The world changed at 4am on 24 February 1807. This was when, following a 10 hour debate in the House of Commons, politicians finally voted to abolish the British slave trade. It was a monumental victory for the campaigners who’d worked for decades to topple the trade which had been dubbed “contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy”. Chief among them was William Wilberforce, who sat weeping with exhausted joy.
But actually ending the trade in practice, rather than on paper, would be easier said than done. Traders were still hungry to make huge profits from slavery. Human beings in Africa were still being placed in shackles and subjected to the horrors of the “middle passage” – the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on board impossibly cramped and disease-ridden slave ships. A new force was needed to police the high seas and enforce the ban. Established by the Royal Navy, this force would become known as the West Africa Squadron. The Squadron’s ships would be tasked with stopping ships run by both illicit British traders and those from other countries which had agreed to allow the Royal Navy to arrest their citizens.
Many large whales and sharks about us, the latter is owning to the number of poor fellows who have lately been thrown overboard.
Things got off to a slow start. England was still embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, so only a few ships were dispatched to patrol the west coast of Africa. However, following Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo in 1815, real focus could be placed on tightening the chokehold on the slave trade. Not only were difficult diplomatic wranglings required to secure the cooperation of other European countries, but the crewmembers of the West Africa Squadron faced gruelling experiences at sea, toiling in the scorching heat and witnessing countless atrocities – such as captains on slave ships pushing their human cargo into the ocean when they spotted Squadron vessels coming for them. As one officer on the HMS Owen Glendower, a Squadron flagship, noted: ‘Many large whales and sharks about us, the latter is owning to the number of poor fellows who have lately been thrown overboard.’
There was also the ever-present threat of disease, with many Royal Navy sailors succumbing to yellow fever and malaria, and having to deal with slaves who were suffering with smallpox. But these were widely regarded as acceptable occupational hazards, a small price to pay to stamp out slavery. It’s a misconception that the ethical standards of the time meant that many ordinary people of the 19th Century weren’t just as viscerally disgusted by the practice as we are today. Sir George Collier, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars before becoming commodore of the West Africa Squadron, wrote that the slave trade ‘is more horrible than those who have not had the misfortune to witness it can believe, indeed no description I could give would convey a true picture of its baseness and atrocity.’
Another high-ranking officer, Charles Wise, who surveyed slavers at work on the west coast of Africa dubbed it the ‘most terrible, most heart-rending loss of life that can well be conceive… the soil grows rich in the decaying remains of so many fellow-creatures, and the tracks are thick-strewn with their bones.’
The exploits of the brave seamen battling the slave trade were breathlessly reported in newspapers and inspired oil paintings which romanticised and immortalised the skirmishes. One vessel which achieved fame was the Pickle, a Royal Navy schooner which got into a violent confrontation with the Spanish slave ship Voladora in 1829. After a high-speed pursuit, the Pickle caught up and engaged with the Voladora. Several men on both ships were killed before the slavers were forced to surrender and hundreds of enslaved Africans were freed. Another illustrious ship was the HMS Black Joke, which had begun life as a Brazilian slave ship before being captured by the Royal Navy and assigned to the West Africa Squadron. The Black Joke stopped many slave ships in their tracks, freeing countless hundreds of slaves.
As the 19th Century wore on the Royal Navy expanded operations, even taking on Arab slave traders operating across the Indian Ocean. It’s thought that between 1808 and 1860, around 1,600 slave ships were captured, and more than 150,000 enslaved Africans freed. Thousands of Royal Navy crewmen perished – either from disease and accidents, or at the hands of violent slave traders.
The Royal Navy’s sustained action on the seas, as well as the behind-the-scenes work to establish treaties with other nations to allow tough policing of the slave ships, played a decisive part in finally ending the illegal slave trade that persisted long after the forced transportation of human beings had been banned. While this virtuous crusade cannot possibly whitewash the ugly truth of Britain’s involvement in slavery before Wilberforce and the abolitionists tore the institution down, the actions of the West Africa Squadron deserve to be remembered as a glimmer of goodness in dark times.