Plymouth to rename square named after Britain’s ‘first slave trader’

A city square in Plymouth named after Britain’s ‘first slave trader’ Sir John Hawkins is set to be renamed after a three-year legal battle. 

Council chiefs in Plymouth, Devon have proposed a name change that would see the city centre square changed from the naval commander and former Plymouth Mayor, to Justice Square.

The square, between Higher Lane and Palace Street, was constructed and named in the 1980s when the next door Plymouth Magistrates Court was built.

It is where Sir John sailed from in 1562 with three ships, before kidnapping around 400 Africans in Guinea and taking them to the West Indies to be sold. 

In an attempt to find a name suitably fitting with the city’s Elizabethan heritage for the area, the Policy and Resources Committee and the Public Services Committee suggested using Sir John Hawkins’ name.

A city square in Plymouth named after Britain's 'first slave trader' Sir John Hawkins is set to be renamed after a three-year legal battle

Hawkins is described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as 'the first English slave trader'

Hawkins is described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as ‘the first English slave trader’. 

But in June 2020, the council decided to rename the square following anti-racism protests during which a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol. 

They subsequently removed the signs at the square and pledged to tell a much ‘fuller story’ about Plymouth’s seafaring history and the role that the likes of Sir John Hawkins played in the slave trade.

Legal wrangles followed with a proposal to name the square after black football pioneer Jack Leslie,  who played for Plymouth Argyle.

Leslie was nearly the first black player to be called up to the England squad. His manager at Plymouth Argyle told him he had been selected in the 1920s, but the invitation was then withdrawn. 

That was withdrawn after a road near Home Park, the stadium where Leslie made his name, was named in his honour.

Now, the potential new name proposed by council chiefs would be Justice Square.

Not everyone was happy with the council’s decision to remove the signs, nor plans to rename the square after a footballer.

Sir John Hawkins Square in the Barbican district of Plymouth commemorates the slave traders first sailing out to Africa with three ships, which he used to take 400 Africans into slavery

A sign detailing Hawkins involvement in the slave trade

Local businessman Danny Bamping, who appeared on Dragon’s Den, took the council to court over its plans, saying it had not followed its own proper processes regarding the renaming of a street. 

Sir John Hawkins: The first English slave trader 

Sir John Hawkins was an English naval administrator and commander and the chief architect of the Elizabethan navy.

Born in 1532 in Plymouth, he was a merchant in African trade before becoming the first English slave trader.

He sparked conflict with the Spaniards by transporting slaves from Guinea, West Africa, to the Spanish West Indies.

In one voyage he was forced to seek shelter near Veracruz in Mexico, and was attacked by a Spanish fleet in the harbour, but managed to escape.

Early in his career, he led an expedition to capture 300 Africans in Sierra Leone and transport them to Spanish plantations in the Americas. There he traded them for pearls, hides, and sugar. His missions were so lucrative that Queen Elizabeth I sponsored his subsequent journeys and provided ships, supplies and guns. 

He notified the government of a plot by the English Roman Catholics, with help from Spain, to depose Queen Elizabeth and seat Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, on the throne.

He took over from his father-in-law as treasurer of the navy in 1577 and played a part in designing ships that were used to fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588, during which he was third in command.

In 1593, Hawkins’ son Richard was captured by the Spanish in the South Atlantic. In response, Hawkins raised a fleet and set sail. The rescue attempt was hampered by the Spanish, who had increased their presence in the area. Hawkins died on the 12 November in San Juan, off the coast of Puerto Rico. 

Source: Britannica 


What followed was a long-drawn out legal battle through the courts which the council eventually won.

The council had to pay out £21,933.60 in legal costs which it is still attempting to claw back from Mr Bamping.

Ironically, in August 2020 Mr Bamping suggested a compromise to the council in lieu of the legal fight – saying that an unnamed road by Home Park would be ‘more appropriate’ to honour Jack Leslie than Sir John Hawkins Square.

The court case continued, with Mr Bamping losing – but the road by Home Park was indeed named after the black football player, Jack Leslie Way.

Meanwhile, Sir John Hawkins Square has remained without signage since June 2020 and hopes that Plymouth City Council could to bring the matter to a conclusion have fallen foul of the court action and changes of administration – until now.

Councillor Chris Penberthy, Cabinet Member for Housing and Cooperative Development, said: ‘I’m very pleased to be able to finally move forward with the renaming of the square.

‘We think that ‘Justice Square’ is a fitting name for the area given its obvious proximity to the court but also as a homage to the positive role the justice system plays in our society.’

The process in renaming the square has now started. A Public Health Act 1925 Notice will be displayed for 21 days from Wednesday, November 8.

This gives anyone the opportunity to lodge an appeal – either in writing or by email – to Plymouth Magistrates Court by 4pm on November 29 2023.

If any appeals are lodged, the proposed renaming will be decided by the Magistrates, sited next door.

If no objections are submitted or all objections rejected, the Street Renaming Order will come into effect on the date indicated on the notice.

The council has said there are no residential or business properties addressed within the square.

Another plaque about the role of Hawkins’ cousin Sir Francis Drake in the slave trade was proposed for a statue of Drake on the Hoe.

It followed pressure to remove the statue but the city council said at the time that ‘rather than remove the statue we feel we have a duty to tell the full story of what he did and use this to help remember those who suffered as a result of the slave trade’.


Related posts