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In 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed, makingthe slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. The statutory manumissionof slaves within British possessions would follow in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

The Royal Navy was the means by which the 1807 Actwas to be upheld, with British ships forming the bulk of the WestAfrica Squadron. This was officially a multi-national force, and ships fromPrussia, the Netherlands and Portugal assisted the Royal Navy. The United Statesconstituted the African Slave Trade Patrol in 1819, despite slavery remaining anintegral feature of southern American life until the 1860s.

In parallel with her military endeavours, Britainused her post-Napoleonic power to press for diplomaticsuppression of slavery. Over 30 treatieswere entered into, covering all of the major Atlantic powers (Portugal, Spain,France and the Netherlands), some distinctly non-maritime powers (Austria andPrussia) and many small countries (Sardinia, Naples and Tuscany).

All of this added legal and diplomatic complexitiesto the practical difficulties of the West African Squadron. Rule books wereprovided to Captains detailing treaties in effect with various countries, andoutlining the rightsof inspection, search and seizure.

All of this combined with miserable conditionsadrift the hostile, pestilent and humid African coast. Violent clashes withwell armed slavers added to mortality rates that were nearlysix times that of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean patrols.

Whilst some sailors and commanders had humanitarianor religious reasons for enduring their harsh regime, the prospect of prizemoney for captured ships and ‘headmoney’ for freed slaves also made duties more bearable. According to JanMorris in Heaven’s Command, this amounted to £5 per head if the freed slavewas alive and £2.10s if they were dead.


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