The British Empire Library

Britain's War Against the Slave Trade: The Operations of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron 1807–1867

by Anthony Sullivan

Anthony Sullivan has written a highly accessible history of the Royal Navy as it sought to undertake one of its most important yet also one of the most thankless tasks that had been set for it in attempting to stamp out the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Few parts of the world were so inhospitable to Royal Naval crews as what was known, not without good cause, as the 'White Man's Grave' along the West African coastline. It is estimated that two and a half thousand sailors died in the 60 years covered by this book and many more thousands would have had their health compromised for life thanks to the fevers and diseases that regularly swept through the ports and ships operating along this coastline. And yet despite all this privation and myriad other difficulties, a sense of unalloyed nobility shines through their actions. This must be one of the most selfless uses of a military force by any nation in any period in history. As the author mentions, Britain did much to atone for its earlier slave trading operations thanks to the professionalism and dedication of the ships of the West Africa Squadron.

Before I go on to discuss some of the themes in the book, I think the author needs to be commended for his organisation and layout. It is so useful to have a timeline, index, detailed maps of the ports, rivers and coastline discussed and even some very impressive line drawings of the various types of ships described throughout the book. This last point really does help one grasp the enormity of the achievement by the sailors involved. This was an unusual battleground for the Royal Navy in that its adversaries tended to hide in river systems protected by sand bars and forests. Smaller, nimble ships with low draughts were of far more use than big, lumbering ships with lots of cannons. Speed was imperative especially as slavers learned to sacrifice cargo space for speed. Often cutters, gigs and launches were as effective as any brigs or frigates in catching up and boarding slave ships. This emphasis on smaller vessels also meant that the West Africa squadron was almost accidentally a great proving ground for junior officers who would often find themselves with freedom and responsibilities that were of a different magnitude from anywhere else in the service. Even the most junior of officers (and often young teenagers to boot) could gain invaluable experience as prize crews as ships needed to get any offending slave ships to an Admiralty Court or Mixed Commission Court to be judged whether the seizure was legal and whether the slaves could be freed or not. A single RN ship that stopped several slavers might soon run out of officers and crew before too long. Not that taking prizes was an easy option at all. Being responsible for guiding a ship potentially hundreds of miles to a port like Freetown with basic navigational aids, whilst attempting to care for potentially hundreds of slaves who might still be scared or confused about what their fate held, whilst also potentially relying on the original slaver crew to provide manpower was no easy task. The fact that this job might be left to a young midshipman of say 15 years of age makes it even more remarkable. Slave crews could and did seize back ships; RN crews might 'find' the ship's grog and become less than cooperative; Disease might break out amongst the freed slaves; storms and lulls might also take their toll. The author explains that at least one prize took 146 days to get from seizure to Freetown!

The author provides a good concise overview of the origins of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its international dimensions from the time of the Spanish discovery of the New World until the British evangelical awakening in the 18th Century which did so much to undermine the institution of slavery in British political circles eventually leading to the ban on British involvement in the Slave Trade in 1807. As they soon found out though, banning the Slave Trade was only one important step and it would take the wooden ships and iron men of the Royal Navy to make it a practical reality. What makes the Royal Navy''s feat all the more remarkable is the fact that they were so constrained by their own rules and regulations but also by International Laws and Treaties which really do form the backbone of the book and of the actual campaign itself. Having said this, it should be remembered that Britain outlawed the Slave Trade whilst the Napoleonic War was still raging. It is interesting that Napoleon actually reinstated the institution of slavery in 1808 after it had been banned by the Directorate in 1794. This meant that for the first 8 years or so of the campaign, the Royal Navy could play by very different rules indeed from the years of the peace that followed. They did not need the permission of the French government for instance to board French ships during this time of war (nor did they ask the Americans permission to board their ships during the war). The Slave Trade gave the Royal Navy an excuse to stop and search ships to ensure they were not heading towards their French enemy or Allies and so helped with a blockade in addition to its humanitarian mission. I have to say that I did not realise that the Americans also banned their own country's involvement in slave trading just the year after the British in 1808. It perhaps feels odd because they kept the institution of slavery in many States until the American Civil War in the 1860s. The author demonstrates that American efforts to stamp out their own Slave Trade was half hearted at best and often down right antagonistic towards what the British were trying to achieve. However, it was interesting to read that most of the American officers who ended up seeing the horrors of the slave trade for themselves cooperated far more effectively than the American Government had ever intended them to do so. In an era of poor communications, people could exercise far better judgement when seeing the realities first hand than any politician could sitting thousands of miles away far removed from the realities of the world! It should be said though, that Royal Naval stopping of US ships (even illegal slaving ships) in the early years almost certainly contributed to the American invasion of Canada in 1812.

The Royal Navy's biggest problem at first was Portuguese flagged ships as Portugal was an important ally of Britain in her fight against Napoleon and yet slavery was still perfectly legal throughout the Portuguese Empire and indeed they provided many slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America. Not surprisingly, British slavers were tempted to fly Portuguese flags to evade boarding by RN ships. As early as 1810 the Portuguese government agreed, in theory, that Portuguese ships could only load slaves in her own ports. It became clear that the Royal Navy would need to start boarding ships in order to ascertain that paperwork was in order and that slaves had indeed been loaded where they were supposed to have been loaded. This must have led to some heart-breaking instances for the slaves and indeed RN crews when ships loaded with slaves but with the correct flags and permissions were permitted to travel on to South America or the Caribbean. The author certainly conveys the fact that the Royal Navy were bound by very strict legal instructions - even more so once the Napoleonic Wars had ended. Only RN ships carrying the appropriate paperwork and copies of the relevant international treaties were permitted to stop and search ships on the High Seas. Slowly and over time, Britain's politicians lobbied for stricter terms to limit slave traders' abilities to operate from or to certain destinations. This legal battle is as interesting and important as the military campaign to put these treaties into effect. Even after a slaver had been stopped and found to be carrying slaves, the seized ship had to be taken to ports like Freetown where they could be judged by Mixed Commissions of British and either Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch judges where appropriate. If both country's commissioners agreed that the ship was indeed breaking the relevant treaties then the slave ship was 'condemned' (which often actually meant being sold), and the slaves freed. Remarkably, if the Commission felt that the ship had been seized illegally (perhaps if they judged that the slaves were actually paid crew or if there were no slaves aboard or that they had been induced aboard by the Royal Navy) then actually the RN seizing officer was personally liable for any damages incurred. RN officers could and would be sued in the courts if they got it wrong - although this was rightfully changed later on. On the other side of the balance sheet, in order to encourage RN crews into action, legally seized ships were basically treated as prize ships and the slaves freed would gain the RN crew Head Money for how many slaves had been on board. This would also encourage RN crews to tend and look after the slaves in hope of a higher bounty, although trained surgeons and understanding of disease in this part of the world was less than ideal and many slaves would unfortunately die whilst being transported to ports like Freetown to undergo the legal processes before being released. It should be said that in the pantomime of my mind, I did often find myself mentally cheering when the ship was condemned but then mentally booing if the ship was released back to the owner! These bureaucratic constraints do seem harsh from our vantage point, but it must be recalled that the British were actually establishing the first ever international courts years before the League of Nations or United Nations or any declarations on Human Rights. This sense of using the rule of law was important and giving credibility and respectability to the process. The country that was most reluctant to cede such authority to British inspired international courts was the United States, although it should be noted that Lincoln finally agreed to them in the 1860s as something of a wedge issue to use against Confederate lobbyists for Britain to join in the Civil War on the South's side.

The heart of the book though has to be the descriptions of the seizures of the slave ships. In some ways it may seem a bit repetitive to have so many of these explained in the careful detail provided (and what must have taken an immense amount of research to get so many dates and details). But every single seizure (or at least if followed by agreement from the courts for their seizure) represents a small triumph for the slaves aboard and for the RN crews. The sheer bravery and leadership qualities of the RN shine through time and again throughout the book. It is amazing just how many times a small boarding party managed to take over significantly larger ships with far larger crews and often better armaments. One marvels at the confidence and derring do of the participants. It should also be remembered that it was not just British crew who participated but a veritable cast of thousands. The Royal Navy was happy to employ anyone with skill, strength or expertise of any creed or colour. They also relied on African Kroomen to help navigate the complicated coastlines and waterways of West Africa and many of these also sacrificed their lives in combat and disease alongside the normal crew. There was also a long debate as to whether it was better to go ashore and attack slave posts and their barracoons on land or stay out at sea and pick up the slave ships as they came and went (after the Equipment Clauses were included in various treaties the RN could stop ships which were equipped for slaving even if no slaves were yet aboard). Going ashore would attack the slavery problem at its source but it had the huge disadvantage for the crews that they were far more likely to get sick when ashore and there was also repeated concerns at the legality of effectively attacking independent kings and tribes. Staying out at sea was seen as much safer for the crews but who knew how many slave ships avoided them on the open seas and even seized ships were often sold and reentered the trade at a later date under a new owner. In the end, a push to get local African leaders to sign anti-slavery treaties with carrots provided in terms of cash or military aid against slave trading rivals would provide a fig leaf of legality for the Royal Navy coming ashore. There was nearly a huge step backwards in the 1840s when Free Traders in Westminister began arguing that the Royal Navy was spending a lot of blood and treasure disrupting the market place and that customers could decide for themselves whether to buy slave produced products or not. A prominent free trader like Sir William Hutt came closer to disbanding the Anti-slavery patrol than many had expected after bringing a vote to the House. Although this could have spelled disaster, it actually spurred the government on to take even more forceful actions and sign more treaties, send more ships and even expand the area of operations over the Atlantic to Brazil and effectively bully them into ending the slave trade with aggressive Royal Naval cutting out operations of slave trading vessels in Brazilian ports. That and the previously mentioned American Civil War helped move the diplomatic and moral dial so that by the mid 1860s the maritime Transatlantic slave trade had effectively ceased to operate. It had not been achieved easily for sure. It had cost the British government millions of pounds, the Royal Navy had lost numerous ships and thousands of crew had died or had been forced to leave the service due to ill health. In return they had seized approximately 1600 ships over the period. Nearly every one of those seizures was a mini triumph to the slaves on board who were freed. Of course, their harrowing journeys did not finish at that point and many never saw their homes or loved ones ever again. Most ended up in the appropriately named Freetown and if they were lucky found a ship heading somewhere closer to where they came from. More than likely they stayed and worked in the ports as apprentices or even joined the armed services. And remember it was not just adults who had been seized. Children down to the youngest ages could and had been taken into captivity. There was one uplifting paragraph in the book where boats full of freed children sang as they were brought ashore to Freetown by sailors of the Royal Navy - not a dry eye in the house one suspects at such a sight! Indeed I think there is an underlying theme of decency that runs throughout this book by all involved in the suppression of this horrible trade. Rarely can the military have been so firmly on the side of the Angels in such important work. I already had a high regard for the Royal Navy's role in suppressing the Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century but Anthony Sullivan has convinced me that perhaps I had not held them in high enough regard. These were truly remarkable men helping some of the most vulnerable people imaginable and willing to do so even at the cost of their own lives and health. This book may have some dark passages but ultimately it is an uplifting story of Britain's politicians and sailors overcoming the greed of others, international rivalry and legal bureaucracy to achieve a noble aim. And all because it was the decent thing to do!

British Empire Book
Anthony Sullivan
Pen and Sword
Pen and Sword


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