Joseph Denman R.N. A Hero In The Ending Of The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Graham Charles Lear
5 min readAug 26, 2020

Son of Thomas Denman, the first Lord Denman (1779–1854), Lord Chief Justice he entered into the British Royal Navy on the 7 April 1823. By 9 March 1831, he was promoted to Lieutenant.

In 1840 his ship was off the coast of Sierra Leone-Liberia as part of the West African Squadron tasked to end the Slave Trade.

In 1840 the islands in the mouth of the Gallinas River, situated near the present Sierra Leone-Liberia border, formed a principal departure point for slave ships. In November of that year — Sir Richard Doherty, the Governor of Sierra Leone discovered that Prince Mauna, the son of the King of the Gallinas, Seacca, was holding two British subjects: the black woman Fry Norman and her child. Joseph Denman was ordered to rescue them. Thanks to his close blockade, the eight Spanish-owned barracoons (slave factories) were all full when, in the boats of Wanderer, Rolla and Saracen, he crossed the river bar, and initially freed 90 slaves who the owners were trying to evacuate to the mainland. Denman set a guard over the barracoons and demanded that the King not only freed Fry Norman and her child but also sign a treaty abolishing the slave trade throughout his dominions. After some prevarication, and helped by Denman’s threats of violence, he freed the Normans and agreed to the treaty, allowing the destruction of the barracoons, the liberation of the slaves, and the expulsion of all the slave traders in his dominions.

After three days of destruction, initiated by firing incendiary rockets into the barracoons, Denman transported a total of 841 slaves, and their Spanish owners, back to Sierra Leone. The Commissioners there estimated that the action had cost the Spaniards between £100,000 and £500,000, as well as a claim on 13,000 slaves already paid for to the local natives. They optimistically predicted that relations between the slave traders and the natives had been so badly damaged that “there is now so serious a feud established as to render impossible, at least for a considerable time to come, the reestablishment there of slave-factories”. Unfortunately, this optimism proved to be unfounded. A year later they reported that “we have received information that during last rains no less than three slave-factories were settled in the Gallinas, wither the factors and goods had been conveyed in an American vessel”

The authorities were initially very pleased with Denman's action. Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston said: “Taking a wasp’s nest … is more effective than catching the wasps one by one”. Denman was posted (promoted to Captain) on 23 August 1841, when a full report reached London, and he and his men received a bounty of £4,000. However, one of the Spanish dealers, Buron, sued Denman for immense damages, and it was only in 1848 that the Court of Exchequer pronounced in the latter’s favour. In the meantime, after a number of similar actions by other officers of the West African Squadron, doubts began to arise concerning their legality, and of the policy of close blockade. In May 1842 the Admiralty was informed that the Advocate-General “cannot take upon himself to advise that all the proceedings described as having taken place at Gallinas, New Cestos and Sea Bars, are strictly justifiable, or that the instructions to Her Majesty’s naval officers are such as can with perfect legality be carried into execution. The Queen’s Advocate is of the opinion that the blockading of rivers, landing and destroying buildings, and carrying off persons held in slavery in countries with which Great Britain is not at war, cannot be considered as sanctioned by the law of nations, or by provisions of any existing treaties”. Unfortunately, this opinion was interpreted by many as a re-legitimisation of slavery.

He ended his career as Rear Admiral Joseph Denman (23 June 1810–26 November 1874) he was was a British naval officer, most noted for his actions against the slave trade as a commander of HMS Wanderer of the West Africa Squadron. Denman Island, located off Vancouver Island, is named after him.

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:

He wrote

“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 a lengthy negotiation with the King, Denman secured both the release of the two prisoners and the King’s agreement to a treaty that abolished the slave trade throughout his dominions. The treaty allowed Denman to liberate 841 slaves. He secured these slaves during a three-day action, in which he also destroyed all the barracoons on the banks of the river, and 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. His father, Lord Chief Justice Denman, was an abolitionist, who consistently defended the actions of the Navy and their efforts to suppress the slave trade. Denman ended his career as an admiral in command of the Pacific Squadron.

Do I have to ask why our children don't know about this hero? Or do we already know why he is not known?



Graham Charles Lear

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