|West Africa Squadron|
|Role||Suppression of the Slave Trade, from Cape Verde to Benguela|
The British Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The squadron's task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. With a home base at Portsmouth, England, it began with two small ships, the 32-gun fifth-rate frigate HMS Solebay and the Cruizer-class brig-sloop HMS Derwent. At the height of its operations, the squadron employed a sixth of the Royal Navy fleet and marines. In 1819 the Royal Navy established a West Coast of Africa Station and the West Africa Squadron became known as the Preventative Squadron. It remained an independent command until 1856 and then again 1866 to 1867. Between 1830 and 1865, more than 1,500 British sailors died on their mission of freeing slaves with the West Africa Squadron.
The Squadron has been described as being poorly resourced and plagued by corruption; it only managed to capture around 6% of the transatlantic slave ships, but patrolling 3,000 miles of African coast from 1808 to 1860 it liberated 150,000 Africans.
On 25 March 1807 Britain formally abolished the slave trade, prohibiting British subjects from trading in slaves, crewing slave ships, sponsoring slave ships, or fitting out slave ships. The Act also included a clause allowing the seizure of ships without slave cargoes on board but equipped to trade in slaves. The task of enforcing the act was huge and challenging. In order to enforce this ruling in 1808 the Admiralty dispatched two vessels to police the African Coast. The small British force was empowered, in the context of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, to stop any ship bearing the flag of an enemy nation, making suppression activities much easier. Portugal, however, was one of the largest slave trading nations and Britain's ally against France. In February 1810, under diplomatic pressure, Portugal signed a convention that allowed British ships to police Portuguese shipping, meaning Portugal could only trade in slaves from its own African possessions.
The privateer (a private vessel operating under a letter of marque) Dart, chasing slavers to profit from the bounties set by the British government, made the first captures under the 1810 convention. Dart, and in 1813 another privateer, (Kitty), were the only two vessels to pursue slavers for profit, and thus augment the efforts of the West Africa Squadron. The lack of private initiatives, and their short duration, suggest that they were not profitable.
With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars, Viscount Castlereagh had ensured a declaration against slavery appeared in the text of the Congress of Vienna, committing all signatories to the eventual abolition of the trade. In 1814, France agreed to cease trading, and Spain in 1817 agreed to cease North of the equator, adding to the mandate of the squadron. Early treaties against slave trading with foreign powers were often very weak. As a consequence, until 1835 the squadron could seize vessels only if slaves were found on board at the time of capture; it could not interfere with vessels clearly equipped for the slave trade but with no slaves on board. If slaves were found, a fine of £100 for each one could be levied, a large sum; some slaver captains in danger of being caught had their captives thrown overboard to reduce the fine.
In order to prosecute captured vessels and thereby allow the Navy to claim its prizes, a series of courts were established along the African Coast. In 1807, a Vice Admiralty Court was established in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 1817, several Mixed Commission Courts were established, replacing the Vice Admiralty Court in Freetown. These Mixed Commission Courts had officials from both Britain and foreign powers, with Anglo-Portuguese, Anglo-Spanish, and Anglo-Dutch courts being established in Sierra Leone.
Far from the Pax Britannica style policing of the 1840s and 1850s, early efforts to suppress the slave trade were often ineffectual due to a desire to keep on good terms with other European powers. The actions of the West Africa Squadron were "strictly Governed" by the treaties, and officers could be punished for overstepping their authority.
Commodore Sir George Ralph Collier, with the 36-gun HMS Creole as his flagship, was the first Commodore of the West Africa Squadron. On 19 September 1818, the navy sent him to the Gulf of Guinea with the orders: "You are to use every means in your power to prevent a continuance of the traffic in slaves." However, he had only six ships with which to patrol over 5,000 kilometres (3,000 mi) of coast. He served from 1818 to 1821.
In 1819, the Royal Navy created a naval station in West Africa at Freetown, the capital of the first British colony in West Africa, Sierra Leone. Most of the enslaved Africans freed by the squadron chose to settle in Sierra Leone, for fear of being re-enslaved if they were simply landed on the coast among strangers. From 1821, the squadron also used Ascension Island as a supply depot, before this moved to Cape Town in 1832.
As the Royal Navy began interdicting slave ships, the slavers responded by adopting faster ships, particularly Baltimore clippers. At first, the Royal Navy was often unable to catch these ships. However, when the Royal Navy started to use captured slaver clippers and new faster ships from Britain, the Royal Navy regained the upper hand. One of the most successful ships of the West Africa Squadron was such a captured ship, renamed HMS Black Joke. She successfully caught 11 slavers in one year.
By the 1840s, the West Africa Squadron had begun receiving paddle steamers such as HMS Hydra, which proved superior in many ways to the sailing ships they replaced. The steamers were independent of the wind, and their shallow draught allowed them to patrol the shallow shores and rivers. In the middle of the 19th century, there were around 25 vessels and 2,000 personnel with a further 1,000 local sailors involved in the effort.
The Royal Navy considered the West Africa Station one of the worst postings due to the high levels of tropical disease.
Britain pressed other nations into treaties that gave the Royal Navy the right to search their ships for slaves. As the 19th century wore on, the Royal Navy also began interdicting slave trading in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean.
The United States Navy assisted the West Africa Squadron, starting in 1820 with USS Cyane, which the US had captured from the Royal Navy in 1815. Initially the US contribution consisted of a few ships, which comprised the Africa Squadron after the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.
While liberated slaves were returned to Africa, those who came from inland regions could not be returned to their place of origin. They often suffered in appalling conditions on the return voyage, or while waiting for courts to adjudicate their case. It is estimated as many as 25 percent of freed slaves died before being released.
Post holders included
|Senior Officer, West Africa Squadron|
|1||Captain||Edward H. Columbine||1808-1811|
|2||Captain||Hon. Frederick Paul Irby||1811-1818|
Post holders included:
|Commodore, West Coast of Africa Station|
|1||Commodore||Sir George Collier||1818-1821|
|2||Commodore||Sir Robert Mends||1822-1823|
|3||Commodore||Sir Charles Bullen||1824-1827|
|4||Commodore||Francis Augustus Collier||1826-1830|
Post holders included:
|Commodore/Senior Officer, on the West Coast of Africa Station|
|3||Captain||William Jones||1844-1846 (promoted to Commodore during post)|
|6||Commodore||Henry William Bruce||1851-1854|
|10||Commodore||A. P. Eardley Wilmot CB||1862-1865 |
|11||Commodore||Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby||1866-1867|
From 1867, the commodore's post on the West Coast of Africa was abolished, and its functions absorbed by the senior officer at the Cape of Good Hope .
The West African Squadron is featured in Lona Manning's historical novels A Contrary Wind (2017) and A Marriage of Attachment (2018).
Patrick O'Brian centers the plot of his 1994 novel The Commodore, the seventeenth installment in his Aubrey-Maturin series, on his Royal Navy captain, Jack Aubrey, being given command of a squadron to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa near the end of the War of the Sixth Coalition. Though the squadron is never explicitly named the "West Africa Squadron," it fulfills the known roles of the Squadron as it existed at the time, and makes reference to the Slave Trade Act of 1807.