In 1807the Slave Trade Act was passed, making
the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. The statutory manumission
of slaves within British possessions would follow in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
The Royal Navy was the means by which the 1807 Act
was to be upheld, with British ships forming the bulk of the West
Africa Squadron. This was officially a multi-national force, and ships from
Prussia, the Netherlands and Portugal assisted the Royal Navy. The United States
constituted the African Slave Trade Patrol in 1819, despite slavery remaining an
integral feature of southern American life until the 1860s.
In parallel with her military endeavours, Britain
used her post-Napoleonic power to press for diplomatic
suppression of slavery. Over 30 treaties
were entered into, covering all of the major Atlantic powers (Portugal, Spain,
France and the Netherlands), some distinctly non-maritime powers (Austria and
Prussia) and many small countries (Sardinia, Naples and Tuscany).
All of this added legal and diplomatic complexities
to the practical difficulties of the West African Squadron. Rule books were
provided to Captains detailing treaties in effect with various countries, and
outlining the rights
of inspection, search and seizure.
All of this combined with miserable conditions
adrift the hostile, pestilent and humid African coast. Violent clashes with
well armed slavers added to mortality rates that were nearly
six times that of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean patrols.
Whilst some sailors and commanders had humanitarian
or religious reasons for enduring their harsh regime, the prospect of prize
money for captured ships and ‘head
money’ for freed slaves also made duties more bearable. According to Jan
Morris in Heaven’s Command, this amounted to £5 per head if the freed slave
was alive and £2.10s if they were dead.