Ending of the slave trade on the high sea’s.

Graham Charles Lear
10 min readJun 12, 2020


While the 1807 act made trading in slaves illegal, there had been little consideration about how best to enforce the legislation. A quarter of all Africans who were enslaved in the period 1500–1870 were transported across the Atlantic after 1807. The Atlantic slave trade was not extinguished in a few years, as many had hoped.

The Foreign Office had to persuade other nations to enter into treaties prohibiting the slave trade and empower British naval officers to arrest the slavers. As defects in the treaties became plain, yet more diplomatic manoeuvring was needed.

Ultimately, it took nearly 60 years of untiring diplomacy and naval patrolling to finally abolish the Atlantic slave trade.

60 years of battles on the high seas fighting diseases firefights boarding Portuguese slavers, American slavers both South and North. It's a forgotten part of our history. There are no statues or monuments of these sailors that bought an end to the African trade routes just an empty place in our history books.

This is the story of how our seafaring ancestors bought to an end the slave trade.

It was called the West Africa Squadron and it was formed in 1807 its orders were to put an end to the slave trade coming out of the countrys and ports and the extent of the job was such that 60 years later the West Africa Squadron job was coming to an end. In 1807 we had been continuously at war for 14 long years, and only a token unit was sent to carry out the initial anti-slavery patrols. The ageing frigate ‘Solebay’ and the sloop ‘Derwent’ were dispatched to West Africa, but the two ships could do little more than cruise up and down the coast.

Then in 1811, the fleet increased by five and now they began to get to grips with the many slavers that plied their trade across the Atlantic. The catastrophe, again in 1812 Britain was again at war this time it was with the United States 1812–14 and all British Royal Navy ships and sailers were diverted to fight that war leaving the Atlantic free once more for Slavers to ply their trade free from being molested by the British Navy.

In 1815 with peace in Europe secured Britain with its superior Naval power once more turned its attention to stopping the slave trade. Britain established the West Coast of Africa Station, known as the ‘Preventative Squadron and for the next 50 years they hunted down slave ships freeing slaves bound for South America, North America. By now the British Caribbean Colonies slaves were now free although French, Dutch ones in that area along with the Spanish speaking islands like Cuba and Haiti still had slaves so the Squadron was kept busy trying to prevent slaves getting through in what amounted to a blockade.

But it was not a story of continual success. Patrolling the coast was arduous, unpleasant and frustrating, and the vessels employed on the station were often too old, too slow, and too few in number to catch the slave ships. I also think that when we started this enterprise we underestimated the sheer task of the job. Other countrys such as the Americas, Holland, France, Portugal and many of the African countrys were still dealing in slavery The task of enforcing the act was huge, quite beyond any one nation without the co-operation of all governments concerned. Unsurprisingly, this proved difficult to obtain.

France paid eloquent lip service to the idea, but, sensitive to any appearance of servility to the British, would not allow boarding parties to search their ships. Neither would the Americans whom slavery was paramount to their economy. The Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilians continued their human trafficking openly, and their colonial economies were so bound with slave labour that they had neither the will nor the power to act effectively.

However we British had few tricks up our sleeve, we were by far the most dominant force in the world, this meant that when signing trade or any other treaty with countrys around the world we insisted on ‘equipment clauses in the new treaties. The inclusion of an ‘equipment clause’ in new treaties — which made the presence of manacles and chains, extra planking or water storage enough to prove that a ship was engaging in illegal trading — improved success rates greatly, and in time these nations conceded Britain the right to search their vessels.

By the 1850s, around 25 vessels and 2,000 officers and men were on the station, supported by nearly 1,000 ‘Kroomen’, experienced fishermen recruited as sailors from what is now the coast of modern Liberia.

It was by far a thankless task, while other British fleets who were assigned duty in the Mediterranean or nearer home, the West Africa Squadron of 25 ships and the crew of 2,000 men were in harms way 24/7 apart from the obvious danger of tracking and then boarding slave ships who's crews were making a lot of money out of running slaves for the owners of the slave ships and would many times fight back killing and injuring many sailers there was a very good chance of them dying from a disease caught sometimes off the freed slaves themselves or from the many many river inlets on the coast of West Africa going deep into Africa its self that was full of disease. Naval records show that the mortality rate was 55 per 1,000 men, compared with 10 for fleets in the Mediterranean or in home waters.

The prospect of prize money paid to naval officers and men for captured ships, and ‘head money’ for released slaves may have made the duty more bearable, but it is likely that only a few senior officers saw any profit in the campaign. Rewards may well have cemented the humanitarian impulse, though one cannot doubt the evangelical zeal with which many officers and men alike took up the task of anti-slavery patrolling. Their exploits In the pursuit and capture of slave ships became celebrated naval engagements, widely reported back in peace-time Britain with its expanding print culture, and was often memorialised in souvenir engravings.

All of them are now largely forgotten, however in the year 1829 our newspapers published The night-time fire-fight between the schooner ‘Pickle’ and the slaver ‘Voladora.

HMS Pickle was a schooner of 5 guns, launched in 1827. She was involved in the suppression of the slave trade and achieved fame for capturing the armed slave ship Voladora off the coast of Cuba on 5 June 1829. On the morning of 5 June 1829, while cruising off the north-west coast of Cuba, HM Schooner ‘Pickle’ discovered a strange sail. This she stalked until she had interposed herself between the stranger and land. She closed in on her after nightfall. The action then commenced and after 80 minutes the slaver, as she proved, surrendered. She was the Spanish topsail schooner ‘Voladora’ — though English references tend to use ‘Bolodora’ — with a crew of 60 of which 10 were killed. The ‘Pickle’ had only half that number in her crew of which one was killed outright and three died later.

Then later in the year On 7 April 1829 HMS Monkey captured the Spanish schooner, Josefa, in among the Bahamas, near the Berry Islands or Rocks She was armed with one 12-pounder gun, had a crew of 21, and was carrying 206 slaves;79 men, 36 women, 48 boys and 43 girls. After Josefa’s capture, one female child was born, and one woman died. Head money for 206 slaves was paid in February 1831

HMS ‘Buzzard’ successfully chased and engaged the slaver ‘Formidable’ in 1834, the ‘Electra’ brought down a Carolina slaver with its human cargo in 1838, and ‘Acorn’ captured the rogue ‘Gabriel’ in the summer of 1841, to name just a few of the many sensationalised actions.

HMS Buzzard engaging Spanish slaving brig ‘Formidable’

Huggins’ painting is one of many that were produced by British marine artists in the decades following the 1807 Act of Abolition of the British slave trade, showing Navy vessels in action against mainly Spanish and Portuguese vessels still engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. Here the Spanish slaving brig ‘Formidable’ is taken by HM brigantine ‘Buzzard’, 10 guns, an action that took place on 17 December 1834. The ‘Buzzard’ intercepted the Spanish ship, loaded with slaves for the Middle Passage, in the Bight of Benin, off the west coast of Africa. After 45 minutes, the ‘Formidable’ surrendered with the loss of seven men. Two of the ‘Buzzard’’s crew were killed. The captured ship was taken to Freetown, Sierra Leone, but not before 307 of the cargo of 707 African slaves ‘perished from disease and misery’. The picture is thus very much part of the moralized anti-slavery culture of 19th-century Britain; but it is also of documentary interest, in depicting the nettings on the Spanish vessel that were used to prevent slaves’ frequent attempts at escape or suicide by jumping overboard. In this case, they may also have been intended to prevent boarding parties.

In this enlarged painting, you can see the netting quite a lot better

An expectant public could follow vivid accounts in the newspapers, while many of these ‘battles’ were also reported at home in watercolours and oil paintings, which helped sustain the positive reputation of the Navy, while also maintaining public interest in Britain’s suppression activities. Action, was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against ‘the usurping King of Lagos’, deposed in 1851.

The 1860s saw a slight flagging in support for anti-slavery in Britain. We had been trying to put a stop to since 1807 and everyone was becoming tired of seeing it in the news. It was then that David Livingston came onto the scene. David Livingstone’s reports of Arab atrocities against enslaved Africans stirred up the interest of the British public, reviving the flagging abolitionist movement. Once again the British Royal navy set off for the ports in Eastern Africa where Arab Africans were plying their trade. Zanzibar was the main slaving port

The island of Zanzibar is today considered one of East Africa’s best destinations: white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and hotels offer tourists from all over the world a holiday to remember.

Long forgotten is the dark past that overshadowed this sunny paradise 200 years ago. The archipelago, which today is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, was then regarded as the centre of the East African slave trade.

Zanzibar’s Prison Island was the place where slaves were kept before being transported to other destinations

Zanzibar was the Africa Great Lakes’ main slave-trading port, and in the 19th century, as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the slave markets of Zanzibar each year. (David Livingstone estimated that 80,000 Africans died each year before ever reaching the island

It was from here the slaves were taken to Muslim countrys to be the slaves of Arabs. It was here the Royal Navy began to try and stop the selling of slaves. It soon became apparent that this approach was not going to work. There had been a thriving slave market for hundreds of years on Zanzibar and the slavers were in no mood to lose this lucrative trade of human misery. So the Royal Navy changed tack by spreading their cruisers as a ‘waiting net’ along the northern coast of the Arabian Sea. This resulted in spectacular results liberating enslaved people, but it also caused friction between the British Foreign Office and the Admiralty, and it was fraught with diplomatic challenges. Sir Bartle Frere’s mission in 1873 produced treaties with the sultans of Muscat and Zanzibar that strengthened Britain’s hand in suppressing the trade and produced a recommendation that a guardship be permanently stationed off the Zanzibar coast.

The guardship at Zanzibar was HMS ‘London’, a veteran of the siege of Sebastopol, since converted to steam and re-equipped to serve as a floating command centre, depot, hospital and prison.

Zanzibar was a new theatre of naval engagement that sustained a cast of peace-time heroes. There was Philip Colomb — the daring officer of the wooden steam sloop ‘Dryad’ that had captured seven slavers during its tour of the Indian Ocean — who returned to Britain a lionised figure, courted by the press, and soon published a best-selling account of his adventures.

Philip Colomb

In command of the HMS London was the experienced Captain George Sulivan, as adept at capturing slavers as he was in dealing with consuls and belligerent local leaders. For four years he asserted the presence of the ‘London’ with marked success. A rare watercolour survives in the collections of the National Maritime Museum — by the Reverend Robert O’Donelan Ross-Lewin, chaplain of the ‘London’ in 1875 — which features a typical small-boat operation in the many bays and inlets of the eastern coast.

On a larger scale of operation, at Mombasa where the military commandant challenged the sultan’s authority, Sulivan reduced the fort to rubble. He thereby sustained the sultan and other British allies, demonstrated their dependence on Britain and articulated, with brisk firepower, the continued ability of the Royal Navy.

It becomes clear that humanitarianism and imperial muscling were able bedfellows. Over three decades of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ — sustained as it was by moral, commercial and, most important, strategic motives — naval cruisers captured some 1,000 dhows and saved about 12,000 Africans from the horrors of enslavement.

Perhaps we should celebrate how we British put a stop to this vile trade. We were the only country that saw what we were doing was wrong that then put money and lives on the line to stop it. We could only do that because we were the largest Empire the world has ever seen. We had the money, the largest Navy in the world and we had the will to stop other countries exploiting black slave labour. THAT is something to be proud of and its time we got the credit for doing what was the right thing to do.

Its also time to put up monuments and statues of people like Admiral Philip Colomb who put his life on the line along with Captain George Sulivan and many, many more.



Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.