26 Jun 2009

Discover the personal testimonies of the naval campaign to suppress the Atlantic slave trade in the nineteenth-century

Following the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, a Royal Navy squadron was stationed off the West African coast to intercept and capture slaving vessels of other nations. My PhD is exploring the personal testimonies of the naval campaign to suppress the Atlantic slave trade in the nineteenth-century. This research is part of an AHRC-funded collaborative project between the National Maritime Museum and the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) at the University of Hull. One of the many benefits of working in collaboration with the NMM is the access to its naval collections. The Caird Library holds a number of records of anti-slavery service, such as this watercolour by Captain Henry Need of HMS Linnet, depicting the capture of a slaver in the Rio Ponga in 1853. 

'Capture of a Slaver, the Brigantine Paulina, 30th April 1853'. Watercolour by Captain Henry Need of HMS Linnet, National Maritime Museum (ART/10)

Employment on the anti-slavery patrols was unpopular due to the West African climate and the high risk of disease and violence (West Africa was commonly known as the 'white man's grave'). Added to this was the emotional trauma of the nature of service. One area I am investigating is the extent to which naval personnel believed in the anti-slavery cause. Finding themselves on the frontline of Britain's relations with Africa, their narratives are valuable as ways to investigate and understand attitudes and anxieties about the slave trade and slavery. Sir George Ralph Collier was the first Commodore of the West Africa squadron, and a convinced abolitionist. In a report to the Admiralty in 1819, Collier wrote passionately of how the slave trade 'is more horrible than those who have not had the misfortune to witness it can believe, indeed no description I could give would convey a true picture of its baseness and atrocity'. Lieutenant Francis Meynell painted this scene of enslaved Africans on a captured slaver in 1846, and his letters home revealed how he was affected by his experiences. He described conditions on HM Sloop Albatros after taking on board the Africans: 'We lost on the voyage 150 slaves three or four dying every day ... It's a very horrible business this slave trade.' 

'Slaves below deck', c. 1846. Watercolour by Lt. Francis Meynell, National Maritime Museum (MEY/2) These and other naval stories of suppression reveal profound emotions in those engaged in the service: of sympathy and humanity but also tensions regarding the ambiguities of freedom, and their own struggles for survival on the African coast.