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Suppressing the trade

HMS Black Joke (a former slave ship) capturing El Almirante in 1829. With kind permission of RNM.

After the 1807 act, the British no longer participated in the slave-trade but illegal traders continued to smuggle enslaved people to the British West Indies, and to plantations owned by other countries, until slavery was abolished. The harsh conditions, in many plantations, meant new African workers were constantly required to replace the dead. Prices rose sharply and huge profits could be made by illegal traders.

For 60 years after the 1807 act, the Royal Navy was used to enforce the British ban by shutting down the slave trade routes and seizing slave ships at sea. The West Africa Squadron patrolled the seas liberating around 150,000 enslaved Africans. The majority of the British Slave Trade was suppressed very rapidly, but as the British ships withdrew from trading the French, followed by the Spanish and Portuguese, took their place. After 1815, with Europe finally at peace, British supremacy at sea was secured, but, even with a powerful navy, suppressing the trade proved difficult, dangerous and very costly.

It was a huge task requiring co-operation from the governments of all the countries involved. Heavy subsidies were paid to induce other countries to curtail their involvement through anti-slavery treaties with Britian. Smaller amounts were also paid to numerous African chiefs to cease their involvement. The cost of maintaining the British squadron was also high. Initially ships operated out of the Cape of Good Hope but in 1819 a separate West Coast of Africa Station was created. By 1825 there were seven ships on station, manned by around 660 men. This grew to around 25 vessels by 1845 manned by around 2000 British sailors and nearly 1,000 'Kroomen', experienced African fishermen.    


Conditions on board the illegal slave ships were dire. Under the 1807 legislation a fine of £100 for each enslaved person, could be levied on any ship's captain engaged in the trade. When in danger of being caught, some captains ordered the enslaved people to be thrown overboard to reduce the fine. Midshipman CH Binstead, an officer on squadron flagship HMS Owen Glendower wrote:

"Many large whales and sharks about us the later is owing to the number of poor fellows who have lately been thrown overboard."

Many of those liberated from captured slave-ships were often in urgent need of medical help due to the conditions aboard, as Richard Drake, a slave smuggler describes:  

Last Tuesday the smallpox began to rage, and we hauled 60 corpses out of the hold.... The sights which I witness may I never look on such again. This is a dreadful trade...... I am growing sicker every day of this business of buying and selling human beings for beasts of burden... On the eighth day [out at sea] I took my round of the half deck, holding a camphor bag in my teeth; for the stench was hideous. The sick and dying were chained together. I saw pregnant women give birth to babies whilst chained to corpses, which our drunken overseers had not removed. The blacks were literally jammed between decks as if in a coffin; and a coffin that dreadful hold became to nearly one half of our cargo before we reached Bahia [in Brazil].  
Richard Drake, Revelation of a Slave Smuggler, 1860.

Boarding and cleansing the decks of captured ships was a horrific task. Before the African captives could be released the slave ship had been condemned by the courts, occasionally the struggle proved futile and the captives had to be handed back to the traders. In the early years of the suppression, conditions for sailors of the West Coast of Africa Squadron were also very harsh with long months cruising off shore and a high death toll. In 1829, the squadron's worst year, 204 out of 792 men died, mainly of malaria or yellow fever.    

The men, however could earn prize money, either ‘head money' for liberated slaves or a tonnage bounty for captured ships. Crews received more money for capturing loaded slavers than empty ones.  The Royal Navy captured well over 500 slave ships between 1807 and 1866 and prevented numerous ships from embarking.

The end of the transatlantic trade

The Navy's experience showed that the best way to strangle the trade was to stop it at source by blockading places of embarkation.  The traders responded by creating depots or enclosures known as ‘barracoons', where hundreds of enslaved people were held for rapid loading.  The location of these depots would soon become known, and a warship stationed offshore to prevent trading. 

Gradually the traders were forced southwards down the coast away from the stronghold of Sierra Leone. But there were still many ships that could not be touched because they flew the flags of nations that did not have a treaty with Britain. The legislation inspired by James Stephen, to allow the seizure of neutral ships trading with ports under French control, helped see the end of the British Slave Trade but its impact on American trade in general embittered relationships between the countries leading to War in 1812, and, although America banned the slave trade shortly after the British, an anti-slave trade treaty between the countries was not achieved for many years.

American ships could not be touched unless there were actually slaves on board. This allowed the traders to arrive on the coast under the American flag, and then switch to the Brazilian flag (under this flag the crew could not be punished if caught).  Almost all slavers carried multiple sets of papers to allow them to assume different nationalities as the situation required. The spread of Britain's web of anti-slavery treaties gradually drove one nation after another out of the slave trade but rising costs and slow progress saw a period of intense political debate in Britain, in the late 1830's. Many questionied the economics and purpose of the patrols, including some leading abolitionists, such as Thomas Foxwell Buxton. Despite this Parliament decided the campaign should continue. 

Sometimes the political line between suppressing slavery and the British ambition to expand colonial rule became blurred. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers and action taken against African leaders who refused to agree to treaties outlawing the trade. Suppression of the slave trade was certainly a factor in bringing forward partition and colonial rule in Africa.

By the end of the 1840s the health and effectiveness of the squadron was improving and in 1850 the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies announced that an earlier treaty with Britain would be enforced. The Brazilian trade rapidly collapsed.  The Cuban trade still continued, mainly using American ships; but after Abraham Lincoln became President in 1860, he prevented slave ships being built or fitted out in the northern States. Then in April 1862, the 'Treaty of Washington' between America and Britain finally allowed vessels carrying slavery equipment to be siezed along with a mutual right of search.

The American squadron on the coast of Africa was withdrawn, at the onset of the Civil War, leaving the British squadron to act on behalf of both countries. With no protection to be had from any flag, the risks to the slave-traders were rising steeply. Slave-owners were becoming reluctant to invest in slaves and prices were falling.  

By 1866 the last of the transatlantic trade had been holted. Shortly after this the West African station was closed down followed, in the 1870's, by the Courts of mixed commission, set up under Britain's antislavery treaties to deal with captured ships. The transatlantic trade was finally over but a trade continued on the east coast of Africa and the Royal Navy continued to police the seas, especially around Zanzibar into the 20th century.

For further details see the RNM website.


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