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All Posts, P&S History

Guest Post: Anthony Sullivan – Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade

A Brief History of the Suppression Campaign

As detailed in my new book, Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade, during the course of its sixty year existence the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed an estimated 150,000 Africans. Costing almost £40 million (£2 billion in today’s money) and the lives of around 2,000 seamen, below is a brief history of Britain’s lengthy but ultimately successful suppression campaign.

The West African slave coast

1802 Slave trade made illegal in Denmark.

1807 Abolition Act: Following a lengthy campaign spearheaded by William

Wilberforce, slave trade made illegal in Britain.

1808 Handful of Royal Navy cruisers sent to west coast of Africa on ‘Particular


1810 First Anglo-Portuguese treaty: Portugal to load slaves at her own ports only.

1811 Slave trading made a felony in Britain.

1813 Treaty between Britain and Sweden for abolition of slave trade

1814 Slave trade now illegal in Holland.

1815 Second Anglo-Portuguese treaty. Portugal only permitted to trade slaves south

of the equator.

1817 Spain prohibits slave trading north of the equator.

The Slave Coast from Cape Palmas to Fernando Po. From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century the Bights of Benin and Biafra accounted for over two-thirds of the slaves exported from Africa.

1818 Anglo-Dutch, Anglo-Spanish and Anglo-Portuguese Mixed Commissions open

in Sierra Leone.

1819 Formation of West Coast of Africa Squadron.

1820 Slave trade illegal in Spain, now prohibited both north and south of equator.

Slave trade deemed to be equal to piracy in the United States.

1822 Holland and Spain agree that empty vessels can be condemned on

proof they have carried slaves.

1822 Equipment Clause accepted by Holland: Additional planks for forming a deck,

hatches with open gratings, excess water and more mess tubs than required by

the crew all now accepted as proof of a vessel’s engagement in the Trade.

1824 Slave trading deemed to be equal to piracy in Britain.

1826 Anglo-Brazilian treaty: slave trade to be illegal after 1829.

1831 West Coast and Cape squadrons combined.

1833 Slavery abolished throughout the British Empire.

Death of William Wilberforce.

1835 Equipment Clause accepted by Spain.

1839 Equipment Clause accepted by Portugal.

A Baltimore schooner. Small but fast and an excellent fine weather sailer, this design quickly proved itself ideally suited for the transportation of slaves.

1840 West Coast and Cape squadrons separated.

Captain Denman frees around 850 slaves awaiting transportation in the Gallinas

River and destroys the enclosures (barracoons) in which they had been kept.

American cruisers arrive off west coast of Africa.

1841 First anti-slavery treaties made between Royal Navy commanders and African


1842 Anglo-Portuguese Treaty: additional Mixed Commissions formed in Luanda,

Boa Vista and Cape Town.

Webster-Ashburton Treaty: regular American squadron established, good

Anglo-American co-operation.

Accidental publication of Lord Aberdeen’s letter regarding the possible

illegality of the Gallinas action causes a setback to the campaign.

1845 Brazil declares that the treaty of 1826 has lapsed and closes the Mixed

Commission at Rio.

Murder of British prize crew on board slave ship Felicidade.

Felicidade trial: crew acquitted of murder on appeal.

Hutt’s Select Committee appointed to investigate effectiveness of suppression


1848 Buron v Denman trial: Denman sued for damages by slave trader Buron. Court

finds in favour of Denman.

1849 Commodore Hotham’s action against the Gallinas barracoons.

1850 Hutt’s motion calling for an end to anti-slavery patrols defeated in Parliament.

British patience with Brazil ends. Admiral Reynolds’ squadron arrests slave

ships in Brazilian waters.

Brazil enforces new anti-slave trade legislation.

1851 British capture of Lagos, the last slaving hotspot in west coast of Africa.

1853 Brazilian slave trade effectively at an end.

1861 British annexation of Lagos.

Royal Navy 16-gun brigantine. Whilst slow and cramped, Royal Navy brigs and brigantines could operate inconspicuously along the west coast of Africa’s many creeks and rivers, making them better suited to anti-slavery operations than larger three masted Navy vessels.

1862 Lincoln proclaims slavery to be abolished in the Confederate States.

1862 Anglo-American treaty: mutual right of search and creation of Mixed

Commission courts.

1865 Slavery abolished throughout United States.

1867 Amalgamation of West Coast of Africa squadron with Cape Squadron.

1869 Abolition of slavery in Cuba.

1871 Closure of the courts at Sierra Leone.

Learn more in Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade, which you can order here.