West Africa Squadron

For more details on diplomatic efforts by the United Kingdom to end the slave trade, see Blockade of Africa.
West Africa Squadron

HMS Black Joke and prizes (clockwise from top left) Providentia, Vengador, Presidenta, Marianna, El Almirante, and El Hassey
Active 1808 - 1870
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  Royal Navy
Type Fleet
Role Suppression of the Slave Trade, from Cape Verde to Beguela

The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron (or Preventative Squadron) at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. 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,[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.

Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.[1]


On 25 March 1807 Britain formally abolished the Slave Trade, this prohibited British subjects from trading in slaves, crewing slave ships, sponsoring slave ships, and fitting out slave ships. The Act also included a clause which meant even ships without slave cargoes on board, but were equipped to deal with them could be condemned. In order to enforce this ruling in 1808 the Admiralty dispatched two vessels to police the African Coast. The small British force was able, due to the Napoleonic Wars, to stop any ship bearing the flag of an enemy making suppression activities much easier. Portugal however was one of the largest slave trading nations and Britain's ally. So in 1810 under diplomatic pressure, a convention was signed allowing British ships to police Portuguese shipping meaning it could only trade in slaves from its own African possessions. 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. Unfortunately early treaties against slave trading with foreign powers were often very weak and in practice meant only if slaves were found on board at the time of capture could a vessel be prosecuted.

In order to prosecute vessels captured, allowing 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 th Vice Admiralty Court in Freetown. These Mixed Commission Courts had mixed representation with officials from both Britain and the foreign powers, with Anglo-Portuguese, Anglo-Spanish and Anglo-Dutch courts 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" [3] 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.”[4] 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. This was 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 as for fear of otherwise being re-enslaved.[1] From 1821, the squadron also used Ascension Island as a supply depot,[5] before this moved to Cape Town in 1832.[6]

As the Royal Navy began interdicting slave ships, the slavers responded by abandoning their merchant ships in favour of faster ships, particularly Baltimore clippers. At first, the Royal Navy was often unable to catch these ships, however with the capture of 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 one such captured ship, renamed HMS Black Joke. She successfully caught 11 slavers in one year.

Until 1835 the Royal Navy was only allowed to take foreign slavers that actually had slaves aboard. This meant the squadron could not interfere with vessels clearly equipped for the trade but without a cargo.[7] It also gave slavers being pursued an incentive to throw their slaves overboard before capture to avoid the seizure of the vessel.

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 draughts meant they could 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.[8]

The Royal Navy considered the West Africa Station one of the worst postings due to the high levels of tropical disease. This did however provide Royal Navy surgeons with the experience they would use to effectively fight such diseases, but at a huge cost in lives.

Britain pressed other nations into treaties to give the Royal Navy the right to search their ships for slaves.[9][10] 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 HMS Cyane, which the US had captured from the Royal Navy in 1815. Initially the US contribution consisted of a few ships, but eventually the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 formalised the US contribution into the Africa Squadron.[11][12]

In 1870, the Cape of Good Hope Station absorbed the West Africa Squadron.[13]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 "Chasing Freedom Information Sheet". Royal Naval Museum. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
  2. "From slave trade to humanitarian aid". BBC News. 2007-03-19. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
  3. TNA ADM 2/1328 Standing Orders to Commanders-in-Chief 1818-1823. p. 274.
  4. Lloyd, Christopher (1968). The Navy and the Slave Trade. Routledge. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-7146-1894-4.
  5. "Green Mountain". Peter Davis. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
  6. "West Africa". Peter Davis. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
  7. Lloyd (1949), The Navy and the Slave Trade, p. 46.
  8. Lewis-Jones, Huw, "The Royal Navy and the Battle to End Slavery", BBC History, 17 February 2011..
  9. Falola, Toyin; Warnock, Amanda (2007). Encyclopedia of the middle passage. Greenwood Press. pp. xxi, xxxiii–xxxiv. ISBN 9780313334801.
  10. "The legal and diplomatic background to the seizure of foreign vessels by the Royal Navy". Peter Davis.
  11. Falola, Toyin; Amanda Warnock (2007). Encyclopedia of the Middle Passage. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-313-33480-1.
  12. Lovejoy, Paul E. (2000). Transformations in slavery. Cambridge University Press. p. 292. ISBN 978-0-521-78430-6.
  13. "West Africa Squadron". William Loney. Retrieved 28 December 2014.

Further reading

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