The Royal Navy ship HMS Jaseur
Sailing against slavery
By Jo Loosemore
Royal Navy vessels sailing out of Plymouth played a difficult but vital role in policing the abolition of the slave trade. Three Devon naval officers recorded their experiences in the Royal Navy's anti-slavery squadrons.
The parliamentary act which abolished the slave trade in Britain became law in 1807 and decreed that British involvement in slave trading must end by 1 January 1808.
In order to enforce the legislation, the Admiralty established a West Africa anti-slavery squadron.
Initially though its work was short lived, as Britain became involved in a war with America (1812-15) and all available ships were required to fight there.
A drawing showing the capture of slaves off Africa
It wasn't until 1815 that the Navy was again involved in the suppression of the slave trade.
A year later, in 1816, the Admiralty established a permanent West African anti-slavery squadron and a dedicated base in 1819.
As well as patrolling the coastlines, intercepting and detaining slave ships and freeing those on board, the officers were also charged with negotiating a series of treaties with local chiefs to prevent the continuation of the trade.
General instructions were issued to commanding officers in order to guide the conduct of the Royal Navy in this mission.
Instructions to Commanding Officers (1844):
Naval commander Lt George Woollcombe
The powers with which you are invested on this service are entrusted to you for the sole purpose of suppressing the Slave Trade, and are never to be exercised without reasonable grounds of suspicion, that the case is one of a vessel liable, on account of being engaged in the Slave Trade, to be brought to justice by Her Majesty's ship under your command.
Lieutenant George Woollcombe was promoted to command both HMS Owen Glendower and HMS Victor on anti-slave trade work in West Africa. He wrote:
On the 11th day of August 1824, being in latitude 2.15 north and longitude 5.13 east, I detained the Brazilian brigantine named the Diana sailing under Brazilian colours armed with two guns of four pounds caliber, commanded by Manuel Dos Santos da Costa, who declared her to be bound from Benin to Rio de Janiero with crew consisting of fourteen men and having on board one hundred and forty three slaves of both sexes.
His records also show that the Admiralty expected the health of the enslaved to be detailed. As such, Lt Woollcombe notes that 45 of the male slaves were 'healthy' and 11 'sickly', while 26 of the women were 'healthy' and three 'sickly'. The health of children was also recorded.
A month later, HMS Victor was involved in the capture of another Brazilian ship carrying 260 enslaved men and women.
Woollcombe's records, mostly held in the collections of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, also show that the Navy was not fully equipped for the task they were asked to carry out.
The ships of the squadron were unsuited to their environment and were often easily out-run by the slavers. Woollcombe requests additional copper from the Admiralty:
An extract from Lt George Woollcombe's notes
"In order to protect them against the destructive ravages of a worm common to this station."
He also refers to a leak in the ship which he hopes will be repaired in Sierra Leone.
Disease and disaster also struck those working to enforce the abolition act. Woollcombe calls for more surgeons to be sent to support the work.
This is supported by the University of Exeter's naval historian Professor Nicholas Rogers.
"In about 1830 I think the West Africa squadron lost about 25% of its officers and men in 12 months," explained Mr Rogers.
"These are very, very high casualty figures and about 15 times higher than the Navy had ever lost in wartime in any year.
"Also a lot people were ill, often crippled with tropical diseases like malaria which you can't shake off afterwards. That was the worst year."
A Royal Navy anti-slave ship
William Loney, from Moretonhampstead, was first appointed as assistant surgeon to HMS Wanderer in 1839. He served as part of the West Africa Squadron for nearly 10 years.
Although he was formally promoted to surgeon after six years, he was in sole medical charge of a ship (as acting surgeon of HMS Persian) after less than one year's service.
During the years of Loney’s service in the Squadron, more than 280 ships were destroyed or seized.
The diaries of Arthur Frankland, also held in Plymouth's Record Office, detail a journey in the Jaseur on the East African coast. His drawings offer a visual record of the time.
It's estimated the Royal Navy captured no more than 10 per cent of the ships involved in the slave trade.
However it's argued the consistent role of the West Africa Squadron exerted considerable pressure on the many nations that continued to trade in slaves after 1807.
Between 1807 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 ships involved in the slave trade and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard these vessels.
last updated: 08/07/2008 at 16:09