THE BLACK JOKE: THE TRUE STORY OF ONE BRITISH SHIP’S BATTLE AGAINST THE SLAVE TRADE

Reviewed by: ROBERT MUDDYSLEY

Perusing my bookshelves, it is interesting to note how many Americans have written about British naval history, be it narrative, analytical or nuts and bolts. Mahan, Marder, Massie, Halpern, Friedman to name only a few. Most are written for an international audience, but while this book is by an American, it appears to have been written for an American audience, indeed at times, there is almost a tone of surprise that Britain which had done so much to establish the trans-Atlantic slave trade and prospered markedly from it was at the fore front of the nations trying to suppress it.

A previous review (Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade: The Operations of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron 1807-1867) looked at the entire anti-slavery operation off west Africa, and included lengthy mentions of one vessel, (not a commissioned RN warship) a tender to various commissioned ships, the ‘Black Joke’. American built, she had started life as the slaver, the Henriqueta, and after being captured she was bought into Royal Naval service for £900 as a tender to HMS Sybille. Her great virtue was that she was fast (it was a significant advantage for a slaver to outrun pursuing vessels.), and under a succession of commanding officers made many captures of slaving vessels; indeed, she was by far the most successful vessel of the West Africa Squadron under successive commanding officers.

Ms Rooks’ book concentrates on the brig herself telling her story from her capture as a slaver through her being burnt as being beyond repair (although that was disputed), and records that her destruction was celebrated for many years “wherever … the slave trade is carried on”. The book also covers the activities of the squadron as a whole, and while nominally being about one vessel, it gives a very good flavour of the activities of the West Africa Squadron as a whole and what it and above all its people endured, particularly from disease.

It not only looks at the purely maritime aspects of the war against the slave trade, it addresses its entirety, the logistics of the campaign (including the local and service political aspects) but also the people, freed slaves and sailors. Some of the inter-personal dealings between the naval officers on the station are revealing of petty jealousies, some of which led up to the burning of the ‘Black Joke’. The author not only uses lists of freed slaves as illustrations, but goes into some detail about what happened to them, as once the slaves had been freed, where to settle them was a major concern. They could not be returned whence they had come; for their original rulers they were literally a cash crop, and would have been exported again. Many ended up in conditions not far removed from slavery! Some became ‘kroomen’ manning the Royal Navy ships and tenders. Initially they received little pay, but eventually even got the head money awarded for freeing slaves.

Forty-six pages of notes and an extensive bibliography are evidence that it is an extremely well researched book, drawing heavily on personal histories. Despite its sound academic basis, and because the author has a pleasant style it is very readable. As a result, certainly for this reader, the history comes alive. This is an extremely good book, and is recommended to members of the Review.