Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The West Africa Squadron

by Tess St. John

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.

Tall Ship Rigging

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.

Sunrise

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:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abolitionm
The Abolition Project http://abolition.e2bn.org
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition

You can find out more about Tess and her books at www.tessstjohn.com

36 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post, Tess. You gave him a very noble profession indeed. Sad time in history.

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  2. I lived in Savannah, Georgia for a while, and while I was there I did a historical preservation project with a cemetery. While researching that, I learned about the Lazaretto, which is now bisected by the highway that goes out to Tybee. It's very sobering to know that that stretch of muddy beach is the resting place of over 500 would-be slaves, who were too sick to be sold, or dead upon arrival. A sad time, indeed. But that is not British History and I digress. It did bring the issue home for me, though. Great post!

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    1. Well, V.R., those slaves were probably coming those British ships that transported them from Africa to the West Indies. What a terrible, horrible injustice. The hardest part of all this for me is I hate violence, of any kind! So I'm doing this research in tears some days...but like I said, my story isn't about slavery...I just couldn't delve into the horrors they suffered, but I do get a glimpse of it. It's so, so sad

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  3. Tessy,

    Great post. Thank you for doing the research.

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    1. It's fascinating, Ella...what they did and how they were able to keep doing it for so long!

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  4. Great post, Tessy. I'm certainly not an expert on British history, but this is first I've heard of this squadron. It sounds like they did amazing things with very few resources. I'm looking forward to reading about your hero saving slaves who were thrown overboard by the evil slavers (I'm sure they'll get what they deserve, too).

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    1. Yes, Ally, they get their due. Just wish more had gotten their due back then!

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  5. I hadn't heard of this squadron either, Tessy. I can see why it drew you in! I can't wait to read Chance for Freedom!

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    1. Thanks, Aileen...and yes, it drew me in instantly!

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  6. Such an interesting post, Tess! Very tough research. I can't wait to read Chance for Freedom!

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    1. Thanks, Melissa... and yes, you know me, I don't like violence, it's very hard research!

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  7. So interesting. I had no idea this squadron existed. Amazing they were able to capture so many ships despite such a vast territory.

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    1. I know, Robin. That's why it took them so long to get the trading under control! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  8. Wonderful post, Tessy. Thank you for sharing it with us. I'm looking forward to Chance for Freedom.

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    1. Thanks so much for dropping by, Susan!!!

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  9. Tessy,

    How interesting. I didn't know all that. And they were indeed doing something noble.

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  10. Super post, Tess. My research is about 100 years earlier so I was unaware of this squadron. How very intriguing! For honorable men, even saving a handful of slaves would be worth the risks.

    Jenn!

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    1. I agree, Jenn...any slave saved would be worth any risk!

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  11. Fascinating post, Tess, and great research information! This time period and the West African Squadron are such an complex and interesting subject. I can't wait to read about your naval hero!

    --Kirsten

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    1. Thanks so much, Kirsten!!!! Glad you enjoyed it!

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  12. Tess, thank you for a wonderful post.
    I am surely looking forward to reading your fabulous novel.

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    1. Thanks so much, Marie!!! I can't wait to finish it!

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  13. Tess,

    This research looks like it's going to give you plenty of room to make your hero awesome! Best wishes :-)

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  14. Great post, I thought it interesting that the African chiefs would traffic their prisoners for profit and yet yet even in our US history welll off Africans in the American south espeically in New Orleans had slaves themselves. One has to wonder if the mind set within and without a slaver's mind set.

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    1. I was surprised to learn that and just saddened that many of the POW slaves found better lives than they had in the POW camps. It's all just heart-breaking!

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  15. Wow- this was so interesting. I had never heard of this group until now. Thanks for sharing your research and a bit of history that shouldn't be forgotten.

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    1. Thanks, Stacey...No, none of the people who lived through that should be forgotten!

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  16. Tess, that was absolutely fascinating. I'd never heard about this squadron before. A very interesting bit of history!

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  17. Thanks, Lynn! I think so too!!!!

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  18. That sounds fantastic! I would read it.

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