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Boredom, Boat Service and the Black Vomit

Crossing the bar of Gallinas river
A mosquito, carrier of malaria
(Picture courtesy of Wellcome Library, London)

Naval surgeon Alexander Bryson described the suppression of the slave trade as "perhaps the most disagreeable, arduous, and unhealthy service that falls to the lot of British officers and seamen".  The west coast of Africa was notoriously a graveyard for Europeans, its swamps and stagnant lagoons being breeding grounds for mosquitoes, with malaria and yellow fever an ever-present risk.  The causes of these diseases had not been identified, and mortality sometimes ran high.  In 1829, the worst year for the squadron, 204 men died out of the total strength of 792, the majority in an outbreak of yellow fever on board HMS Eden.  Two died from drowning, all the rest from disease.

Ships on the West African station stayed healthiest when their crews were kept on board and at sea.  But blockades are always dull; and the monotony of long months cruising off shore was identified by Bryson as the worst aspect of life in the squadron.  It made the seamen anxious for any opportunity for action, and there were always plenty of volunteers for boat service in the rivers, in pursuit of the slavers, although fever was frequently the consequence, and much feared.  After the terrible mortality on board the Eden, the surgeon on HMS Sybille , Robert McKinnal, took drastic action when a seaman went down with yellow fever,  to convince his fellows that it was not contagious.  One of the symptoms of yellow fever is black vomit, and McKinnal, on deck and in sight of the crew, drank off a glassful. 

By the 1850s naval surgeons had established how best to keep the crews of the warships healthy; but the slaves liberated from captured slave-ships were often in desperate need of medical help.  Often already exhausted and half-starved before being taken on board, the cramped and filthy conditions rapidly spread diseases such as dysentery, smallpox, ophthalmia and diarrhoea, in addition to the prevalent malaria and yellow fever.  Bryson wrote:
“There is perhaps not any condition in which human nature may be viewed in a more revolting aspect than in that of a crowded slave-vessel, with dysentery on board.  Of all the horrors attending the middle passage, with the exception perhaps of small-pox, it is the worst.  The effluvium which issues from her decks, or rather prisons, is peculiar and sickening beyond conception, and is generally perceptible at a great distance to leeward.” 
That distance was reckoned by other to be as much as three miles, sometimes more.

With the Africans in such a state, even the process of unshackling them was fraught with danger and might have to be undertaken in stages until the slaves, who seldom had any language in common with their liberators, could be brought to understand that the newcomers were seeking to help them.  Cleansing the slave decks cannot have been a pleasant task; and, until the slave ship had been condemned by the courts, there was no guarantee that the capture of the ship and the struggle to aid her human cargo might not go for nothing, and the enslaved Africans be given up to the traders once more.