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The Most Disagreeable Service

Section of embarkation canoe
Section of embarkation canoe

British warships around the world were engaged in the suppression of the slave trade, but it was on the coast of Africa that the campaign focussed.  

In 1819 a separate West Coast of Africa Station was created, its ships becoming commonly known as the 'Preventive Squadron', because the station had been brought into being with the primary aim of stopping the illegal embarkation of slaves. It was generally subordinate to the strategically important Cape of Good Hope Station (previously responsible for the entire coastline), but remained as a separate entity until 1869 when its task was done and the two stations were recombined. Although, like any other squadron, it  engaged in surveying, and the protection of lawful commerce, it was devoted above all else to the anti-slavery campaign. 

The ships were never sufficient in number for a full blockade.  In 1825, there were seven ships on station, manned by about 663 men.  By 1845, the station was averaging 25 to 30 vessels (about one third of which were steamers), and had upwards of 2,000 men, supplemented by around 1,000 native Africans. The Admiralty was never able to give undivided attention to the slave trade, its focus always being on the possibility of another European or American war, with the largest concentration of its forces based in the Mediterranean.  The Admiralty might also draw on the station to deal with a sudden emergency elsewhere, as it did for a few months when war broke out with China in 1856; but over the years the station developed detailed local knowledge and effective tactics, and was provided with ships which were increasingly swift and well equipped, the introduction of steamers proving to be a major advantage. 

The slavers were occasionally heavily-armed, and it was not unusual for Spanish slavers in particular to carry more guns than their British opponents.  The Navy, however, had a clear advantage in the quality of its gunnery, and case after case demonstrated the worth of its speed and accuracy of fire, and the practised fighting ability and determination of its crews.  For the slavers, there was little incentive to risk death in battle – the Navy’s crewmen faced much greater danger from malaria and yellow fever.

Life in the West Coast of Africa Squadron was monotonous, unpleasant and dangerous; and unlikely to offer much chance of glory or promotion.  The chief compensation for the officers and crews was prize money, which took the form of ‘head money’ for liberated slaves and a tonnage bounty for captured slave ships (increased for empty ships in order to offset the lack of head money).  The relative values of the two types of payment meant that crews stood to profit more by capturing loaded slavers than empty ones, which led to accusations that the system encouraged the squadron to allow the embarkation of slaves.  This is not supported from statistics on captures - between 1835 and 1840, 85 Spanish ships were captured empty, and only18 loaded.  Bounty might be withheld if the Admiralty judged a commander had exceeded his powers; whilst if a vessel was not condemned by the courts, he ran a grave risk of being personally sued for compensation by the owners.