Squadron: ending the African slave trade

3 mins read
Squadron: ending the African slave trade
John Broich
Duckworth Overlook, £20 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0715652312

The West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy had more or less terminated the slave trade on the West African coast by the 1850s. This book is not about that story. It concerns another unfolding on the opposite side of the continent.

As the West African trade collapsed, the East African trade soared. The trafficking of humans across the Indian Ocean may have increased five-fold in the first half of the 19th century. The final total transported by the Arab slave trade over the many centuries it operated probably equalled the 12 million transported by the European slave trade.

By the mid-19th century, long tentacles of slave-raiding had penetrated a thousand miles from the coast into the interior, setting up shock waves of mayhem that were eviscerating African society.

What drove the surge was industrialism and globalisation: soaring demand for primary commodities on the world market. Swahili warlords, Arab merchants, Turkish pashas, and Persian landowners were growing rich in a booming economy, and they needed labour – for their plantations, their industries, and their increasingly extravagant households. Not least, they wanted sex slaves.

The Sultan of Zanzibar presided over an informal mercantile empire that spanned the Indian Ocean trading system and extended deep into Africa. He and other Arab rulers were cultivated by the imperial powers, above all by the British, both in London and in Delhi. So British politicians turned a blind eye to the slave trade.

Enter stage left, four Royal Navy officers: Leopold Heath, George Sulivan, Edward Meara, and Philip Colomb. The British had abolished their own slave trade in 1807, and slavery itself throughout the Empire in 1833. They also had a treaty arrangement with the Sultan of Zanzibar dating from 1822 which, while allowing for the movement of slaves within the Sultan’s territory, outlawed the export of slaves beyond.

But enforcement had been lackadaisical. The numerous slave dhows plying the coasts might or might not be legitimate. How was one to tell? Why stir things up in any case?

That was before the issue of the East African trade went toxic, largely through the efforts of anti-slavery campaigner David Livingstone. The Victorian public demanded action, and a new state-of-the-art squadron – a frigate of 500 men and three sloops of 140 men each – took station in 1868, charged with eradicating the Indian Ocean trade.

Commodore Heath and his three subordinate commanders took their duties seriously. Heath devised a brilliant ‘spider’s web’ strategy for intercepting the lightly built, coast-hugging slave dhows, and his officers were ruthless about freeing slaves and burning vessels. John Broich’s Squadron tells the story, and it is a minor masterpiece.

Broich – who lectures in British Empire history at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio – has been meticulous about unearthing a story buried in the primary archives. But, unlike so many academics, he is also an outstanding storyteller.

In this gracefully written book – Broich could easily have been a novelist – he uses the careers of his four officers, and in particular their dramatic campaign of captures between 1868 and 1871, to tell the whole story of the East African slave trade and the struggle against it.

We are there. On-board HMS Forte, off the mid-Arabian coast in May 1869, as ten young men, two women, 40 boys, and 28 girls – naked, attenuated, wilting – are unfolded from the tiny spaces into which they have been jammed below the deck of a 40-foot dhow. We are there, and we are there on two dozen other occasions, close observers of an exhilarating game of cat and mouse, and seaborne chase and capture.

Broich is equally at ease describing ship’s tackle, gun-power, and the changing technology of naval warfare. And, effortlessly, seamlessly, he drops the action into its geopolitical context, with its economic vested interests and diplomatic cross-currents, leaving us rooting for our naval heroes as they battle politically motivated attempts to hamstring their campaign. As one of them, George Sulivan, was moved to write:

I have been led to conclude by many circumstances that the suppression of the Slave Trade and the interests of the Indian Government do not coincide. And there is a tendency to sacrifice the slave to the political advantage gained in relation to the chiefs and others of the slave-holding tribe.

The Victorian mass media loved it: here were action heroes performing deeds of derring-do thousands of miles from home, advancing the cause of civilisation, freeing slaves from bondage – and facing wilful obstruction from cynical politicians.

The popular press carried dramatic pictures of the clashes at sea under captions like ‘The cutter of HMS Daphne capturing a slave dhow off Brora’. The Penny Illustrated reported that ‘Our Jack Tars … have this year struck more than one good blow against the inhuman slavers .. .’. The Anti-Slavery Reporter denounced the obstructionist authorities under the headline ‘Britain: a participant in the slave trade’.

I have one or two minor quibbles. The chapter titles seem eccentric. The maps are awful – and this is a book that needs good maps. The author has been badly let down by the publisher in this respect.

But I recommend this book without hesitation as a brilliantly constructed and beautifully written account of a story of the Victorian Navy that has everything – fascinating characters, exotic locations, political intrigue, fast action on the seas, and a burning sense of social justice.

Neil Faulkner

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