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An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade: Slave Trading and the West Africa Squadron

The Cost of Human Cargo: Slave Trading and the West Africa Squadron

In the final decade of the 1700s, British ships made around 1,340 voyages across the Atlantic, landing nearly 40,000 enslaved. Another 266,000 were taken in the years that followed; the slave trade was undoubtedly one of Britain’s most profitable businesses.

But on 25 March 1807, the ‘Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ altered the legality of Britain’s involvement for the first time in several hundred years by prohibiting British subjects from trading, crewing and fitting slave ships.

It did, however, permit ships carrying human cargo to complete any voyages scheduled before its enactment on 1 May.

The Kitty’s Amelia performed the last legal British slaving voyage, with Royal Navy escort, on 27 July 1807, receiving clearance just three days before the Act came into force. She landed 233 enslaved in Barbados.

Annual Register 1807 detailing the progress of the Slave Trade Act 1807. Royal Navy, Plymouth in partnership with NMRN; Devonport Collection

Many of the ships involved did not carry people but the currencies with which to buy them. Voyage Iron, Manilla, utilitarian brass and Guinea Rods were all popular trade currencies.

Over time, the Manilla became the principal currency in the slave trade, with ships carrying them by the tons.

The cost of an enslaved African varied according to time and place, the type of material used and the sex of the individual.

Manilla/Slave Token from the wrecked Duoro, NMRN; Devonport Collection

A clause in the 1807 legislation also permitted the interception of any ship believed to be so equipped for the trading of human cargo, and in 1808 the Royal Navy responded by establishing the West Africa Squadron for the purpose of anti-slavery patrols; a first for the warfare force historically renowned for its own involvement in slavery.

As slavers looked to avoid the heavy fines of the West Africa Squadron, they changed their vessels, operating in ships that were smaller and faster by the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Royal Navy had no choice but to increase and improve the Squadron’s own fleet to avoid being outrun.

The English Schooner, Douro, wrecked on a voyage from Liverpool to West Africa in 1843 was one such ship the Squadron wanted to intercept.

She had been laden with thousands of Manilla destined for Benin, where one token at the time would have bought one African.

The cargo was eventually raised by divers and sold over the years to collectors and heritage institutions.

Image of Manilla with certificate of authenticity, NMRN; Devonport Collection

Between 1807 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron captured over 1,600 proven slave ships and ‘freed’ approximately 150,000 Africans, sending most to the ‘Province of Freedom’ (modern day Sierra Leone).

But the first colony failed, and those that followed arrived with no political, economic or social freedom, meaning many new settlers became the slaves to the ‘formers’ who continued to struggle themselves.

Extract from the Annual Register 1807 detailing a case made pro-abolition. Royal Navy, Plymouth in partnership with NMRN; Devonport Collection.

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