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Royal Navy and the Slave Trade

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The suppression of the slave trade

The Parliamentary Papers contain extensive information on all aspects of the suppression of the slave trade, especially for the 1850s when the question of whether or not to continue attempting to suppress the trade by force was under consideration.  Primary documentation from the Admiralty and the Foreign Office can be found in the National Archives.  Libraries with substantial holdings on the subject include the Naval Historical Branch’s Admiralty Library, the Foreign Office Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum and the National Maritime Museum.  Listed below are a selection of the published books available.

General histories

The suppression of the African slave-trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 by W.E.B. Dubois (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1886, reprinted in facsimile Mineola NY: Dover, 1970)  ISBN 0-486-40910-4 
One of the earliest books on the suppression of the slave trade, it remains a useful source of background on the American viewpoint, with appendices covering the range of relevant legislation at state, national and international levels.

The American slave-trade: an account of its origin, growth and suppression by John R. Spears (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2003)  First published 1900. 

Great Britain and the slave trade, 1839-1865 by William Law Mathieson (London: Longmans, 1929) 

The Navy and the slave trade by Christopher Lloyd (London: Longmans, Green, 1949) 
This book is still probably the best introduction to the subject of the Royal Navy’s involvement in the suppression of the slave trade, placing the Navy’s actions in the context of the legal and diplomatic background.  It has some flaws, and the treatment of the East African trade is fairly cursory.

A history of Sierra Leone by Christopher Fyfe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962) 

The Royal Navy and the slavers: the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade by W.E.F. Ward (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969) ISBN 0-04-910041-6 
Focussed very much on the Navy – full of accounts of captures and chases, but from a very narrow perspective.

The Atlantic slave trade: a census by Philip D. Curtin  (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969)  ISBN 0-299-05400-4 
Collates and evaluates the available statistical data.

The Sulivans and the slave trade by Peter Collister London: Rex Collings, 1980)  ISBN 086036-121-7 
Principally devoted to George Lydiard Sulivan, who spent three years serving on the coast of East Africa.

The Royal Navy and the slave trade by Raymond C. Howell (London: Croom Helm, 1987)  ISBN 0-7099-4770-4 
Devoted to the East African trade, of which it gives an excellent account, and which has generally received much less attention that the transatlantic trade.

Economic growth and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade by David Eltis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)  ISBN 0-19-504135-6 
An exceptional account of the economic history, vital to understanding the naval history, and showing the immense financial cost entailed in suppressing the slave trade.  Builds on and to some extent revises earlier statistical studies.

White dreams, black Africa: the Antislavery Expedition to the river Niger 1841-1842 by Howard Temperley (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991) 

From slave trade to 'legitimate' commerce: the commercial transition in nineteenth-century West Africa.  Papers from a conference of the Centre of Commonwealth Studies, University of Stirling edited by Robin Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)   First published 1995. 

The slave trade: the story of the Atlantic slave trade 1440-1870 by Hugh Thomas (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997)  ISBN 0-684-81063-8  
A magisterial yet very readable overview, with a useful discussion of sources

Fighting slavery in the Caribbean: the life and times of a British family in nineteenth-century Havana by Luis Martínez-Fernández (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998)  ISBN 0-7656-0247-4      
A Foreign Office view – George Canning Backhouse served as Her Britannic Majesty’s Judge at the Havana Mixed Commission for the Suppression of the Slave Trade

Slaving and slavery in the Indian Ocean by Deryck Scarr (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998) 

Zanzibar, slavery and the Royal Navy by Kevin Patience (n.p.: the author, 2000) 

Odious commerce: Britain, Spain and the abolition of the Cuban slave trade by David R. Murray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 

The mighty experiment: free labor versus slavery in British emancipation by Seymour Drescher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) 

Slave traffic in the age of abolition: Puerto Rico, West Africa, and the non-Hispanic Caribbean, 1815-1859 by Joseph C. Dorsey (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003)  ISBN 0-8130-2478-1 

Ouidah: the social history of a West African slaving ‘port’, 1727-1892 by Robin Law (Oxford: James Currey, 2004) 

Rough crossings: Britain, the slaves, and the American Revolution by Simon Schama (London: BBC, 2005)
Provides the background to the founding of Sierra Leone.


The legal and diplomatic background

Enquiry into the validity of the British claim to a right of visitation and search of American vessels suspected to be engaged in the African slave-trade by Henry Wheaton (Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2004) First published 1842.

Trial of Pedro de Zulueta… in the central criminal court… on a charge of slave-trading Reported by J.F. Johnson (2nd ed., London, 1844)

The right of search and the slave trade in Anglo-American relations 1814-1862 by Hugh G. Soulsby (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1933) 
An invaluable account of the vexed question of the right of search and Anglo-American diplomatic relations.

American slavers and the Federal law, 1837-1862  by Warren S. Howard (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963) 

The politics of slave trade suppression in Britain and France, 1814-48: diplomacy, morality and economics by Paul Michael Kielstra (London: Macmillan, 2000)  ISBN 0-333-73026-7 
A thorough examination of French and British attitudes, and the mutual suspicion and frustration which so hampered the Royal Navy’s campaign at sea.


Official documents

Instructions for the guidance of Her Majesty’s naval officers employed in the suppression of the slave trade  (London: T.R. Harrison, 1844) 
This was the first set of official instructions.  Later editions, published in 1865, 1882 and 1892 are available, with some additional material, such as the instructions issued in 1869 to correct ‘serious irregularities and mistakes’ .  Note that there are separate volumes in 1882, one being the general instructions, and one particular instructions for officers serving on the West Coast of Africa.

[Regulations for commanding officers of Her Majesty’s ships with regard to visiting merchant vessels suspected of fraudulently assuming the French flag] Untitled and undated four-page printed document, c.1844. 

Report on the climate and principal diseases of the African station by Alexander Bryson (London: W. Clowes & Sons, 1847)
Gives an unequalled insight into life in the Preventive Squadron

King Guezo of Dahomey, 1850-52: the abolition of the slave trade on the west coast of Africa (London: The Stationery Office, 2002) 
An abridged reprint of Papers relative to the reduction of Lagos by Her Majesty’s forces on the west coast of Africa, 1852

General instructions and local orders for the squadron and naval establishments on the Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station (Cape Town: Admiralty print, 1858) 
See also later editions

Regulations for the guidance of the Mixed Courts of Justice established in pursuance of the treaty of the 7th of April 1862, between Her Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, for the suppression of the African slave trade (London: H.M.S.O., 1863) 

Instructions for the guidance of the commanders of Her Majesty’s ships of war employed in the suppression of the kidnapping trade (London: HMSO, 1873) 


Contemporary accounts

A practical view of the present state of slavery in the West Indies: .. containing more particularly an account of the actual condition of the negroes in Jamaica: with observations on the decrease of the slave since the abolition of the slave trade, and on the probable effects of legislative emancipation. by Alexander Barclay (London: Smith, Elder, 1826) 

Journal of an African cruiser by Horatio Bridge (London: Wiley & Putnam, 1845) 
An American viewpoint: the cruiser was the USS SARATOGA, under Commodore Matthew Perry

A three years cruize in the Mozambique Channel for the suppression of the slave trade by Frederick Lamport Barnard (London: R.Bentley, 1848)  Reprinted 1969. 

Six months’ service in the African blockade, from April to October, 1848, in command of H.M.S. Bonetta by Frederick E. Forbes (London: R. Bentley, 1849) 

A few remarks relative to the slave trade on the east coast of Africa: extracted from the voyage of the "Nemesis" by Sir William Hutcheon Hall (London: Savill, Edwards & Co., printers, n.d.) 
Dates from c. 1872 (refers to the appointment of Sir Bartle Frere to negotiate with the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1872), but describes a visit by the NEMESIS to Mozambique in 1840 

Slave catching in the Indian Ocean: a record of naval experiences by Philip Colomb (London: Longmans, Green, 1873) 

Dhow chasing in Zanzibar waters and on the eastern coast of Africa: narrative of five years’ experiences in the suppression of the slave trade  by G.L. Sulivan (3rd ed., London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, 1873) 

The Secretary of the Admiralty presents his compliments to the Editor of the [ - ] and begs to communicate the following extracts from a report dated the 17th January, from Trincomalee, which has been received from Rear-Admiral W. Gore Jones, the Commander-in-Chief on the East Indian Station, respecting the circumstances of the death of Captain C.J. Brownrigg, Senior Naval Officer at Zanzibar, and the three men of H.M.S. London, on the 3rd December last in an encounter with an Arab slave dhow  (1882) 
Press release with printed correspondence concerning the incident


The suppression debate

Collection des pièces principales annexées au rapport du Président de la Réunion des Chevaliers Libérateurs des Esclaves blancs aussi-bien des noirs, en Afrique, assemblés a Vienne, le 29 décembre 1814, et a Paris, le 15 avril 1816  (Paris: A. Belin, 1816) 

Letters to William Wilberforce, M.P., recommending the encouragement of the cultivation of sugar in our dominions in the East Indies, as the natural and certain means of effecting the general and total abolition of the slave-trade  by James Cropper (Liverpool: Longman, Hurst, 1822) 
Reply to a letter from the Rev. T. Jackson in reference to the negroes in the West Indies  by Henry Lister Maw (Doncaster: Charles White, 1838) 

The African slave trade and its remedy by Thomas Fowell Buxton (London: J. Murray, 1840) 

Remedies for the slave trade by Macgregor Laird (London: P.P. Thoms, 1842) 

Sequel to appeals made to the government and people of Great Britain, against the Niger Expedition before its departure from England: with a letter, addressed to the Right Hon. Lord Stanley, Principal Secretary of State for the Colonies, &c. &c. &c.  by Robert Jamieson (London: Smith, Elder, 1843) 

Is Central Africa to remain sealed against intercourse with the civilised world?  Or, can means be devised by which an intercourse may be opened up?: a few remarks addressed to those who desire the amelioration of Africa: with an outline of a plan by which it is believed commercial intercourse with Central Africa may be established by Robert Jamieson (Liverpool: Turner & Rose, 1844) 

Remarks on the slave trade and African Squadron by Henry James Matson (4th ed., London: James Ridgway, 1848) 

The case of our West-African cruisers and West-African settlements fairly considered by George Smith (London: J. Hatchard, 1848)  

A plan for the immediate extinction of the slave trade for the relief of the West India colonies, and for the diffusion of civilization and Christianity in Africa, by the co-operation of Mammon with Philanthropy by William Allen (London: James Ridgway, 1849) 

Analysis of the evidence given before the Select Committee upon the slave trade by a barrister (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1850) 

The African Squadron and Mr. Hutt's committee by Joseph Denman (2nd rev.ed., London: John Mortimer, n.d. [c.1850]) 

The African Squadron vindicated by Henry Yule (London: James Ridgway, 1850)  

The British squadron on the coast of Africa by Rev. J. Leighton Wilson with notes by Captain H.D. Trotter, RN (London: James Ridgway, 1851) 
The African slave trade, 1850: report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to consider the best means which Great Britain can adopt for the final extinction of the African slave trade.  Presented in Session 1850 (London: Harrison & Sons, 1850) 

African slave trade – African Squadron. A question of great national importance has lately been much agitated, namely, whether the measures in operation for the suppression of the slave trade, should, or should not, be abandoned.  The following Circular relates to that subject, and your attentive perusal of it is earnestly requested  (January, 1851) 

Regulated slave trade: from the evidence of Robert Stokes, Esq., given before the Select Committee of the House of Lords, in 1849, with a plate showing the stowage of a British slave ship, during the regulated slave trade (2nd ed., London: James Ridgway, 1851) 

Remarks on the African Squadron by J.S. Mansfield (London: James Ridgway, 1851) 

Extracts taken from the evidence taken before committees of the two Houses of Parliament relative to the slave trade, with illustrations from collateral sources of information by a barrister of the Middle Temple (London: James Ridgway, 1851) 

The destruction of Lagos  (London: James Ridgway, 1852) 

England's East African policy: articles on the relations of England to the Sultan of Zanzibar and on the negotiations of 1873, with general notices concerning East African politics and the suppression of the slave trade  (London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1875)  


For a much more detailed bibliography, see:

The African slave trade and its suppression: a classified and annotated bibliography of books, pamphlets and periodical articles by Peter C. Hogg (London: Frank Cass, 2006)