Sir John Hawkins was a buccaneering Elizabethan seaman and adventurer, who helped his cousin Sir Francis Drake beat the Spanish Armada. And he was also one of the pioneers of the slave trade, becoming the first person to buy slaves in west Africa and sell them to Spanish landowners in the Caribbean.
Now his descendent, Andrew Hawkins, a youth worker from Cornwall, has delivered an extraordinary personal but public apology for his ancestors' involvement in the trade, kneeling in chains in front of 25,000 Africans in a stadium in Banjul, the capital of the Gambia.
Mr Hawkins's apology took place during a trip this month to west Africa organised by the Lifeline Expedition, a charity project aimed at achieving reconciliation over the slave trade.
Mr Hawkins, 37, from Liskeard, said yesterday: "I apologised on behalf of my family. I apologised for the adults and children taken. I recognise that it's a small, simple act to say sorry - but it was a handful of people who started the slave trade and the ripples of their actions caused evil throughout the continent of Africa.
"It was one of the most memorable things I've ever done. It was a learning experience. You see just how deep the wounds left by the slave trade are. As someone with family links to the slave traders, it was a very difficult thing to see the consequences of their actions. Hopefully a handful of people can now be the beginning of something good."
After he had spoken, the Vice-President of Gambia, Isatou Njie Saidy, came forward to accept the apology and symbolically remove the chains.
The event was part of the Roots Festival, linked to the Alex Haley bestseller, Roots, which tells the story of the origins of black Americans in the slave trade. The Lifeline Expedition group also wore chains and shackles during a "reconciliation walk" in the village of Juffureh, from which Kunta Kinte, the slave whose story is the basis for Roots, is believed to have come from.
Mr Hawkins was among 20 Europeans on the Gambia trip, which is part of a seven-year reconciliation project which started in 2000. It aims to bring people from Africa, the Americas and Europe together to promote fair trade and foster education about issues of slavery, racism and reconciliation.
David Potts, the founder of the Lifeline Expedition said: "We do not think there has been a really sincere apology from Europeans to Africa and we want to do our part in trying to redress that.'' Next year, the group plans a walk between London, Liverpool, Bristol and Plymouth to mark the 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
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