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The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron (or Preventative Squadron) at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The squadron's task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa.[1 ] With a home base at Portsmouth,[2] it began with two small ships, the 32-gun fifth rate frigate HMS Solebay and the Cruizer class brig-sloop HMS Derwent. At the height of its operations, the Squadron employed a sixth of the Royal Navy fleet and Marines.

Commodore Sir George Ralph Collier, with the 36-gun HMS Creole as his flagship, was the first Commodore of the West Africa Squadron. On September 19, 1818, the Navy sent him to the Gulf of Guinea with the orders, “You are to use every means in your power to prevent a continuance of the traffic in slaves.”[3] However, he had only six ships with which to patrol over 3000 miles of coast. He served from 1818 to 1821.

In 1819, the Royal Navy created a naval station in West Africa at a captured slaving port that the British renamed Freetown. This would become the capital of the first British colony in Africa, Sierra Leone. Most of the slaves the squadron freed would choose to settle in Sierra Leone as they would not have to fear being re-enslaved, a danger in any other part of Africa.[1 ] From 1821, the squadron also used Ascension Island as a supply depot,[4] before this moved to Cape Town in 1832.[5]

HMS Black Joke and prizes (clockwise from top left) Providentia, Vengador, Presidenta, Marianna, El Almirante, and El Hassey

As the Royal Navy began interdicting slavers, the slavers responded by abandoning their merchant ships in favour of faster ships, particularly Baltimore Clippers. At first, the Royal Navy was often unable to catch these ships, however with the capture of slaver clippers and new faster ships from Britain the Royal Navy regained the upper hand. One of the most successful ships of the West Africa Squadron was one such captured ship, renamed HMS Black Joke. She successfully caught 11 slavers in one year.

Until 1835, the Royal Navy was only allowed to take slavers that actually had slaves aboard. This meant the Squadron could not interfere with vessels clearly equipped for the trade but without a cargo. It also gave slavers being pursued an incentive to throw their slaves overboard before capture to avoid the seizure of the vessel.

By the 1840s, the West African Squadron had begun receiving paddle steamers, which proved superior in many ways to the sailing ships they replaced. The steamers were independent of the wind and their shallow draughts meant they could go patrol the shallow shores and up rivers.

The Royal Navy considered the West Africa Station one of the worst postings due to the high levels of tropical disease, however this did provide the Royal Navy surgeons the experience they would use to effectively fight such diseases.

As the 19th Century wore on, the Royal Navy also began interdicting slavery in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean.

The United States Navy assisted the West Africa Squadron, starting in 1820 with the USS Cyane. Initially the US contribution consisted of a few ships, but eventually the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 formalized the US contribution into the Africa Squadron.[6][7]

Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard these ships.[1 ] The United States Navy captured a further 24 ships.[8]

Notes

  1. ^ a b c "Chasing Freedom Information Sheet". Royal Naval Museum. http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/visit_see_victory_cfexhibition_infosheet.htm. Retrieved 2007-04-02.  
  2. ^ "From slave trade to humanitarian aid". BBC News. 2007-03-19. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/hampshire/6430401.stm. Retrieved 2007-04-02.  
  3. ^ Lloyd, Christopher (1968). The Navy and the slave trade. Routledge. p. 67. ISBN 9780714618944.  
  4. ^ "Green Mountain". Peter Davis. http://www.pdavis.nl/GreenMountain.htm. Retrieved 2007-04-02.  
  5. ^ "West Africa". Peter Davis. http://www.pdavis.nl/WestAfr.htm. Retrieved 2007-04-02.  
  6. ^ Falola, Toyin; Amanda Warnock (2007). Encyclopedia of the middle passage. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 113. ISBN 9780313334801.  
  7. ^ Lovejoy, Paul E. (2000). Transformations in slavery. Cambridge University Press. p. 292. ISBN 9780521784306.  
  8. ^ "Chasing Freedom Exhibition: the Royal Navy and the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade". http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/visit_see_victory_cfexhibition_infosheet.htm. Retrieved 2009-09-25.  

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