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Burning the Barracoons

The Black Joke attacking a slave ship
(Picture courtesy of the Royal Naval Museum)
Slave barracoon
The boats of HMS Penelope attacking a slave depot
(Picture courtesy of the Royal Naval Museum)

Intercepting slave ships in the trackless expanse of the Atlantic was almost impossible, but the Navy had learned through long years of war that the way to close down a trade was not to chase individual cargoes (satisfying though that might be), but to stop them at their source, by blockading ports and places of embarkation. Before 1807 a slave ship might be able to run down the coast of Africa, stopping to trade and buy a few slaves here and there until she had a full load; but with warships hunting them, the slavers needed depots where hundreds of slaves could be penned up in enclosures known as barracoons, ready to be loaded quickly when the coast was, literally, clear.  It did not take long for the locations of such depots to become known, and one warship lying offshore could paralyse trading for weeks or months at a time.

Most slave ships were fairly small, with a shallow draught to enable them to get inshore and up river to load slaves, and they were built for speed.  Their hunters also had to be stealthy, swift and manoeuvrable – this was no station for lumbering line-of-battle titans, but for sloops, frigates, and ultimately steamers.  Palmerstone as Foreign Secretary complained that if there was a ‘particularly old slow-going tub in the Navy, she was sure to be sent to the coast of Africa’, but over time the Admiralty sent out better and faster ships.  Their commanders also made extensive use of the ships’ boats. These could be swift and stealthy (the tall masts of a warship often betrayed her before she could get close enough to intercept the faster schooners), and could penetrate shallow waters beyond the reach of the parent vessel.  In the early days, some enterprising officers bought in some of the faster captured slave ships to serve as auxiliaries.  Two such converted prizes, the Black Joke and the Fair Rosamond, were outstandingly successful. However, in 1835 Parliament put a stop to this: all too many slave ships, having been condemned by the courts, were promptly bought at knock-down prices by their original owners and put straight back into the slave trade.  After that date, slave ships had to be destroyed, usually by being sawn in half in Sierra Leone's Destruction Bay.

European diplomacy was the preserve of the Foreign Office, but naval officers on the coast had a great deal of latitude to negotiate local treaties with the African chiefs.  They had little success with the inland kingdoms such as Dahomey, from which so many of the slaves came, but much more on the coast where the impressive sight of warships had due effect.  One such treaty was obtained by Joseph Denman at the Gallinas, a major slave depot, in 1840, after the local chief’s son made the critical error of imprisoning a washerwoman: poor she might be, but she was from Sierra Leone and a British citizen.  Denman’s blockade had made the slave trade unprofitable for many months, and the chief was disinclined to protect the slave dealers – the treaty allowed him to destroy the barracoons and liberate over 800 slaves¹.  Some of the dealers, terrified of the liberated slaves, begged Denman for safe conduct to Sierra Leone.

The effect of this action was countered almost immediately when the Attorney General gave the Foreign Secretary advice suggesting that its legality was doubtful.  One of the slave dealers from the Gallinas, a Spaniard named Buron, promptly sued Denman for trespass and unlawful seizure of property.  The impression given in Africa was that Denman had been disowned by his government; and the slave trade at the Gallinas, which had been suspended, revived at once.  Denman put his period on half-pay in England, awaiting the outcome of the court case, to good use by helping to  draft Admiralty Instructions for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, giving general instructions, specimen treaty forms for use in negotiations with local chiefs, texts of all the relevant treaties, conventions, Acts of Parliament and other legal documents which affected what an officer might or might not do.  It was kept up to date through a series of later editions (always substantial and sometimes multi-volume), and with useful additions such as a Swahili phrase book for use on the east coast.  The final decision in Buron vs. Denman was reached in 1848, and was in Denman's favour. 

Charles Hotham, the new commodore on the African station, immediately burnt down the Gallinas barracoons again.  The slave trade was slowly strangled, the dealers driven further and further away from the stronghold of Sierra Leone, southwards down the coast.  But there were still far too many ships obviously engaged in the trade, but untouchable because they flew the flags of nations which had no anti-slavery treaty with Britain.

¹The barracoons themselves were flimsy constructions, easily rebuilt, and there was always a fresh supply of slaves from the interior, so it was sometimes thought that the destruction of the barracoons caused additional suffering for the slaves (left without shelter or food) without having a lasting effect.  But the barracoons also housed the trade goods which paid for the slaves, and the records of past transactions, and the loss of these caused substantial disruption.  The task of rebuilding was also less easy if the slave dealers wanted new barracoons to be defensible.