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HMS Black Joke gives chase to a slave ship

Royal Navy and the Slave Trade

In 1807, the UK became one of the first nations to end its own participation in the slave trade, and went on to lead an international campaign to put a final end to the transatlantic trade, and ultimately slavery itself.  Following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, it was the only nation with the political will, the economic strength, and a Navy strong enough to attempt it.

The Royal Navy has a proud history associated with the abolition of the slave trade and the pursuance of humanitarian rights, playing a significant role in the years following the 1807 Act to abolish the Slave Trade, through active policing and enforcement. This campaign which began in West Africa, lasted well into the 20th century and, by then was worldwide. Between 1807 and 1866, the Royal Navy captured well over 500 slave ships and prevented many more from loading their slave cargo.

The abolition was also very demanding for the sailors enforcing the act; the Royal Navy committed up to 13% of its total manpower to its West Africa squadron, which in one year lost 25% of those serving on the station, mainly to disease. Overall, the nineteenth-century costs of suppression were bigger than the eighteenth-century profits.

Although the transatlantic slave trade was over, slavery and the Royal Navy’s efforts to suppress it continued in East Africa and the Indian Ocean into the 20th century.  This trade in humans is now commonly known as people trafficking. Further details of this can be found on the Continuing Operations Today page.