The key role of African seamen in the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery campaign

Guest blog post from: Dr Mary Wills, Honorary Research Fellow, Wilberforce Institute (University of Hull)

As part of our series taking a closer look into black history within the Royal Navy, Dr Mary Wills discusses the role of black Africans in the West Coast of Africa Squadron.

The West Coast of Africa squadron was a key force in the efforts to enforce the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade after 1807.

Sailors of African ancestry have for centuries played a significant part in Britain’s maritime world. This was particularly the case in the multiracial crews of Royal Navy vessels tasked with suppressing the transatlantic slave trade in the nineteenth century. 

The Museum of the Royal Navy has in its collections an engraved scrimshaw, with the inscription:

Jim Freeman, Head Krouman of HMS Sybille Comdre Collier 1827. Jim Freeman Head Krouman, HMS Owen Glendower Sir Robert Mends Comdre 1823. 

Scrimshaws were traditionally created by sailors who carved or etched teeth or bones to pass the time on long voyages. Made from elephant ivory, this scrimshaw was intended as a keepsake and a testimonial of service. 

So who was ‘Jim Freeman’ and what was his role in the Royal Navy’s operations in the 1820s?

The West Africa Squadron

After dominating the trade in enslaved Africans for much of the eighteenth century, in 1807 Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act made illegal any further British participation. To enforce the Act, and to suppress the still flourishing human traffic of other nations (such as France, Spain and Portugal), a squadron of Royal Navy vessels was sent to police the West African coast, to intercept slavers and release enslaved Africans found on board. 

The British naval presence covered coastline roughly from Sierra Leone (then a British territory) to Angola, and approximately 1600 slavers were intercepted by Royal Navy vessels between 1807 and 1867. Britain’s presence on the West African coast at this time was complex, bound to ideas of humanitarianism but also increasing desires for expansion and intervention.

The West Africa Squadron had an infamous reputation among naval personnel due to the difficult topical environment and the frustrations involved in policing often elusive slavers. With the spread of diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, sickness and mortality rates were significantly higher than on other Royal Navy stations in this period. West Africa was commonly known among Europeans as the ‘white man’s grave’.

‘Jim Freeman’ and Kru sailors

The British depended on Africans for the day to day operation of their activities on the West African coast. Of the various African groups employed, the most numerous by far were migrant labourers from the Kru coast.

The Kru (also known as Kroo, Krou or Krew) originated from parts of what is now Ivory Coast and Liberia. Kru worked for colonial officials on shore, on merchant trading vessels - and many were recruited to the West Africa Squadron. 

The key problem facing the squadron was finding men to sail the coastline, particularly given the high rates of mortality amongst British sailors. As highly skilled mariners with local expertise, Kru sailors were therefore integral to the Royal Navy’s anti-slave-trade efforts. It has been estimated that up to a third of naval personnel on the squadron were of African ancestry.

Krumen were also recruited for subordinate roles such as coopers, carpenters and cooks. They transported timber, water and other provisions to and from ships by boat, and were employed in interpreting between British naval officers and West Africans.

Anglo-Kru collaborations also took place in later British explorations of the continent, and in anti-slavery operations off East Africa.

Individual stories

Understanding individual African perspectives in this story is difficult as so few testimonies exist. This reflects a lack of sources relating to non-white sailors in the Royal Navy more widely, although great recent scholarship has begun to uncover these stories. However, a lack of first-hand accounts should not mean that these histories remain untold. While we only have sources written about Jim Freeman and other West African seamen by Europeans – and particularly by British naval officers - we can use these sources to start to build an idea of Jim Freeman’s work for the Royal Navy.

We know that ‘Jim Freeman’ is unlikely to be the scrimshaw owner’s real name. The Kru were given Europeanised nicknames by their British crewmates, presumably because their real names were too difficult to pronounce, or British sailors were not interested in learning them. Once afloat a Kru sailor would be given a name representing different parts of the ship or daily life onboard – such as Jack Galley, John Rudder, Jack Frying Pan, Bottle-of Beer – or a name with royal connections such as King George or Prince of Wales. 

Diaries and journals of British naval officers reveal amiable relations on board, and perceptions of Krumen as hard-working seafarers and exemplifying reliability and physical strength. 

In four years of service, we know that Jim Freeman worked for two of the squadron’s Commodores (the officers assigned command of the squadron), Francis Collier and Sir Robert Mends, and served on the squadron’s flagships. After several years’ service afloat, a Kru sailor like Jim Freeman could ascend to the rank of Petty Officer or ‘headman’, in charge of recruiting and managing a team of Kru.

Cheesman Henry Binstead also served on HMS Owen Glendower under Robert Mends as Midshipman (and later, acting Lieutenant). His diaries written 1823-1824 are held at the museum. They give us an insight into life on the ship, including vivid depictions of dangerous missions in search of slave ships. 

Binstead wrote of the African “pilot” who navigated his boat up the River Bonny, where after taking possession of a Portuguese schooner, 181 enslaved Africans were subsequently taken on board the Owen Glendower to be transported to Sierra Leone. Binstead described how fever spread among the crew and the ship’s passengers, and “[d]ied a Kroo man of fever and many of our men sick.”

Relations between Kru and British sailors were not always harmonious. The British looked down on Kru cultural and religious practices, and the status of the Kru as surrogate Britons was limited by their low position in the hierarchical ship structure. African seamen were only temporary members of the Royal Navy and were discharged if they returned with the ship to the UK. As such they were also given a disproportionate share of ‘prize’ money, awarded to the crew for each slave ship intercepted and enslaved African released.

The West Africa Squadron is rightly celebrated for the pressure its presence exerted on other nations that continued to trade in human lives. The role of African sailors in this story needs to be celebrated too, and the scrimshaw of ‘Jim Freeman’ is a reminder of the importance of material culture in uncovering such often-hidden stories.

Further reading

Robert Burroughs, ‘“[T]he true sailors of Western Africa”: Kru seafaring identity in British travellers’ accounts of the 1830s and 1840s’, Journal of Maritime Research, 11:1 (2009), pp. 51-67,

Ray Costello, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012)

Diane Frost, ‘West African Sailors in 19th Century Liverpool’, The Runnymede Trust,

John Rankin, ‘Nineteenth-Century Royal Navy Sailors from Africa and the African Diaspora: Research Methodology’, African Diaspora, 6 (2013), pp. 179-195. 

Mary Wills, Envoys of Abolition: British Naval Officers and the Campaign Against the Slave Trade in West Africa (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019)

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