Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dear Diary: George William Lillies in Africa

After a long hiatus due to indolence and lack of discipline, I’m picking up from my last post, in January, in which I introduced distant cousin Jeremy Lillies. Jeremy, who lives in Surrey, England, shares great great grandparents with baby-boom Blackwells and Breens. (The Lillies intersect with the Blackwells at grandfather Matthew Drummond Blackwell, who married Vera Isobel Marian Lillies in Melbourne in 1916.)

A keen family historian and archivist, Jeremy has in his possession some priceless artefacts, including the transcript of a journal kept by our common great great grandfather, George William Lillies. (The handwritten journal itself is apparently held by another distant cousin in England who is unfortunately ill and incommunicado.) Jeremy recently completed entering the transcript digitally and kindly emailed the results to me.

GWL, like his father, was a surgeon in the Royal Navy. I wrote about him earlier here. He joined in 1845 as a fully qualified surgeon, before he had turned 21. We don’t know for sure how long he served, but possibly only until the early 1850s, when he married and started a family. By 1859, he is definitely out of uniform, practising as a GP in Chudleigh, Devon.

The journal covers the period June 1, 1845 to July 15, 1847 when GWL was serving on ships in the West Africa Squadron. This was a fleet deployed, starting in 1807, to enforce the legislated ban on slave trading in the British Empire. While slave holding was not abolished and slaves not freed in England until 1833, the international trade in slaves was banned much earlier. The British went to great trouble to negotiate treaties that gave the Royal Navy the right to enforce the ban on slave ships of other nations as well.

Image of slaves being transported in Africa

By the middle of the 19th century, the government had committed a remarkable 25 vessels and 2,000 sailors to the task of eradicating the transatlantic trade, plus nearly 1,000 locally recruited seamen from what is now Liberia referred to as ‘kroomen.’ The ships blockaded the continent, captured hundreds of slave ships, freed thousands of slaves and delivered the slavers for trial.

The main reason for this extraordinary commitment of resources – which did not go unopposed at home – appears to have been a sincere belief, at least on the part of those in power, that the slave trade was abhorrent. Even if holding slaves could somehow still be tolerated.

“The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations,” wrote Irish historian and political theorist William Lecky in 1869. Southerners in America, it's worth pointing out, argued that the British war on the slave trade was far from altruistic, but rather designed to increase costs for slave-based economies so British goods produced in non-slave colonies could compete.

HMS Brisk capturing slave ship Emanuela

In “The Royal Navy and the Battle to End Slavery,” an article at the BBC’s History site, author Huw Lewis-Jones notes that, “service on the West Africa Squadron was a thankless and overwhelming task, full of risk and posing a constant threat to the health of the crews involved. Contending with pestilential swamps and violent encounters, the mortality rate was 55 per 1,000 men, compared with 10 for fleets in the Mediterranean or in home waters.” You definitely get a strong sense of this reading GWL’s journal.

He starts off on HMS Styx, his first naval posting, then moves to HMS Pantaloon in 1846. I’ll write more about the journal and quote from it in future posts (or that's my plan), but the thing that has struck me most about it so far (I’m still reading) is the appalling attitudes expressed about Africans. GWL's observations seem so at odds with the humanitarian zeal of the British government and apparently many of its servicemen in trying to end the slave trade.

In one early passage, he relates that “directly on anchoring here the whole deck of the vessel [another ship he is observing] was crowded with black women who came off to wash clothes - such ugly brutes I never before saw and never wish to see again - They seem to be only one remove from Apes - In fact I think it would be difficult for an inexperienced eye to distinguish them from feral Ourang [Orangutan].”

Enslaved Africans being loaded into the hold of slave ship
And yet, not many weeks later he describes a tour of local plantations where he saw “one of the prettiest looking black women I ever saw in my life – Whether it was owing to my not having seen a decent female face for some time or an innate little weakness of my own I know not but all I can say is I found my eyes wandering in the direction where she sat more than once and that I should not have felt very miserable had I been obliged to remain there until the party returned.”

He goes on to note that “she was a mulatto and her dress prevented us from seeing her woolly skull - cap - a thing most disgusting to my eyes.” He means the “woolly skull,” covered by a cap, is “disgusting” to him.

On his first encounter with kroomen, he notes that “they are blacks and are most extraordinary looking Animals although some of them are exceedingly fine men - no less odd are their names, for example one is called Soda-Water, another Gumption and so on.” Elsewhere he frequently uses the n-word.

I’ll leave you with one other early passage from the journal, of a less troubling nature. GWL feels it necessary to explain to his hypothetical reader a new fruit he seems to be encountering for the first time.

“Do not like Bananas,” he writes, “as they appear to my taste so sickly although their flavour is compared by some to that of a luscious ripe pear - A species of Palm yields this fruit - It grows in bundles each one containing 8 or 10 Bananas and when stripped of their integument they resemble in shape and size very much sausages.”

Well, yes, I suppose you could say sausages.

Note: bananas were first brought to Europe from West Africa in the 1500s by Portuguese sailors.


  1. Really fascinating stuff! It's always disappointing to be confronted with the racism of our forefathers... I still choose to believe (possibly naively) that the British were primarily anti-slavery in the 19th century because of the influence of humanitarian Evangelical reformers and not due to sneaky economic motives! :S All in all, I strongly disagree with GWL's attitude towards Africans AND BANANAS!

  2. Ah, my history nerd daughter! Afraid I'm with the ggg on bananas, though - blech!

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  4. On the subject of bananas, my father, yet another George Lillies, was posted in 1940 to Gibraltar with 4th Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment (what else?) and I did not meet him until I was 3. He came back from Gib with green bananas and after they had ripened I was given the first one, which I spat out! Now, however, I can kill for a banana!

  5. Clearly, the exotic banana remains an acquired taste! :)