Royal Navy Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Special exhibition at the Royal Naval Museum

part of the Chasing Freedom – A special exhibition at the Royal Naval Museum 3rd February 2007 – 6th January 2008.

The West Africa Squadron
The Royal Navy began its anti-slavery patrol 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”), dedicated to the suppression of the slave trade

Between 1807 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

In addition to their duties patrolling the coast, intercepting and detaining slave ships and liberating enslaved Africans, the officers of the West Africa Squadron were also tasked with directly negotiating a series of treaties with African Chiefs to prevent the continuation of the slave trade

Although the Royal Navy are 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 of the campaign for the suppression of the slave trade There were few benefits to serving on the West Africa squadron. Daily life was tedious, there were few chances of promotion and disease was common. The dangers of the coastal climate were exacerbated by the operational necessity of the men travelling 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, from a variety of 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.)

Key figures on the Squadrono 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 Admiralty Midshipman and later as acting Lieutenant. He served on the 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. (See pages 12 –13 for diary extracts)

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, during a three-day action, the liberation of 841 enslaved Africans. He also destroyed all the barracoons on the banks of the river, 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.

Alexander Bryson, a highly respected surgeon, served for nine years in ships on the coast of Africa. Diseases such as yellow fever (also known at the time as Black Vomit) and malaria (known as the ‘vapours’) were the most common causes of the heaviest mortality on the squadron, but in the 1800’s no one had yet linked these diseases with the bite of a mosquito. The Admiralty requested a report on the Squadron’s mortality and the task fell to Bryson, who published his results in 1847. although Bryson did not fully understand the nature of these diseases, he quickly observed that “the nearer boats approach the short the greater the risk of contracting disease; and this again is much increased by landing, and still more by sleeping on shore.” Bryson’s observations and the work of another surgeon W.B. Baikie, did however reduce the impact of malaria on the squadron. Bryson’s report is a valuable survey of health and disease on the station and the statistics he gathered on the squadron’s mortality are widely regarded as more reliable than the government statistics of the time.

Samuel Adjai Crowther was liberated by the Squadron in 1822, when he was just 12 or 13 years old, and taken to Freetown, a settlement for liberated Africans in Sierra Leone. He took the name of Samuel Crowther following his baptism in 1825. Crowther enjoyed languages and learnt to speak English fluently; he also studied Greek, Latin and Temne (the language spoken in Sierra Leone). In 1826 he was taken to England to attend Islington Parish School, returning a year later to study as a teacher at Fourah Bay. Crowther returned to England to train as a minister and in 1843, the Bishop of London ordained him. In the same year, Crowther returned to Africa nad opened a mission of his own in Abeokuta, Nigeria. His interest in languages persisted and he translated the Bible into Yoruba, wrote a Yoruba dictionary and published several books of his own on African languages. He became a Bishop in 1864, the first African Bishop ever to be ordained into the Anglican Church. Samuel Crowther is one of the few enslaved Africans that we know anything about to have been liberated from slavery by the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron.

Useful Quotes

Dr Colin White, Director of the Royal Naval Museum: On Chasing Freedom:”The role of the Royal Navy in combating this infamous trade cannot be underestimated. Chasing Freedom will really bring home the human situation for sailor and slave alike and chart the relentless efforts by the Royal Navy to combat slavery.”

Deborah Hodson, Project Manager, Chasing Freedom “We worked closely with the local African and Caribbean communities to develop the exhibition and learning programme. It is important that we realise this is a collective history and a modern day problem that affects all of us. The individual stories and voices in the exhibition reflect this and I hope that they will encourage all of our visitors to think about some very important and topical questions.”

Alexander Bryson, Naval Surgeon: 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.”

Ottabah Cugoano, a former slave and abolitionist, on the cruelty of the slave trade: “If any man should buy another man…and compel him to his service and slavery without any agreement of that man to serve him, the enslaver is a robber, and a defrauder of that man every day.”

Commodore Charles Wise, Commodore of the Squadron 1857 – 59: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.”

Captain Joseph Denman on the slave trade, 1848 “…It is perfectly impossible to make a slave voyage a healthy voyage…”

First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band KCB ADC “The Royal Navy has a justifiably proud history associated with the abolition of slavery and the pursuance of humanitarian rights. We still draw on this heritage today, being in the vanguard of operations to deliver humanitarian assistance when required and disrupting narcotics and human trafficking wherever we find it. With current operations in every corner of the world our presence¸ particularly in the Caribbean and off the coasts of Africa, continues to emphasise the UK’s commitment to the global humanitarian principles of freedom and security.”

Message from The Rt Hon David Lammy MP, Minister for Culture “I am delighted to lend my support to ‘Chasing Freedom: The Royal Navy and the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’. In the year of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, it is important we acknowledge the role played by the West Africa Squadron in enforcing the 1807 Act along the African coast.

I hope that the exhibition can play a significant part in ensuring that the bicentenary year is successful both in remembering the achievements of the past and highlighting the important work still undertaken by the Navy today. I wish you all the best for a successful exhibition.”

Readings Given at the Official Opening Ceremony for Chasing Freedom, 2nd February 2007, Royal Naval Museum

Read by Marie Costa, Head of the African Women’s Forum, Portsmouth Extract from Olaudah Equiano, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789)

“The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.

…The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The wretched situation was again aggravated by the chains, now unsupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

Read by Lt Cdr Ahmed Ajala – Royal Navy Extract from the diary of CH Binstead, Midshipman on HMS Owen Glendower, West Coast of Africa Station, 1823-1824

Wednesday July 9th The ship is now truly miserable. Upwards of 200 rescued slaves are lying about, most of them sick. There are also several bad cases of fever amongst our own crew.

Sunday July 13th Many large whales and sharks are about us, the latter is owing to the number of poor fellows that have lately been thrown overboard – many of our own crew are very sick and the decks are crowded with black slaves who are dying in all directions.

Saturday July 19th Departed this life Mr Richard McCormick, Midshipman, a most amiable young man beloved by all his messmates. I much feel the loss of so worthy a fellow. We were great friends and always on service stationed to the same boat. He died of the African Fever, which had attacked him while him and myself were away in the boats up the Old Calabar River. At 8:30 we enclosed his body, sowed up in a cot, ready to commit to the deep.

Monday July 21st Rainy, gloomy weather. The ship is most beastly and miserable. 30 seamen are on the sick list and many more similarly ill with fever– the slaves are dying from two to three a day. What a horrid climate and scene is this.

Thursday July 24th We are very anxious to arrive at some port, being on quarter allowance with little or no bread in the ship.

Sunday July 27th The sick list is daily increasing and our allowance is now only one meal a day. No cocoa or sugar in the ship, our breakfast consists of bad oatmeal.

Saturday August 16th In the evening I was taken unwell with a headache, attended also with opthalmia. Sunday, found my eyes much worse. The surgeon took two pound of blood from me and applied blisters to my head. On Thursday, I got out of bed being much better but my eyes are yet bad.

Tuesday August 26th We are now all anxious to see some vessel from England, having received no letters since we left. So, no news this last five months. Saturday August 30th No arrival yet or news from England. My mind is very uneasy due to not hearing from home and the miserable prospects before me combined with this wretched station. Our mess now consists of 6 members having when we left 27.This reduction has taken place owing to deaths and promotions. Our loss since leaving England has been more in comparison than any other vessel, excepting the fatal fever of the Bann.


Bryson, Alexander (1849) 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’ Henry Renshaw, London

Cugoano, Ottobah and Carretta, Vincent (2007, forthcoming) Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings: And Other Writings Penguin, Australia

Davis, Peter (2006) William Loney RN website. URL: Accessed 21 November 2006

Lloyd, Christopher (1968) The Navy and The Slave Trade, Frank Cass and Co. Ltd, London

Ward, W.E.F. (1969) The Royal Navy and the Slavers,, Allen & Unwin, London