Verrazano, who first explored the coast from Florida to Newfoundland. Afterwards Jacques Cartier discovered the St. Lawrence; Frenchmen took Havana twice, plundered the Spanish treasure-ships, and tried to found colonies — Catholic in Canada, Protestant in Florida and Brazil.
Thus, at the time when Elizabeth ascended the throne of England in 1558, there was a long-established New Spain extending over Mexico, the West Indies, and most of South America; a small New Portugal confined to part of Brazil; and a shadowy New France running vaguely inland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, nowhere effectively occupied, and mostly overlapping prior English claims based on the discoveries of the Cabots.
England and France had often been enemies. England and Spain had just been allied in a war against France as well as by the marriage of Philip and Mary. William Hawkins had traded with Portuguese Brazil under Henry VIII, as the Southampton merchants were to do later on. English merchants lived in Lisbon and Cadiz; a few were even settled in New Spain; and a friendly Spaniard had been so delighted by the prospective union of the English with the Spanish crown that he had given the name of Londres (London) to a new settlement in the Argentine Andes.
Presently, however, Elizabethan England began to part company with Spain, to become more anti-Papal, to sympathize with Huguenots and other heretics, and, like Francis I, to wonder why an immense new world should be nothing but New Spain. Besides, Englishmen knew what the rest of Europe knew, that the discovery of Potosi had put out of business nearly all the Old-World silver mines, and that the Burgundian Ass (as Spanish treasure-mules were called, from Charles's love of Burgundy) had enabled Spain to make conquests, impose her will on her neighbors, and keep paid spies in every foreign court, the English court included. Londoners had seen Spanish gold and silver paraded through the streets when Philip married Mary — '27 chests of bullion, 99 horseloads + 2 cartloads of gold and silver coin, and 97 boxes full of silver bars!' Moreover, the Holy Inquisition was making Spanish seaports pretty hot for heretics. In 1562, twenty-six English subjects were burnt alive in Spain itself. Ten times as many were in prison. No wonder sea-dogs were straining at the leash.
Neither Philip nor Elizabeth wanted war just then, though each enjoyed a thrust at the other by any kind of fighting short of that, and though each winked at all kinds of armed trade, such as privateering and even downright piracy. The English and Spanish merchants had commercial connections going back for centuries; and business men on both sides were always ready to do a good stroke for themselves.
This was the state of affairs in 1562 when young John Hawkins, son of 'Olde Master William,' went into the slave trade with New Spain. Except for the fact that both Portugal and Spain allowed no trade with their oversea possessions in any ships but their own, the circumstances appeared to favor his enterprise. The American Indians were withering away before the atrocious cruelties of the Portuguese and Spaniards, being either killed in battle, used up in merciless slavery, or driven off to alien wilds. Already the Portuguese had commenced to import negroes from their West African possessions, both for themselves and for trade with the Spaniards, who had none. Brazil prospered beyond expectation and absorbed all the blacks that Portuguese shipping could supply. The Spaniards had no spare tonnage at the time.
John Hawkins, aged thirty, had made several trips to the Canaries. He now formed a joint-stock company to trade with the Spaniards farther off. Two Lord Mayors of London and the Treasurer of the Royal Navy were among the subscribers. Three small vessels, with only two hundred and sixty tons between them, formed the flotilla. The crews numbered just a hundred men. 'At Teneriffe he received friendly treatment. From thence he passed to Sierra Leona, where he stayed a good time, and got into his possession, partly by the sword and partly by other means, to the number of 300 Negroes at the least, besides other merchandises. . . . With this prey he sailed over the ocean sea unto the island of Hispaniola [Hayti] , . . and here he had reasonable utterance [sale] of his English commodities, as also of some part of his Negroes, trusting the Spaniards no further than that by his own strength he was able still to master them.' At 'Monte Christi, another port on the north side of Hispaniola . . . he made vent of [sold] the whole number of his Negroes, for which he received by way of exchange such a quantity of merchandise that he did not only lade his own three ships with hides, ginger, sugars, and some quantity of pearls, but he freighted also two other hulks with hides and other like commodities, which he sent into Spain,' where both hulks and hides were confiscated as being contraband.
Nothing daunted, he was off again in 1564 with four ships and a hundred and seventy men. This time Elizabeth herself took shares and lent the Jesus of Lubeck, a vessel of seven hundred tons which Henry VIII had bought for the navy.
Nobody questioned slavery in those days. The great Spanish missionary Las Casas denounced the Spanish atrocities against the Indians. But he thought negroes, who could be domesticated, would do as substitutes for Indians, who could not be domesticated. The Indians withered at the white man's touch. The negroes, if properly treated, throve, and were safer than among their enemies at home. Such was the argument for slavery; and it was true so far as it went. The argument against, on the score of ill treatment, was only gradually heard. On the score of general human rights it was never heard at all.