Royal Naval Museum



Heroes of the Squadron

Joseph Denman


Captain Hon. Joseph Denman


1810 – 1874


He served first as a Lieutenant on HMS Curlew and was later promoted to Captain.


Denman was placed in command of the West Africa Squadron’s ship,HMS Wanderer, in 1839.


Denman first became involved in the suppression of the slave trade whilst serving as a lieutenant on the Curlew in 1834, where he witnessed the terrible experiences of the enslaved Africans during 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 and he was known as a passionate Abolitionist.

In 1840, the Admiralty ordered Denman to rescue two British subjects being held by a local chief in the Gallinas, King Seacca, for a debt.  After lengthy discussions with the King, Denman secured the release of the prisoners and also had the King’s agreement to a treaty abolishing the slave trade throughout his lands.  The treaty allowed Denman to liberate 841 enslaved Africans who would otherwise have been transported and sold.  During a three-day action, he also destroyed all the slave barracoons (where the slaves were kept before they were transported) on the banks of the river.  Later, this almost cost Denman his career when he was sued by one of the Spanish slavers for damages.  At first, the Admiralty praised Denman’s actions, and Lord Palmerston stated,

“Taking a wasp’s nest…is more effective than catching the wasps one by one.” However, by 1842 the squadron’s policy of blockading rivers and the destruction of property was declared illegal. 

Perhaps in response to his own frustrating experiences, in 1843 Denman worked on a book of orders for the squadron, which was to be issued to every serving officer, called Instructions for the Guidance of Her Majesty’s Naval Officers Employed in the Suppression of the Slave Trade. He also argued repeatedly to improve the tactics of, and the resources available to, the squadron and he gave evidence at several government Select Committees, commissioned to examine the slave trade. His father, Lord Chief Justice Denman was an abolitionist himself, and he also defended the actions of the Navy and their efforts to suppress the slave trade.


Captain Joseph Denman has been described as one of the most successful and passionate officers to serve on the West Africa squadron and he has been credited with improving the efficiency of the squadron more than any other serving officer. 

Denman ended his career as an Admiral in command of the Pacific Squadron.

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