Royal Navy

Defeating the Slavers

Slaves on board the American slave ship Wildfire
The execution of Nathanial Gordon

By the end of the 1840s a turning point had been reached.  The Parliamentary debate had ended by supporting the Preventive Squadron, it had been reformed and its effectiveness increased, its health improved, and the network of anti-slavery treaties extended.  Britain had also obtained a great diplomatic triumph in helping to close the Brazilian slave markets.  In 1845 Lord Aberdeen had introduced an Act to enforce the provisions of a much disregarded 1826 treaty with Brazil, and allow the Royal Navy to seize suspected Brazilian slave ships.  The Act met with unexpected support from within Brazil itself - where the slave trade was largely in the hands of a small number of wealthy and unpopular Portuguese.  In 1850 the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies announced that the 1826 treaty would be enforced; and within a few months newly-landed slaves were being impounded by the authorities and those incoming slave ships which had evaded the Royal Navy were being seized on arrival. In these circumstances the trade could not be sustained, and collapsed with astonishing swiftness.  The Aberdeen Act was suspended in 1852, and eventually repealed.

The Cuban trade was still flourishing, now almost entirely in American ships; but in autumn 1860 Abraham Lincoln was nominated President, and initiated action against slave ships being built or fitted out in the northern States, especially in the trade's principal haven, New York.  Slave trading had been theoretically a capital offence in America since 1820, but no slaver had ever been condemned to death.  On 7th February 1862, an American slave ship captain named Nathaniel Gordon, who had been tried and convicted, was executed. Two months later, there followed the Treaty of Washington between America and Britain, proposed by America on the standard British lines, with an equipment clause and mutual right of search. The American squadron on the coast of Africa was withdrawn almost immediately because of the Civil War, but the British squadron was free to act on behalf of both countries, using its tried and tested armoury of steam and auxiliary steam warships, concentrated forces, and close blockade of known slave depots. With no remaining safe haven and no protection to be had from the American or any other flag, the risks to the slave-traders were rising steeply. Slave-owners could also see the writing on the wall, and were becoming reluctant to invest in slaves, so prices were falling.  By 1866 the last of the transatlantic slave ships had been hunted from the sea.  In 1869, the West Coast of Africa Squadron had achieved its goal and was no longer needed – its ships became once more part of the larger Cape of Good Hope Station; and in 1870 the courts of mixed commission, set up under Britain’s antislavery treaties to deal with captured slave ships, were closed.  They had nothing more to do.

But if the transatlantic trade was over, once and for all, slavery was not.  Africans would no longer be transported to the New World as slaves; but on the east coast of Africa another slave trade was flourishing.  The Royal Navy would continue to fight the slave traders into the next century.