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Britain's War Against the Slave Trade (Paperback)

The Operations of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron 1807–1867

Military > Frontline Books P&S History > British History

By Anthony Sullivan
Frontline Books
Pages: 400
Illustrations: Integrated maps
ISBN: 9781399000017
Published: 5th May 2023
Last Released: 16th April 2024


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Long before recorded history, men, women and children had been seized by conquering tribes and nations to be employed or traded as slaves. Greeks, Romans, Vikings and Arabs were among the earliest of many peoples involved in the slave trade, and across Africa the buying and selling of slaves was widespread. There was, at the time, nothing unusual in Britain’s somewhat belated entry into the slave trade, transporting natives from Africa’s west coast to the plantations of the New World. What was unusual was Britain’s decision, in 1807, to ban the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

Britain later persuaded other countries to follow suit, but this did not stop this lucrative business. So the Royal Navy went to war against the slavers, in due course establishing the West Africa Squadron which was based at Freetown in Sierra Leone. This force grew throughout the nineteenth century until a sixth of the Royal Navy’s ships and marines was employed in the battle against the slave trade. Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.

The slavers tried every tactic to evade the Royal Navy enforcers. Over the years that followed more than 1,500 naval personnel died of disease or were killed in action, in what was difficult and dangerous, and at times saddening, work.

In Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade, naval historian Anthony Sullivan reveals the story behind this little-known campaign by Britain to end the slave trade. Whereas Britain is usually, and justifiably, condemned for its earlier involvement in the slave trade, the truth is that in time the Royal Navy undertook a major and expensive operation to end what was, and is, an evil business.

Featured in

The Naval Review - Summer 2021

Given the recent upsurge in awareness, this is a book that anyone interested in the subject should read.

Warship Annual 2021 Edition

Sullivan's book is very direct and organized chronologically, and it serves as a great reference point for anyone interested in studying a specific vessel within the squadron. In his two-separate appendices, Sullivan has a timeline of important events that he mentions in his book and the commanders-in-chiefs appointed to the squadron throughout the years. Sullivan's work provides an answer to a hole in the historiography of Britain's operations against the slave trade along the African coast. From scholars to your everyday reader, Sullivan's work is a great launching point in understanding the daunting task that the British's Africa Squadron faced for sixty years as they tried to end the African slave trade.

Nautical Research Journal

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this volume which is an interesting, informative and well written account of the Royal Navy’s little-known war on the slave trade in the 19th Century. Recommended.

World Ship Society - Marine News, November 2020

This is a compelling account of this long and costly but ultimately successful campaign, covering one of the longest but least well known British naval campaigns.

Read the full review here

History of War

The topic of this book is very much in the news at the moment with there being a lot of upheaval for some about the treatment of black people. This book looks at the way the Royal Navy has fought against slavery since 1807, when it was decided by MP’s, politicians and parliament to outlaw slavery. The West African Squadron which was set up by the Royal Navy was able over time to capture over 1600 ships and free over 150.000 people who had been ‘bought’ for slavery. As you read through the book there are some very dark and sad times, with a lot of danger and harsh conditions people were forced to deal with.

This is nice chunky book to read and you’ll certainly get deep into the subject matter, the author Anthony Sullivan has written a very deep and comprehensive book which doesn’t shirk from the subject. I would say that I have enjoyed reading this book very much on a subject I knew little about. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, I would say that it’s not a light read and if you weren’t into the subject it might be a hard read. Although I would say I really did enjoy the book and it’s well worth pushing on through. I would say that this book brings a slightly different view to the issues involved in the book. But I would highly recommend this book, because the subject matter is important and important for us all to become more educated about certain subjects.

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UK Historian

A timely examination of all aspects and hitory of slavery at a time when the Black Lives Matter campaign is well under way. Some of this makes for difficult reading but it's something that everyone with any kind of conscience ought to be making themselves familiar with in one way or another. Anthony Sullivan really spells it out.

Books Monthly

I already had a high regard for the Royal Navy's role in suppressing the Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century but Anthony Sullivan has convinced me that perhaps I had not held them in high enough regard. These were truly remarkable men helping some of the most vulnerable people imaginable and willing to do so even at the cost of their own lives and health. This book may have some dark passages but ultimately it is an uplifting story of Britain's politicians and sailors overcoming the greed of others, international rivalry and legal bureaucracy to achieve a noble aim. And all because it was the decent thing to do!

Read the full review here

The British Empire

It is intriguing and interesting and I was fascinated by this part of history.

NetGalley, Julie Hosford

About Anthony Sullivan

Anthony Sullivan was born in London in 1971 but has lived most of his life in Surrey. His grandfather served in the Army, his father in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He is a graduate of the Open University, where he studied history and is also a member of the Naval Records Society.

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