Saturday, May 10, 2014

Dear Diary: Chasing Slavers

I’ve been writing about the journal our great great grandfather, George William Lillies, kept during his time as a Royal Navy ship’s surgeon in the mid-1840s. His ship, HMS Styx, was attached during this period to the West Africa Squadron, which was tasked with enforcing laws passed in 1807 prohibiting trade and transportation of slaves anywhere in the British Empire, and in 1833, outlawing slave holding as well. By this time, the government had negotiated treaties with other anti-slaving nations so the navy had authority to enforce the ban on non-British slavers too.

West Africa Squadron ships routinely intercepted suspicious vessels off the coast of what is now Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo. They took slave ships as ‘prizes,’ meaning they were sold and the proceeds divvied up among the crews of the ships involved in their capture. (Most of the loot went to officers apparently.)

Contemporary print of Freetown, Sierra Leone where the navy took freed slaves
Any slaves on board were freed. The navy landed many at Freetown, Sierra Leone, a semi-autonomous protectorate the British had set up after the American Revolution to settle slaves freed during that war. (Others settled in Canada, including in Nova Scotia. And the freed-slave settlers left for Sierra Leone from Nova Scotia, in 1792. Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill wrote about this episode in his best-selling The Book of Negroes.)

Freed slaves arriving in Sierra Leone
GWL describes one episode in October 1846 that shows the human side of the navy’s mission. The Styx, along with HMS Albatross, had intercepted and captured a Brazilian slaver, the Isabel, just setting out for South America with 349 slaves aboard. 

“The poor slaves on being liberated were delighted,” GWL reports – probably an understatement, “and gave this vessel three cheers when she returned this morning.” He goes on to add a sad postscript. “One poor woman on board was only delivered [gave birth] a few days before she was shipped [put aboard for transportation] when she had her child dragged from her breast and had its throat cut - so much for slavery -This prize is a beautiful vessel.” (The juxtaposition of obvious disgust with the brutality of the slavers and relish for the prize taken is perhaps telling.)

The slave traders, including non-British nationals, were taken for “adjudication” by the  the Court of Vice Admiralty, a Royal Navy court, in Sierra Leone.

19th century illustration of inhumanly cramped quarters on slave ships
The navy didn’t have to catch traffickers in the act. If there was evidence they were slaving, they were fair game. On October 2, for example, the Styx approached a suspicious ship becalmed off the coast near Badagry, Nigeria. “[W]hen we came up to her she hoisted Brazilian colours and on being examined she was found to be completely fitted for slaves - she was taken and then towed back to [HMS] Albatross…” On December 1, the Styx intercepted another Brazilian ship, the Espiga. It “was taken just before dark,” GWL writes. “[N]ine shots were fired before she hove to – She was empty…” But there was enough evidence it was a slave ship that they impounded it and sent the crew for prosecution.

It was a cat and mouse game the navy played with slavers. GWL records many more episodes in which the Styx chased but lost suspected slave ships. On one occasion, he describes how a ship almost blundered into the Styx in the dark, where it was anchored for the night. When the Styx lit its running lights to avoid a collision, the other vessel turned and ran. The Styx gave chase, assuming by its behaviour that the other ship was a slaver, but lost it in the dark.

The navy had no jurisdiction to stop the taking of slaves or other activities of slavers on land. And neither did the British government outside its own colonies, which at this period were not extensive. In autonomous native-ruled areas, where the trade was aided and abetted by locals, if not organized by them, the British tried bribery to stop it – with little success. “The Chiefs of the Cameroons have continually presents sent to them by the British Government with the hopes of preventing them from continuing in the Slave Trade,” GWL writes in November 1846. “[B]ut either from their own villainy or not having sufficient interest to prevent their subjects from such traffic the attempts to stop it in this manner seem always worse than useless.”  

African slave trader selling "merchandise" to European slaver
The West Africa Squadron was often provisioned from settlements along the coast that also harboured slavers. On a couple of occasions, GWL mentions in passing as he’s describing a place the ship has visited that a known slaver lives or operates there. On a visit to Gallinas, Sierra Leone, for example, he mentions that the slaver Pedro Blanco’s house is there. Blanco (1795-1854) was a notorious Spanish-Cuban trader. By the time GWL arrived in west Africa, Blanco had gone back to Cuba, but his trafficking operations continued until the business collapsed a few years later.

As exciting and dangerous as blockading the slavers sometimes was, it’s remarkable how little time – judging by GWL’s journal – the Styx was actually actively involved in chasing and capturing. Clearly part of its function was just to be there, to be seen up and down the coast, to be a deterrent. And it may well have had that effect, even when it was anchored, and officers like GWL were off larking about on land, sightseeing, going for swims on the beaches, haggling for provisions, foraging for booze, tramping through the jungle – as we saw last time – or riding about on hired horses to visit other Europeans.

The routines of the Styx also allowed GWL time and opportunity to indulge his interests in natural science. If you know the excellent movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, you’re already familiar with the figure of the naval surgeon-naturalist. The movie is set a half-century earlier, but GWL appears to have been a lot like the character Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany – if not, perhaps, quite as sensitive and discerning. I’ll look at GWL’s scientific pursuits in the next post. 


  1. You refer to the film "Master and Commander" - this is based on a series of books written by Patrick O'Brian, charting the adventures afloat of Jack Aubrey (from junior officer to Admiral) and his friend the surgeon Stephen Maturin, who also goes ashore sometimes on spying missions. There is indeed a great similarity between GWL and Maturin. I have read all the books (before I ever read GWL's diary) and I can strongly recommend them.

  2. I'd forgotten the movie was based on the books. They're part of a whole genre of naval historical fiction, aren't they? My Dad always wanted me to read the Hornblower books which he'd enjoyed as a youngster. Never did. I read and loved the Nicholas Monsarrat Master Mariner books, though. Highly recommended.