When I began working on my second historical novel, CHANCE FOR FREEDOM, I wanted my naval officer hero to do something noble. In doing research, I found a quite honorable group of men who were a part of The West Africa Squadron--a part of the Royal Navy used for shutting down the slave trade routes on the seas.
A noble and right cause, but as I learned, what the squadron faced was an immensely difficult task. It would take decades to stop the slave trading.
The squadron was put together after the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was implemented by British Parliament. The British didn't actively slave-trade at the time, but illegal traders continued to smuggle enslaved people to the British West Indies. The slave ships would leave Britain (London, Liverpool, Bristol) for West Africa with cloth, guns, and other goods. On the African coast, these goods would be traded for men, women, and children either captured by slave traders or purchased from African chiefs. (While doing my research, I was dumbfounded to learn that some of the people enslaved were prisoners of war. In Africa there was so much turmoil and strife between tribes, they were constantly at war. The tribes would sell their POWs to European slave-traders.)
Ships would sail up and down the coast trading their wares for slaves until their ships were full. (Conditions on the slave boats were dire with many dying.) Then they would sail to the West Indies where the slaves were auctioned. With the money made from the auctions, the slave-traders would purchase sugar, coffee, and tobacco to bring back to Britain to sell.
Commodore Sir George Ralph Collier was the first officer to run The West Africa Squadron. He was given orders to use any means to prevent the continuance of trafficking slaves. But he was only given six ships to patrol over 3,000 miles of the West African Coast--a near impossible task.
In 1819 the Royal Navy captured a slave trading post and turned it into the first British colony in West Africa, which later became known as Sierra Leone. Many of the rescued slaves settled in the town, free from the fear of being enslaved again.
If the squadron intercepted and captured a ship that had slaves aboard, the ship owners were penalized by a fine and their ship captured. This caused many of the slavers to throw slaves overboard when they were in fear of being captured. (When I read this, my heart absolutely broke. My hero will have to save some of these, if only he could have back then.)
The sailors aboard the naval ships had a hard life. Not only were the days long and tedious, like looking for a needle in a haystack, their health was at great risk too. The deaths from malaria and yellow fever were high among the men.
The squadron was a huge financial undertaking for the British government. (But I think we'll all agree, a noble cause indeed.)
Between 1808 and 1860 The West Africa Squadron captured 1600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. And although my book is not about slavery, I hope when it is finished I have given respect to the men who helped stop such a heinous crime on humanity.
You can learn more at:
The Abolition Project http://abolition.e2bn.org
You can find out more about Tess and her books at www.tessstjohn.com