London – Greenwich (Borough of) – National Maritime Museum (John Hawkins Painting)

When I visited the National Maritime Museum a few weeks ago, there were numerous signs on how they were modernising the displays to be more representative and inclusive. This is an interesting interview (in.doc format) which took place last year with Daniel Martin, the Head of Collection Services at the museum and they seem to be pragmatic and forward thinking.

This painting of John Hawkins (1532-1595), in the gallery which is being reviewed, is going to present the museum some problems in terms of its interpretation. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either one of the greatest English naval commandeers that there has been, or he’s one of the men most responsible for starting the slave trade. Which doesn’t even cover that it’s Hawkins and his crew who brought tobacco back, thereby causing no end of addiction issues over the centuries.

There was a Royal Navy cruiser between 1919 and 1947 which was named after Hawkins, which does reflect that his naval prowess likely enabled England to fight off the Spanish Armada. The town of Chatham was so proud of Hawkins that they named a flyover after him, which has only recently been demolished. I’m not sure that flyovers actually need to be named after anyone, but there we go.

There was a book, Devon Seadog, published about John Hawkins in 1907 written by Robert Alfred John Walling and this condemned Hawkins for his involvement in the slave trade (although it made passing note that this often benefited the slave in some ways, which isn’t necessarily an argument that might be pursued today with such vigour) so there has long been condemnation of some of his actions.

Martin mentions in the above interview that it’s not possible to put every viewpoint in 150 words or so, which is challenging with individuals like this. The museum has though made an attempt on its web-site, where it has more space, to tell the story of Hawkins from different perspectives. I’m not sure I envy though the museum in its attempt to tell the story of Hawkins, as it can’t just ignore him as he’s an important naval figure and they’re a maritime museum, but they need to add context as well as to the impact that he had on the world.