The Royal Navy began an anti-slavery patrol in 1808 following Britain’s decision to abolish its slave trade in 1807. In 1819, the Navy created a naval station in West Africa, an independent command under a Commodore (prior to this the ships were on "particular service").
Between 1808 and 1860, the Royal Navy, West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1600 ships involved in the slave trade and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard these vessels.
Although the Royal Navy is estimated to have captured no more than 10 percent of the ships involved in the slave trade, the consistent role of the West Africa Squadron can be argued to have exerted considerable pressure on the nations that continued to trade in slaves after 1807.
The human cost
There were few benefits to serving on the West Africa squadron. Daily life was tedious, there were little chances of promotion and disease was common. The dangers of the coastal climate were exacerbated by the operational necessity of the men traveling through rivers and swamps in boats, and many suffered from fevers. Moreover, the ships of the squadron were unsuited to their task and often easily out-run by the slavers.
Between 1830-1865, approximately 1587 men died on the West Africa Squadron (this covers deaths from all causes: disease, killed in action and accidental deaths).
(Note: The reports of mortality on the West Africa Squadron vary slightly within the official record of the Parliamentary Papers.)
Some key figures on the Squadron mentioned in the exhibition
Sir George Collier was the Commodore of the West Africa Squadron between 1818 and 1821. On September 19th 1818, was instructed to proceed to the Gulf of Guinea to protect trade in the region, visit forts and factories and to search for slavers. He was told: “You are to use every means in your power to prevent a continuance of the traffic in slaves and to give full effect to the Acts of Parliament in question.” The following year, Collier was given six ships to complete this task and was instructed to take any prize ships captured to Courts based at Sierra Leone, Rio, Surinam or Havana, for their adjudication. These six ships were to patrol over 3,000 miles of the West African coast.
Like the men in his command, Collier witnessed the horrific sufferings of enslaved Africans, and wrote of one occasion in 1821 when he witnessed slaves throwing themselves overboard during the capture of the slave ship on which they were being transported. The slaves, he later wrote in his report, were “linked in shackles by the leg in pairs, some of them bound with cords; and several had their arms so lacerated by the tightness that the flesh was completely eaten through.”
Cheesman Henry Binstead served on the West Africa station between 1823 and 1824, initially as Midshipman and later as Acting Lieutenant. He served on HMS Owen Glendower, which was the Commodore’s flagship, and performed anti-slavery duties on the coast of Africa. Binstead’s diary describes in detail his work going as much as 190 miles up the River Casamanza in the ship’s boats, covering his impressions of indigenous people and fears of attack and imprisonment.
Captain Hon. Joseph Denman has been credited with improving the efficiency of the squadron more than any other serving officer. He became involved with the suppression of the slave trade whilst serving as a lieutenant on the Curlew in 1834, where he witnessed the terrible trials of the Middle Passage:
"I was 46 days on that voyage, and altogether 4 months on board of her, where I witnessed the most dreadful sufferings that human beings could endure."
These experiences obviously left their mark on Denman. In 1840, he was ordered to rescue two British subjects being held in lieu of a debt by the King Seacca of the Gallinas. After lengthy negotiation with the King, Denman secured both the release of the two prisoners and the King’s agreement to a treaty that abolished the slave trade throughout his dominions. The treaty allowed Denman to liberate 841 slaves. He secured these slaves during a three-day action, in which he also destroyed all the barracoons on the banks of the river ,and which almost cost him his career when he was sued by one of the Spanish slavers for damages. Although the Admiralty had earlier praised Denman’s action, when Lord Palmerston stated,
“Taking a wasp’s nest…is more effective than catching the wasps one by one,” by 1842 the policy of blockading rivers and the destruction of property was later declared illegal.
In 1843, Denman drew up the Instructions for the use of officers engaged in the suppression of the Slave Trade and consistently argued to improve the tactics and the material of the squadron. His father, Lord Chief Justice Denman, was an abolitionist, who consistently defended the actions of the Navy and their efforts to suppress the slave trade. Denman ended his career as an admiral in command of the Pacific Squadron.
On illness on the squadron: “It cannot...be a matter of wonder that men arriving in these rivers from the clear atmosphere of the open sea, worn out and drenched in perspiration with long and heavy pulling, hungry, thirsty, and at last cold, should fall an easy prey to the demon of the place, the indigenous pestilence of the swamp. „ Alexander Bryson
On observing the American slave trade on the west coast of Africa: "…this expensive, cruel System is accompanied by the most terrible, most heart-rending loss of life that can well be conceived. In chained gangs the unfortunate slaves are driven by the lash from the interior to the barracoons on the beach; there the sea-air, insufficient diet, and dread of their approaching fate, produce the most fatal diseases: dysentery and fever release them from their sufferings; the neighbouring soil grows rich in the decaying remains of so many fellow-creatures, and the tracks are thick-strewn with their bones. On a short march of 600 slaves, a few weeks back, intended for the Emma Lincoln, 125 expired on the road. The mortality on these rapid marches is seldom less than 20 per cent. Such, sir, is the Slave Trade under the American flag."
Commodore Wise (quoted in Lloyd, 1968)
Lloyd, C - The Navy and the slave trade London: Frank Cass,1968
Bryson, A -An account of the origin, spread, & decline of the epidemic fevers of Sierra Leone: with observations on Sir William Pym's review of the 'Report on the climate and diseases of the African Station'. London: Henry Renshaw, 1849.
Davis, Peter (2006) William Loney RN website. www.pdavis.nl/Background.htm#WAS Accessed 21 November 2006