11 Jun 21

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I am found
Was blind, but now I see

John Newton

The hymn ‘Amazing grace’ was sung at the recent inauguration of the President of the United States of America. It was written by John Newton who made his living from the slave trade, indeed he was the captain of a slave ship who became an abolitionist and was eventually ordained. Having renounced his past, he is now close to being a secular saint. Anthony Sullivan brings us a book about the teeth of Britain’s abolitionist campaign. While it is about the Atlantic slave trade, it must not be forgotten that the Royal Navy was active against slavery across the world.

While there had been slavery before during and after Roman times, slavery within the British Isles had ceased to exist by 1200. This was confirmed by the Cartwright case during the reign of Elizabeth 1 and the famous Stewart –v- Somerset case of 1772. However, slavery continued in Europe, and in Britain’s overseas possessions (including the future US) with slaves from Africa, sold by their own rulers to traders from many nations who transported them to the Americas. Denmark, hitherto a major participant in the transatlantic slave trade led the way, banning Danish flagged ships from slave trading in 1803. In 1807 Britain passed the Slave Trade Act, and in 1808 established the West Africa Squadron. This was empowered to use force to stop, initially, British flagged ships from carrying slaves from West Africa to the Americas. The Squadron’s existence continued for the remainder of the Napoleonic war and through the war of 1812 against the USA until 1867, at one point consuming one fifth of the navy’s capability. The campaign, and that it was, was estimated by 1845 to have cost £40 million (around £2 billion today) and the lives of around 2,000 naval personnel, mainly from disease, yellow fever and malaria. However many were killed in action against slavers whose ships were armed, sometimes quite heavily, and often resisted boarding and arrest which was probably inevitable with the increasing penalties for slaving, including, ironically, transportation. The activities of the squadron were strongly supported by a series of abolitionist Foreign Secretaries who negotiated treaties with other nations, leading to a series of bilateral international commissions which adjudicated on the slavers captured as prizes. If they were condemned, this brought prize money to the capturing ship, who also got head money for each slave emancipated; halved if they were dead.

Curiously despite this, the West Africa Squadron receives little attention from historians, so this book is a welcome addition to the literature. It is a pity therefore that despite an excellent bibliography comprising a large number of primary sources, the text is scantily referenced. It would for example, be interesting to know why ‘the flag of Artigas’ [one of the national flags of Uruguay] was the “nomme de guerre of Simon Bolivar” (p.70) but this is unsupported.

The book is not an easy read, it is a chronological history of the squadron and its activities, so a paragraph on a capture might be followed by one on political activities in London, and then straight back to sea. A lot of the craft were tenders to warships on the station, by far the most effective was the Black Joke (named for a then popular song, but one suspects the ship names committee will not consider her name for re-use), a tender to HMS Sybille. Black Joke was armed with a single 18 pounder and had a complement of 34. According to Clowes,[1] she captured 21 slaving vessels including two 14 gun brigs which led to 7,000 slaves being emancipated. The actions of Black Joke, despite there being a chapter so entitled for her, are submerged in the continuing narrative and are not summarised; hence the reference to Clowes.

One feature of the campaign was that it was very much fought by junior officers, midshipmen and warrant officers. They were often prize masters, because there were limited numbers of officers available, they had to take a capture back to port to be condemned as prize, often a considerable distance. The prize crew had to sail an unfamiliar ship, with limited navigational equipment, and often limited experience. There were occasions when the slavers crew attempted to re-take the ship and on one occasion the freed slaves attempted to do so and had to be put back in irons.

The government, the Admiralty and the Royal Navy received little thanks at the time; as a correspondent to The Times in 1845 wrote “… does no one nation under Heaven give us credit for disinterested sincerity in this large expenditure of money and philanthropy. Whether the calm verdict of posterity will redress this injustice, time alone can show”. Beyond the numerous memorial plaques in St Ann’s in Portsmouth dockyard, there is little acknowledgement of Britain’s pivotal role in abolishing the slave trade. Regrettably, while John Newton redeemed himself, Britain herself still bears the burden of her citizens slaving past, and there is little acknowledgement of her role in ending it. Perhaps there is need for a new statue, to the West Africa Squadron? There are an increasing number of empty plinths.

[1] William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to 1900.