West Africa Squadron

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West Africa Squadron
HMS Black Joke (1827) and prizes.jpg
HMS Black Joke and prizes (clockwise from top left) Providentia, Vengador, Presidenta, Marianna, El Almirante, and El Hassey
CountryFlag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom
BranchNaval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg  Royal Navy
RoleSuppression of the Slave Trade, from Cape Verde to Benguela
Size Squadron (naval)

The British Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The squadron's task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. [1] With a home base at Portsmouth, England, [2] it began with two small ships, the 32-gun fifth-rate frigate HMS Solebay and the Cruizer-class brig-sloop HMS Derwent. At the height of its operations, the squadron employed a sixth of the Royal Navy fleet and marines.[ citation needed ] In 1819 the Royal Navy established a West Coast of Africa Station and the West Africa Squadron became known as the Preventative Squadron. [3] It remained an independent command until 1856 and then again 1866 to 1867. Between 1830 and 1865, more than 1,500 British sailors died on their mission of freeing slaves with the West Africa Squadron. [4]


Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. [1] It is considered the most costly international moral action in modern history. [5]

The Squadron has been described as being poorly resourced and plagued by corruption; it only managed to capture around 6% of the transatlantic slave ships, but patrolling 3,000 miles of African coast from 1808 to 1860 it liberated 150,000 Africans. [6]


On 25 March 1807 Britain formally abolished the slave trade, prohibiting British subjects from trading in slaves, crewing slave ships, sponsoring slave ships, or fitting out slave ships. The Act also included a clause allowing the seizure of ships without slave cargoes on board but equipped to trade in slaves. The task of enforcing the act was huge and challenging. In order to enforce this ruling in 1808 the Admiralty dispatched two vessels to police the African Coast. The small British force was empowered, in the context of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, to stop any ship bearing the flag of an enemy nation, making suppression activities much easier. Portugal, however, was one of the largest slave trading nations and Britain's ally against France. In February 1810, under diplomatic pressure, Portugal signed a convention that allowed British ships to police Portuguese shipping, meaning Portugal could only trade in slaves from its own African possessions.

The privateer (a private vessel operating under a letter of marque) Dart, chasing slavers to profit from the bounties set by the British government, made the first captures under the 1810 convention. Dart, and in 1813 another privateer, (Kitty), were the only two vessels to pursue slavers for profit, and thus augment the efforts of the West Africa Squadron. The lack of private initiatives, and their short duration, suggest that they were not profitable.

With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, Viscount Castlereagh had ensured a declaration against slavery appeared in the text of the Congress of Vienna, committing all signatories to the eventual abolition of the trade. In 1814, France agreed to cease trading, and Spain in 1817 agreed to cease North of the equator, adding to the mandate of the squadron. Early treaties against slave trading with foreign powers were often very weak. As a consequence, until 1835 the squadron could seize vessels only if slaves were found on board at the time of capture; it could not interfere with vessels clearly equipped for the slave trade but with no slaves on board. [7] If slaves were found, a fine of £100 for each one could be levied, a large sum; some slaver captains in danger of being caught had their captives thrown overboard to reduce the fine. [8]

In order to prosecute captured vessels and thereby allow the Navy to claim its prizes, a series of courts were established along the African Coast. In 1807, a Vice Admiralty Court was established in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 1817, several Mixed Commission Courts were established, replacing the Vice Admiralty Court in Freetown. These Mixed Commission Courts had officials from both Britain and foreign powers, with Anglo-Portuguese, Anglo-Spanish, and Anglo-Dutch courts being established in Sierra Leone.

Far from the Pax Britannica style policing of the 1840s and 1850s, early efforts to suppress the slave trade were often ineffectual due to a desire to keep on good terms with other European powers. The actions of the West Africa Squadron were "strictly Governed" [9] by the treaties, and officers could be punished for overstepping their authority.

Commodore Sir George Ralph Collier, with the 36-gun HMS Creole as his flagship, was the first Commodore of the West Africa Squadron. On 19 September 1818, the navy sent him to the Gulf of Guinea with the orders: "You are to use every means in your power to prevent a continuance of the traffic in slaves." [10] However, he had only six ships with which to patrol over 5,000 kilometres (3,000 mi) of coast. He served from 1818 to 1821.

In 1819, the Royal Navy created a naval station in West Africa at Freetown, the capital of the first British colony in West Africa, Sierra Leone. Most of the enslaved Africans freed by the squadron chose to settle in Sierra Leone, for fear of being re-enslaved if they were simply landed on the coast among strangers. [1] From 1821, the squadron also used Ascension Island as a supply depot, [11] before this moved to Cape Town in 1832. [12]

As the Royal Navy began interdicting slave ships, the slavers responded by adopting faster ships, particularly Baltimore clippers. At first, the Royal Navy was often unable to catch these ships. However, when the Royal Navy started to use captured slaver clippers and new faster ships from Britain, the Royal Navy regained the upper hand. One of the most successful ships of the West Africa Squadron was such a captured ship, renamed HMS Black Joke. She successfully caught 11 slavers in one year.

By the 1840s, the West Africa Squadron had begun receiving paddle steamers such as HMS Hydra, which proved superior in many ways to the sailing ships they replaced. The steamers were independent of the wind, and their shallow draught allowed them to patrol the shallow shores and rivers. In the middle of the 19th century, there were around 25 vessels and 2,000 personnel with a further 1,000 local sailors involved in the effort. [13]

The Royal Navy considered the West Africa Station one of the worst postings due to the high levels of tropical disease.

Britain pressed other nations into treaties that gave the Royal Navy the right to search their ships for slaves. [14] [15] As the 19th century wore on, the Royal Navy also began interdicting slave trading in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean.

The United States Navy assisted the West Africa Squadron, starting in 1820 with USS Cyane, which the US had captured from the Royal Navy in 1815. Initially the US contribution consisted of a few ships, which comprised the Africa Squadron after the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. [16] [17]

In 1867, the Cape of Good Hope Station absorbed the West Coast of Africa Station. [18] In 1942 during World War II the West Africa Station was revived as an independent command until 1945.

Liberated slaves

While liberated slaves were returned to Africa, those who came from inland regions could not be returned to their place of origin. They often suffered in appalling conditions on the return voyage, or while waiting for courts to adjudicate their case. It is estimated as many as 25 percent of freed slaves died before being released. [19]

Some freed slaves joined the Royal Navy or the West India Regiments. Also, 35,850 were recruited and transported to work in the West Indies, nominally as apprentices. [19]

In command of West Africa squadron

Senior Officer, West Africa Squadron (1808-1818)

Post holders included [20]

Senior Officer, West Africa Squadron
1Captain Edward H. Columbine 1808-1811
2CaptainHon. Frederick Paul Irby 1811-1818

In command of West Coast of Africa Station

Commodore, West Coast of Africa Station, (1818-1832)

Post holders included: [20]

Commodore, West Coast of Africa Station
1Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Sir George Collier 1818-1821
2Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Sir Robert Mends 1822-1823
3Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Sir Charles Bullen 1824-1827
4Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Francis Augustus Collier 1826-1830
5Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg John Hayes 1831
Note West Coast of Africa station is merged with Cape of Good Hope station 1832-1841

Commodore/Senior Officer, on the West Coast of Africa Station (1841-1867)

Post holders included: [20]

Commodore/Senior Officer, on the West Coast of Africa Station
1Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg William Tucker 1841-1842
2CaptainJohn Foote1842-1844
3CaptainWilliam Jones1844-1846 (promoted to Commodore during post)
4Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Charles Hotham 1846-1849
5Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Arthur Fanshawe 1850-1851
6Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Henry William Bruce 1851-1854
7Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg John Adams1854-1856
8Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Charles Wise1857-1859
9Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg William Edmonstone 1860-1862
10Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg A. P. Eardley Wilmot CB1862-1865 [21]
11Commodore UK-Navy-OF6-Flag.svg Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby 1866-1867

From 1867, the commodore's post on the West Coast of Africa was abolished, and its functions absorbed by the senior officer at the Cape of Good Hope .

The West African Squadron is featured in Lona Manning’s historical novels A Contrary Wind (2017) and A Marriage of Attachment (2018).

Patrick O'Brian centers the plot of his 1994 novel The Commodore , the seventeenth installment in his Aubrey–Maturin series, on his Royal Navy captain, Jack Aubrey, being given command of a squadron to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa near the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition. Though the squadron is never explicitly named the "West Africa Squadron," it fulfills the known roles of the Squadron as it existed at the time, and makes reference to the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

William Joseph Cosens Lancaster, writing as Harry Collingwood wrote four novels based on the West Africa Squadron:

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>The Commodore</i> (novel) 1995 novel by Patrick OBrian

The Commodore is the seventeenth historical novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series by British author Patrick O'Brian, first published in 1995. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

Blockade of Africa

The Blockade of Africa began in 1808 after the United Kingdom outlawed the Atlantic slave trade, making it illegal for British ships to transport slaves. The Royal Navy immediately established a presence off Africa to enforce the ban, called the West Africa Squadron. Although the ban initially applied only to British ships, Britain negotiated treaties with other countries to give the Royal Navy the right to intercept and search their ships for slaves. The 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves abolished the intercontinental slave trade in the United States but the ban was not widely enforced.

Africa Squadron

The Africa Squadron was a unit of the United States Navy that operated from 1819 to 1861 in the Blockade of Africa to suppress the slave trade along the coast of West Africa. However, the term was often ascribed generally to anti-slavery operations during the period leading up to the American Civil War.

Slave ship Cargo ship carrying slaves onboard from Africa to the Americas

Slave ships were large cargo ships specially built or converted from the 17th to the 19th century for transporting slaves. Such ships were also known as "Guineamen" because the trade involved human trafficking to and from the Guinea coast in West Africa.

HMS <i>Pelorus</i> (1808)

HMS Pelorus was an 18-gun Cruizer-class brig-sloop of the British Royal Navy. She was built in Itchenor, England and launched on 25 June 1808. She saw action in the Napoleonic Wars and in the War of 1812. On anti-slavery patrol off West Africa, she captured four slavers and freed some 1350 slaves. She charted parts of Australia and New Zealand and participated in the First Opium War (1839–1842) before becoming a merchantman and wrecking in 1844 while transporting opium to China.

HMS <i>Arethusa</i> (1781)

HMS Arethusa was a 38-gun Minerva-class fifth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy built at Bristol in 1781. She served in three wars and made a number of notable captures before she was broken up in 1815.

The Liberated Africans of Sierra Leone were illegally enslaved Africans rescued from slave ships intercepted by anti-slaving patrols in the Atlantic Ocean and near coastal trading stations on the African Coast after 1808. Born and enslaved throughout West and West Central Africa, the rescued Africans were liberated by British naval courts or bilateral tribunals established in Freetown, capital of the Sierra Leone Colony and Protectorate. Following liberation, most liberated Africans were then consigned to a variety of unfree labor apprenticeships in Freetown and the interior. Some Africans liberated in Freetown were later resettled as agriculturalists or colonial militiamen in British colonies in Guyana and the West Indies. Approximately 3,000 were forcibly migrated to British settlements along the Gambia River. Smaller numbers were settled in Liberia, a colony established by the United States.

HMS <i>Black Joke</i> (1827)

The third HMS Black Joke was probably built in Baltimore in 1824, becoming the Brazilian slave ship Henriquetta. The Royal Navy captured her in September 1827 and purchased her into the service. The Navy re-named her Black Joke, after an English song of the same name, and assigned her to the West Africa Squadron. Her role was to chase down slave ships, and over her five-year career she freed many hundreds of slaves. The Navy deliberately burnt her in May 1832 because her timbers had rotted to the point that she was no longer fit for active service.

French frigate <i>Sibylle</i> (1792)

Sibylle was a 38-gun Hébé-class frigate of the French Navy. She was launched in 1791 at the dockyards in Toulon and placed in service in 1792. After the 50-gun fourth rate HMS Romney captured her in 1794, the British took her into service as HMS Sybille. She served in the Royal Navy until disposed of in 1833. While in British service Sybille participated in three notable single ship actions, in each case capturing a French vessel. On anti-slavery duties off West Africa from July 1827 to June 1830, Sybille captured numerous slavers and freed some 3,500 slaves. She was finally sold in 1833 in Portsmouth.

HMS Tigress was the American merchantman Numa and then French letter of marque Pierre Cézar that the Royal Navy acquired by capture and put into service as the gunbrig Tigress. She spent some time on the West African coast in the suppression of the slave trade. The Admiralty later renamed her as Algerine. She was broken up in 1818.

L'Hermite's expedition was a French naval operation launched in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. The operation was intended as both a commerce raiding operation against the British trading posts of West Africa and as a diversion to the Trafalgar campaign. Sailing from Lorient in October 1805 with one ship of the line, two frigates and a corvette, Commodore Jean-Marthe-Adrien L'Hermite was under orders to intercept and destroy British traders and slave ships off the West African coast and await reinforcements under Jérôme Bonaparte which were to be used in the invasion and capture of one of the British trading forts for use as a permanent French naval base from which further raiding operations could be conducted. It was also hoped by the French naval command that L'Hermite might draw some of the large British fleet maintained off Cadiz away from the blockade to allow the French and Spanish allied fleet trapped in the harbour to escape.

The Flag Officer, West Africa (FOWA) was a military command of the British Royal Navy during the Second World War. It existed from 1942 to 1945.

HMS Nimble was a Royal Navy 5-gun schooner-of-war. She was employed in anti-slave trade patrol from 1826 until 1834, when she was wrecked on a reef with the loss of 70 Africans who had been rescued from a slave ship.

African Slave Trade Patrol

African Slave Trade Patrol was part of the Blockade of Africa suppressing the Atlantic slave trade between 1819 and the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861. Due to the abolitionist movement in the United States, a squadron of U.S. Navy warships and Cutters were assigned to catch slave traders in and around Africa. In 42 years about 100 suspected slave ships were captured.

Capture of the <i>Veloz Passagera</i>

The Capture of Veloz Passagera was a single ship action that occurred during the British Royal Navy's anti-slavery blockade of Africa in the early and mid 19th century. The sloop-of-war HMS Primrose, of 18 guns, under Captain William Broughton, captured the 20-gun Cuban slave ship Veloz Passagera, Jozé Antonio de la Vega, master.

HMS Thais was built for the British Royal Navy in 1806 and was the name-vessel of her class of fire ships. Between 1811 and 1813 she served in the West Africa Squadron, which was attempting to suppress the slave trade. During this service she captured several slave traders and an American privateer. She made one voyage to the East Indies. Thais was sold in 1818. She then became a merchantman. She was last listed in 1826.

Kitty was a French vessel taken in prize c. 1810. She became a West Indiaman and then, following a change of ownership, a privateer. She was one of only two British privateers to target slave traders. She captured three off Sierra Leone before one of her targets captured her in 1814, killing her master, enslaving some of her crew, and setting fire to her.

Trio enters Lloyd's Register in 1802 with Shannon, master, Greenock, owner, and trade Dublin. She became a slave ship but the French Navy captured her in January 1806 early in her first slave trading voyage.

HMS Saracen was a Cherokee-class brig-sloop of the Royal Navy. Launched 30 January 1831 at the Plymouth Dockyard, at Plymouth, England, this vessel held a gun deck of eight 18-Pounder carronades and two 6-Pounder bow chasers. She also held a crew complement of 75. Henry Worsley Hill served as her commander starting on 15 March 1841.

Kings Yard

The King's Yard was a facility developed in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in which newly liberated Africans were taken after being dropped off in the colony from ships captured by the West Africa Squadron. This fleet had established by the Royal Navy in 1808 as part of the suppression of the slave trade. Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which led to the blockade of Africa. Although initially limited to British ships, it was extended through a series of treaties to encompass other ships under the jurisdiction of Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. In the King's Yard the slaves were processed and given medical treatment, leading to the yard being referred to as an asylum.


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Further reading