‘Liberated Africans’

In October 1807 the last four British ships that were ever to legally transport Africans into slavery set sail across the Atlantic.1 In their holds were eleven hundred African men, women and children, chained to the decks. Some of these captives would die of dehydration, disease and general mistreatment during the journey, as, by 1807, had generations of Africans subjected to the horrors of the Middle Passage. Like the British slave ships that had gone before them, this last flotilla sailed under the protection of the Royal Navy, a sleek frigate shepherding the four slavers across the ocean. In 1808 the navy dispatched the 32-gun frigate HMS Solebay and HMS Derwent, a sloop of 18 guns, to the coast of West Africa. Their mission was not to escort British slave ships to the slave markets of the Caribbean but to intercept them at sea, arrest their captains and crews and liberate the captives. The arrival of the Solebay and the Derwent in the warm, blustery waters off the coast of Sierra Leone marked the beginning of a mission that lasted for the next sixty years. Three generations of sailors took part and seventeen thousand died of tropical diseases or in armed clashes with the increasingly ruthless slave-traders.

Britain’s anti-slavery patrols were intended to stop British slave-trading, but their mission expanded rapidly. Through a series of bilateral treaties negotiated over the next half-century, the patrols targeted the slave ships of other trading powers. At times their mission was extended into the Caribbean and during the 1850s they loitered off Brazil, intercepting slave ships at sea and burning others that were caught at anchor. In the latter half of the nineteenth century Britain’s crusade against the slave trade turned to the East, and British warships surged into the Indian Ocean, where they pursued the dhows of the Muslim slavers, who continued their ancient trade in human flesh long after the Atlantic trade was reduced to a trickle. They were not stopped until the twentieth century and even then not comprehensively.

It is one of the great questions of British history: why was it that the nation that had refined and perfected the slave trade, and become the dominant player in that global industry, turned her back on its profits, and committed herself to its suppression? That mission was fought by the crews and the commanders of British ships off tropical shores but also by British diplomats in embassies across the world and by beady-eyed civil servants writing dispatches at Whitehall desks. This deployment of Britain’s military might and her diplomatic influence to suppress slave-trading activities by other sovereign nations, which although abhorrent were legal, antagonized her friends and foes alike. It stretched international law to breaking point and on various occasions it materially damaged her relations with Spain, France, Portugal, Brazil and the United States. With limited resources and confronting determined opposition, the Preventative Squadron of the Royal Navy, also known as the West Africa Squadron, was never able to intercept anything even approaching the majority of the ships that carried on the trade in human beings. They were hampered by poorly drafted treaties riddled with legalistic loopholes, some of which created perverse incentives and had unintended, even tragic consequences, and the bureaucratic oddities of the system of legal adjudication set up to determine the status of intercepted slave ships and their crews resulted in bizarre contradictions and procedural absurdities that led to the deaths of African captives. Slave ships intercepted by the Royal Navy and then judged to have been trading legally were released to carry their human cargo to the plantations, usually in Brazil or Cuba. The complexity of the system and resistance from the nations subjected to British pressure meant few slave-traders were punished for their crimes and many who evaded justice were repeat offenders. Yet for all its failings this enormous global undertaking cost Britain both blood and treasure. It was an early example of what we today would call a ‘humanitarian intervention’ but it remains a largely forgotten chapter in the long and troubled history of Britain’s relationship with Africa and her peoples.

The Abolition Act that had finally made its way through the British Parliament in 1807 allowed for the confiscation of any British ship caught trading in slaves, and slave-traders faced fines of as much as £100 for each captive liberated. In 1811 the punishments for trading were made more draconian still. To further deter British subjects, the Slave Trade Felony Act decreed that those apprehended were henceforth to be ‘transported beyond the Seas’, as sentencing judges quaintly described exile to Australia. In 1824 the Slave Trade Consolidation Act made it illegal ‘for any person to . . . fit out, man, navigate, equip, dispatch, use, employ . . . any ship, vessel or boat’ engaged in the trading of slaves. British subjects were further banned from becoming officers or crew in foreign slave ships and British businessmen were no longer able to ‘insure or to contract for the insuring of any slaves’, or to ‘lend or advance’ money for slave-trading ventures.2 Section 9 of the Consolidation Act also increased the penalty for slave-trading to ‘death without the benefit of clergy, and loss of lands, good and chattel’. Eleven years later Britain’s lawmakers thought again and reduced the punishment back to transportation.3

Such grave penalties, combined with a series of later legal measures, meant that most British ships and traders did withdraw from the trade, but there were British merchants who remained addicted to the business that had made them wealthy, and British money still funded the slave economy of the Atlantic. A proportion of the foreigners who rushed in to fill the gap left by Britain’s departure were financed by British merchants, some of whom operated brazenly through these foreign proxies. British industrialists who specialized in manufacturing the ‘trade goods’ with which slaves were bought from Africans exported them to other Europeans who carried them to Africa. Long after the 1807 Act, guns, beads, cloth, clothes and cheap liquor made in the West Country and the Midlands were unloaded onto African beaches and stacked up alongside chained and bewildered captives. Other British manufacturers continued to supply the hardware and paraphernalia of the trade: chains, manacles, leg-irons and the more specialized contraptions used to restrain and punish slaves. In addition there was a small number of British ships that were effectively re-badged as foreign slavers and sent back to the Slave Coast, and the most defiant and reckless captains refused outright to abandon the trade and continued to lead expeditions, sailing now in foreign ships under foreign flags.

But the efforts of British merchants to circumvent the Abolition Act were dwarfed by the flood of newcomers who built vast fortunes by catering for the insatiable demand for slaves on the plantations of Brazil, Cuba and North America. None of this was unexpected. The penalties for slave-trading under the 1807 Act applied only to British citizens and British ships, and the Atlantic slave trade was so highly developed and so incredibly profitable in the early years of the nineteenth century that no mere legal sanction could bring it to an end. While British rejection of the trade did encourage some other nations to do likewise, those few unworldly idealists who had hoped that its extinction was at hand were disappointed.

The stark realities of the Atlantic world, and the basic economic and demographic facts that had initially inspired the Atlantic slave system in the sixteenth century, remained largely unchanged. Labour existed but not on the continent on which it was needed and where it could be deployed to generate maximum profits. Land in the Americas that had been violently wrenched from the hands of its indigenous population centuries earlier produced highly desirable tropical products for the markets of Europe, but those millions of acres were most profitably brought into production using labour from Africa. That labour was readily available; some of it was already enslaved. Even in 1807, there were more enslaved people in Africa than in the Americas, although the institution of slavery existed in Africa in many varying forms of differing degrees of severity and not all of them were permanent. In parts of the continent new slave-trading states were on the rise and in many societies slavery – in its domestic, agricultural and even military forms – was so normalized as to be ubiquitous and largely unquestioned. Various African leaders puzzled, after 1807, as to why the British, formerly their most enthusiastic trading partners, had become so squeamish about the trade in human flesh, a commerce that they themselves had so recently dominated.

Britain’s withdrawal from the Atlantic trade and the Royal Navy’s initial efforts to suppress slave-trading by other European powers and the United States undoubtedly meant that tens of thousands of Africans who would have been transported to the Americas remained on their home continent. That sudden change temporarily destabilized the economies of some coastal African nations. But beyond that, little changed. The African traders of the interior quickly adapted to the new reality, as did the private European traders who had built their slave ‘factories’ on the coast – these were warehouses and barracoons in which the captives were stored and readied for the Middle Passage. After 1807 all of them embraced new trading partners from Portugal, Brazil and Spain, as Britain’s former rivals expanded their fleets and increased the frequency of their expeditions. Within a year the Portuguese, with their long-established links to African kingdoms, reinforced by the existence of mixed-race, Portuguese-speaking coastal communities, declared their intention to maintain and if possible expand their trade. Spain regarded Britain’s abandonment of slaving as no reason for her to reduce or halt the supply of Africans to her South American colonies. Elsewhere Britain’s decision went largely unnoticed. Away from the coasts, in the forest belts and along the rivers of West Africa, the ancient slave trades that stretched up across the Sahara to the Mediterranean continued, as did the trade eastwards across the Indian Ocean into Arabia, the Ottoman lands and beyond.

The very first slave-trade-suppression mission, that of the Solebay and the Derwent, was a largely fruitless token gesture. The Abolition Act was passed two years after the Battle of Trafalgar. Britain was at war with Napoleonic France in a conflict that had, through its various bloody stages, already dragged on for fourteen years. While the war continued, the Admiralty was, perhaps understandably, reluctant to spare ships for suppression duties. In 1808, when HMS Solebay and HMS Derwent were ordered to Africa, the Royal Navy had 726 ships, which meant the navy had committed 0.28 per cent of its vessels to the task of suppressing the slave trade.4 Not only were the first ships dispatched to Africa few in number, they were often aged and of dubious quality. The Solebay, launched in 1785, was a decrepit veteran of twenty-two years when she arrived off the coast of Sierra Leone, and that pattern was to be continued. In 1862, after almost half a century of anti-slavery activity, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston – twice Prime Minister, three times Foreign Minister and in office for most of the period in question – complained that if the Admiralty knew of any ‘particularly old slow-going tub in the Navy she was sure to be sent to the coast of Africa to try and catch the fast sailing American clippers [of the slave-traders]’.5 The anti-slavery patrols reinforced Britain’s incredible transition from slave-trader to anti-slave-trade crusader and it demanded a significant cultural shift within the Royal Navy itself. While there had long been black sailors in British ships, the navy had also long acted as defender of the British slave trade. A number of officers were slave owners. Some brought their slaves on board as personal servants, a practice the Admiralty disapproved of. There were even officers who owned slave plantations in the Caribbean. These men and their comrades now found themselves in common cause with the pious men and women of the anti-slavery society, as Britain’s opposition to slavery transitioned from a popular movement to national policy.

The wars with France and her allies gave the navy an excuse to withhold ships from African duties, but while the conflict raged it gave those first few anti-slavery patrols an early advantage. So long as Britain was at war, British warships were free to intercept slave-trading vessels flying the flags of enemy nations, and to search the ships of neutral powers which were suspected of carrying goods destined for enemy ports. This meant that during the war years the anti-slavery ships of the Royal Navy – which were soon increased in number – boarded, searched and seized French and Spanish slave ships, as prizes. Around the same time they began to intercept and search Danish and American ships. This they justified with a neat piece of casuistry: as both nations had prohibited the slave trade, intercepting ships from those nations was an act of international solidarity, which prevented Danes and Americans from breaking their own laws.

The final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 ushered in a new era in which Britain was the only global sea power. Confident and preeminent, the Admiralty was finally willing to release more ships for the anti-slavery patrols, yet even with her enemies vanquished the navy never dispatched anything like the number of ships required to seriously take on the slave-traders. By 1819 the Admiralty had still sent only six ships, which was, at least, enough to be usefully organized into the British West Africa Squadron, which was settled in a new African base. The anchorage chosen was, perhaps inevitably, Freetown in Sierra Leone, where London’s black poor had struggled against the tropical rains thirty years earlier and where the Nova Scotians and the Maroons from Jamaica had later established a firmer toe-hold.

With the six ships, and with supplies from Ascension Island and Cape Town, the squadron was placed under the highly competent Commodore Sir George Collier. But the task facing it was formidable. Its six ships were to patrol three thousand miles of the West African coast, from the mouth of the Gambia River in the west to the Bight of Biafra in the east. At times the ships ranged north up to Senegal and as far south as Angola. In the first half of the nineteenth century most of the coastline of West Africa was poorly charted and little understood. It had few natural harbours and hundreds of miles of dangerous surf. There were the deltas and mouths of the great rivers and hundreds of small rivers and inlets. The coastlines of what are now the nations of Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon were made especially difficult to patrol due to offshore sandbanks and vast inshore labyrinths of meandering lagoons. In those still waters and narrow channels slave ships could loiter, load their cargoes and evade detection. The rivers of Calabar and Bonny in Nigeria proved particularly alluring to illicit slave-traders, as the trade progressively moved eastwards over the course of the century. Before the invention of steam-powered paddle ships, the task of suppressing the trade was further hampered by the difficulties of manoeuvring ocean-going sailing ships in the variable winds of these coastal waters. The difficulties of patrolling the inland waterways were eventually remedied by the addition to the squadron, in 1832, of HMS Pluto, a 365-ton paddle steamer. Although slower over open water than the brigs used by the slave-traders, HMS Pluto – shallow-draughted and self-propelled – crept up the rivers and inlets and caught slave ships at anchor or loading their cargo, when they were at their most vulnerable.

For much of its history the ships of the West Africa Squadron were repeatedly outpaced by slaving vessels that were faster, sleeker and increasingly better armed. The potential profits justified the investment in these state-of-the-art vessels, against which the Royal Navy was usually unwilling to dispatch comparably advanced ships. Many of the slave ships also had the advantage of being commanded by men who, through many years of activity in their appalling trade, had accumulated an intimate knowledge of the African coastline.

The suppression of the slave trade in the Atlantic Ocean was founded upon the military power of the Royal Navy but that power could only be exercised within the confines of international law. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century British diplomats and politicians set about expanding the scope and the legality of the nation’s slave-trade suppression by bilateral treaties and one-off agreements. These treaties gave the signatories the right of search over one another’s shipping. But as Britain alone had the ships and the will to patrol the slave coasts of Africa, the treaties, in effect, gave her the right to intercept and search foreign ships suspected of slave-trading. Britain also entered into a series of treaties that obliged the signatories to use the most efficient means available to suppress their own slave trades and to prevent ships sailing under the protection of their flags from engaging in the trade. By 1830 twelve suppression treaties had been agreed, and between 1831 and 1841 a further eighteen. European nations that fell into line included Spain, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, as well as the German Hanse towns. Partly due to the enormous power of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ of capital, trade and investment, other signatories included the South American states of Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay, all of which were too entangled in the web of British finance to risk offending London. What should have been the most significant treaty was formalized in 1841 between Britain, Russia, France, Prussia and Austria. The Quintuple Treaty allowed ships from all signatory nations to search merchant ships if there were ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect they were ‘engaged in the traffic of Slaves’. The treaty also declared slave-trading to be a form of piracy. Although little remembered today the treaty was one of the most ambitious diplomatic undertakings of the century, but was undermined in its final stages by French opposition.6

Similar diplomatic pressure was applied to the leaders of the states of the Islamic world, and the activities of the West Africa Squadron were mirrored by missions against the Barbary slave-traders of North Africa.7 Here London tended to tread more carefully but was able to use the promise of good relationships with the British Empire as an inducement for formal denouncements of slave-trading. In 1847 the Ottoman Sultan acquiesced to British demands to suppress the long-established slave-trade routes of the Persian Gulf, and in the same year the slave market of Istanbul was quietly closed down, which meant that for a few years it was possible to publicly and legally purchase slaves in Washington DC but not in the Ottoman capital.8

The mission’s great champion, and at times its defender, was Henry Temple, Lord Palmerston. His support for abolition and anti-slavery is often obscured by the far more vivid historical memory of his ruthless colonial policies, his penchant for gunboat diplomacy and his role in the Opium Wars, but he was the driving political force behind the sustained mission to suppress the slave trade. He repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to cajole and where necessary bully other states and worked energetically to keep the suppression policy in the minds and in the dispatches of the small staff who ran the mid-Victorian Foreign Office. In an 1844 speech to the House of Commons, he reminded his fellow members why he had committed the nation to the task, even in the face of constant griping and opposition. ‘If all crimes which the human race has committed from creation down to the present day, were added together in one vast aggregate,’ he told the House, ‘they would scarcely equal the amount of guilt which has been incurred by mankind in connection with this diabolical slave trade’.9

The legality of the searches and seizures of foreign slave ships by the West Africa Squadron was dependent upon the terms of each individual treaty, and the exact rights and powers of British commanders in relation to the ships they pursued were often in doubt, until the moment the ship was boarded. The commanders were well aware that each action risked sparking a diplomatic incident that might damage Britain’s international relations as well as their own career prospects. The complexity of the network of treaties under which the squadron operated and the dangers of exceeding the authority they granted, is evident in the Instructions for the Guidance of Her Majesty’s Naval Officers Employed in the Suppression of the Slave Trade, an official document of 684 pages issued by the Admiralty in 1844. By that point the squadron had expanded to twenty-one ships and the number of interceptions had increased significantly. In order to determine whether they were acting within their rights, all captains and senior officers were instructed to make themselves ‘thoroughly conversant with the Treaties, Conventions, and Laws, as well as with all the Instructions given to you relative to the Slave Trade’10 and to ensure that junior officers under their command had access to copies of the treaties.

As British diplomats were constantly engaged in negotiating new treaties and seeking to extend, amend or ratify existing ones, commanders off the coast of Africa struggled to keep up to date. Even if a captain mastered the international law upon which his authority rested there was still some degree of interpretation. The latitude for error, and consequently the potential for diplomatic incident, was vast, especially as one trick of slave-traders was to operate under false flags. A favourite flag was that of the United States, with which Britain struggled to agree a lasting, enforceable and mutually acceptable anti-slave-trading treaty. Some slave ships were caught travelling with multiple flags ready to be hoisted in the hope that they would ward off the attentions of the Royal Navy cruisers. This disguise was completed by false documentation that pretended to demonstrate that the ship belonged to a nation with which Britain had no anti-slavery treaty.

Lieutenant Fitzgerald, the commander of HMS Buzzard of the squadron, was one of the speakers at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. He told the delegates about a recent incident in which the captain of an intercepted ship that was clearly equipped for slave-trading attempted to conceal her identity in order to avoid being sent to the Mixed Commission Court, which adjudicated over seized ships of other nations. In this case the court was in New York, where, in theory at least, he might have faced the death penalty. Fitzgerald explained that, ‘In January last, I arrived off a port of the African coast in the ship I commanded, about two o’clock in the morning. I sent my boats to . . . the American brig [the] Eagle . . . I went on board, . . . and stated that I should send an increased force to convey her to America. The Captain then said that it was in vain to hold out longer; that she was a Spanish vessel; that he was an American; and that he had hoped to prevent her detention by British cruizers, by displaying the American flag . . . We took possession of the vessel, and the American Captain threatened to complain to his government, alleging that the capture of the vessel would lead to a war between the two countries’.11

False papers and false colours were two among an arsenal of ruses and evasions employed by the slave-traders. From the boom in slave-trading in the 1820s until its slow decline in the 1850s and 1860s deadly games of cat and mouse were played off the coast of Africa, as both sides sought to refine their tactics and find new ways to achieve their ends. Slave ships learnt to loiter in the blockaded rivers and lagoons around the Bights of Benin and Biafra until the ships of the West Africa Squadron were forced to return to Freetown for supplies; only then would they make for the open sea. Slave captains would wait for moonless nights, then race to the river mouths and silently slip past the British patrols in the inky darkness.

The consistently high prices paid for slaves, especially in Brazil and Cuba, encouraged slavers to invest in what amounted to a technological arms race, and slave ships became faster, sleeker and better gunned. Slave-ship captains also took greater risks when confronted. With so much at stake, slave captains fought with increasingly grim determination, willing to accept casualties among their own crews and prepared to inflict them on the British. Deaths among the helpless captives on the slave decks were regarded as collateral damage, the mere loss of valuable stock.

In the mid-1850s the British explorer William Baikie, on an expedition across parts of what is today Nigeria, saw this game of cat and mouse at close quarters and understood the motivations behind it. In the conclusion to his book describing his journey he warned that while the squadron was ‘a very valuable agent’, from what he had seen, ‘its influence is only temporary and local. As long as we closely blockade the known slaving-ports, the traffic will be for the time knocked up in them; but as soon as the ships are withdrawn, slavers again appear . . . for such a lucrative trade other outlets are soon formed.’12 Having witnessed the international slave trade at its most determined, Baikie believed that the profits were so high that the only way it could be suppressed would be for Britain to declare slave-traders to be pirates and therefore liable to more draconian punishments and subject to more vigorous military actions. Frederick Forbes, a highly successful commander with the West Africa Squadron, concluded that ‘So long as there is a demand there will be slavers.’13

Beyond the difficulties of locating and intercepting the slave ships, the greatest limitation to the activities of the West Africa Squadron was its terms of engagement. The bilateral treaties under which it operated stipulated the ships could only be seized if they were caught, so to speak, red-handed, with slaves on board. This meant that intercepted ships loaded with chains, manacles and the general, grotesque paraphernalia of the trade, as well as ships that had been clearly fitted out to carry slaves, were immune, even though their intentions were obvious to all. This inspired a brutal logic. When West Africa Squadron ships were sighted the captives were landed on the nearest shore, but if the slavers were pursued the commanders threw the slaves overboard. If they were searched their slave decks would be empty, leaving the navy with no legal cause to arrest the crew or confiscate the ship, which was free to seek a new cargo. It was a calculation similar to that made by the crew of the Zong in 1781 when they threw 133 slaves overboard in the hope of claiming the insurance upon their loss. William Baikie believed ‘there is no captain who has carried slaves, who has not been, either directly or indirectly, guilty of murder’.14

To eliminate this perverse incentive, Equipment Clauses began to be written into the treaties, allowing the West Africa Squadron to seize vessels fitted out for the trade even if there were no slaves on board. They were clearly drafted by men who knew their business and who had listened to the accounts of officers with direct experience of the tactics of the slave-traders. Material that rendered a ship liable for seizure included not just chains and ‘handcuffs’ but also ‘extraordinary’ quantities of rice, manioc or cassava, ‘or any other article of food beyond the probable wants of the crew’. Modifications to a ship were also regarded as evidence of the intent to traffic slaves. These included the presence on board of ‘a boiler, or other cooking apparatus, of an unusual size’, ‘divisions, or bulkheads, in the hold or on deck, in greater number than are necessary for vessels engaged in lawful trade’ or additional planks that might be ‘laid down as a second or slave deck’.15 Slave ships seized by the squadron were known under maritime law as ‘prizes’, and they were sailed to the West Africa Squadron’s base at Freetown and anchored in one of the many bays that surrounded the settlement. In 1819 the British established a Vice Admiralty Court there to try British subjects caught trading in slaves. Also in Freetown was the Mixed Commission Court, staffed by a British magistrate, a commissary judge and a commissioner of arbitration from each of the nations with which Britain had signed an anti-slavery treaty. There were at various times Anglo-Spanish, Anglo-Portuguese, Anglo-Brazilian and Anglo-Dutch judges in Freetown, the lists of judges and the nations they represented constantly changing as treaties were signed and lapsed. To administer what had become a global system of slave-trade suppression there were also Vice Admiralty Courts at St Helena and the Cape of Good Hope, and Mixed Commission Courts in Cape Town, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Paramaribo in Suriname and Kingston in Jamaica. Slave ships of no known nationality, described as being ‘without colours or papers’, were handed over to the Vice Admiralty Court in Freetown, but as in the case of the American brig Eagle, ships were occasionally sailed across the Atlantic, with the enslaved people still on board, to be legally confiscated by the appropriate court. Sierra Leone’s deserved reputation for deadly tropical diseases meant that the list of lawyers and judges willing to consider an appointment to the Freetown courts was always short, and lack of qualified officials meant that its early years were marred by corruption and administrative chaos. When it was first established, it had to wait for two years for the appointed judge, Robert Thorpe from Canada, to arrive. Thorpe, who was a committed believer in abolition, went some way to improving the situation.

The court confiscated slave ships and slave-trading equipment and formally freed the captives, but were largely unable to impose punishments upon the crews or owners of foreign slave ships, as foreign powers resisted giving Britain these rights. They were technically subject to criminal charges by their own governments but this was rarely enforced. Consequently the inns and bars of Freetown were full of the crews of slave ships that had been confiscated but who evaded any personal punishment, and they were open to offers from slave-traders and captains who used Freetown almost as a recruiting office for future expeditions. The Florentine slave-trader Theophilus Conneau noted that Freetown abounded with ‘prisoners from prizes [ships] and men of all nations’, gloating that he was free to gather together crews for slave-trading expeditions from the bars and the back streets.16 The authorities and governors of Freetown were well aware of the actions and attitudes of men like Conneau, but as the only means of closing this loophole was to renegotiate the bilateral treaties, they were powerless to intervene.

Although largely forgotten today, Britain’s mission to suppress the slave trade was celebrated at the time. Ships that were particularly successful interceptors became momentarily famous, along with their captains. A handful, most notably the Black Joke, enjoyed longer fame. She gained her formidable reputation in early 1829 after a thirty-one-hour, night-and-day pursuit of the Spanish slave ship the Almirante. The Black Joke, a sleek Baltimore-built clipper, was a former slave ship. Under the flag of Brazil and the name Henriqueta, she transported over three thousand Africans to the New World plantations, but ran out of luck one day in 1827 when she was intercepted by HMS Sybille. Caught with five hundred and sixty-nine captives on board there was no need to resort to the Equipment Clauses and the Henriqueta was claimed as a prize, sold at auction in Freetown and purchased by the navy. Poacher was turned gamekeeper and she became the fastest ship in the squadron. In her action with the AlmiranteBlack Joke pounded the larger, more powerfully armed ship into submission, killing fifteen members of the crew and liberating 466 Africans from the hellish conditions of her fetid slave decks. That epic pursuit and victory against the odds, combined with the subsequent capture of three further slave ships and the liberation of over a thousand more Africans, made the Black Joke a legend, the subject of excited newspaper reports and admiring paintings. The Black Joke was as famous in Freetown as in London. In 1832 it was discovered that some of her timbers were rotten and the Admiralty ordered that she be destroyed. She was burnt in Freetown on 3 May. A British writer who visited the city the following year claimed that, ‘So efficient were her services, that many a negro who had been liberated by her is said to have wept on beholding the conflagration’. He claimed that there were ‘feasts and rejoicings amongst the slave-merchants’ of West Africa as they celebrated the ‘destruction of their scourge.’17

In the cavernous storage facility in which the National Maritime Museum keeps its vast collection of naval art – one of the largest in Britain – are numerous paintings of the ships of the British West Africa Squadron. Contemporary artists tended to depict the squadron’s ships in action rather than at anchor. They are shown, heroically pursuing or confronting the slave ships. William John Huggins’ painting The Capture of the Slaver ‘Formidable’ by HMS Buzzard, 17 December 1834 is one of the more dramatic.18 It records the moment the Spanish slaver El Formidablesurrendered to the British brigantine in the Bight of Benin. The chase lasted seven hours and the engagement between the two ships a further forty-five minutes. The Buzzard, which was at a considerable disadvantage with only ten guns to the eighteen of the Formidable, is largely concealed in the painting behind the smoke of her own gunfire. The Spanish ship lost seven of her crew and she is shown with her sails ripped by British shots. The painting contains other details that the informed viewer could pick out, such as the netting that festoons the slave ship’s deck, which was deployed to prevent escape attempts by the enslaved. The Formidable is foregrounded in the painting, emphasizing the huge ‘disparity of force’ that existed between the two vessels, a disadvantage that, it implies, was overcome by British bravery. Huggins’ painting was the product of a morally and militarily confident nation. Both paintings and press reports tended to pander to a British public that, during the long wars with France, had grown used to regular accounts of military engagements and now, in an age of relative peace, still hankered for tales of British military prowess. Viewers of British naval art and the readers of the increasingly popular newspapers and periodicals could feel doubly proud of these feats of arms that demonstrated the nation’s power and her moral rectitude. What paintings of the West Africa Squadron tended to skirt over were the victims of the slave trade themselves.19 There were seven hundred and seven Africans on board El Formidable, three hundred and seven of whom had ‘perished from disease and misery’20 by the time she had sailed to Freetown. Similarly absent from popular accounts and paintings of the squadron is the role that Africans played in the crews of the slavery suppression vessels. A number of ships, including the Black Joke, had sailors from the Kru people of Liberia, the state which neighbours Sierra Leone. The Kru, who traditionally worked as fishermen, possessed detailed knowledge of the West African coastline, and as pilots and regular seamen, they assisted the British commanders, who often struggled to compete with the more experienced slave-traders. Some Kru, along with Bassa peoples from Liberia, migrated over the border and settled in and around Freetown and elsewhere. There is a district of modern Freetown still known as Kru Bay, where the Kru immigrants settled in the nineteenth century. Today Kru Bay has sadly degenerated into one of the city’s worst and the most polluted slums, the waters covered in a shifting tide of plastic bottles and sewage, the shoreline patrolled by herds of large black pigs. Later in the nineteenth century Kru communities slowly emerged in other British ports including Liverpool and London.21

With some justification, the efforts of the British West Africa Squadron and Britain’s wider commitment to the suppression of the international slave trade have been criticized for being half-hearted or tokenistic. Critics at the time believed the task of halting the Atlantic trade was too vast an undertaking even for Britain, and went against her national interests, while more recently historians have pointed out how the mission to end slavery dovetailed with suspicious ease into British colonial expansion in Africa, allowing British power and trade to penetrate into the region in the second half of the nineteenth century. There is little doubt that the West Africa Squadron was never given the resources to comprehensively confront the slave-traders. From the start the ships were too few, and many of those later dispatched to increase its strength were too old and too slow to perform their task effectively. Lord Palmerston complained that too many of the squadron’s ships were ‘old tubs’ and it is significant that the Black Joke, most successful and celebrated ship of the squadron, was a converted slaver and not dispatched from Britain by the Admiralty.22 Yet Britain’s crusade was supported by successive British governments of different political stripes, all of which found funds for it and defended it from its detractors. The mission was also given considerable bureaucratic backing and diplomatic assistance, and in 1841, a dedicated Slave Trade Department was created within the Foreign Office. This department had its own offices and staff, who administered the jumble of treaties, kept track of the global slave-trading networks,23 and drafted diplomatic agreements between Britain and the states whose trades it was seeking to suppress.24 British consuls and ambassadors monitored the movement of shipping, gathering intelligence and even paying bribes for information in support of the anti-slavery cause.25 They fed their dispatches and reports into the Foreign Office, which collated a detailed global picture of the trade. All this activity was a significant item of national expenditure. The navy spent around a twentieth of its budget to man and provision the West Africa Squadron,26 while over a million pounds was paid out in prize money to the officers and crews between 1807 and 1846.27 The expense was a constant complaint for those opposed to the mission. In 1845 the Liberal MP William Hutt claimed that the cost to the nation of almost four decades of anti slave trade patrolling had reached a figure double the £20 million the government had paid to forty-six thousand British slave owners who had claimed compensation eleven years earlier.28 Alongside the expense of manning and supplying the ships of the squadron there was also the not inconsiderable cost of administering and developing the colony of Sierra Leone. Expenditure there irked opponents, especially when it increased under Charles McCarthy, the most energetic and far-sighted of the colony’s governors, who began a series of infrastructure projects in the 1820s, the remnants of which are scattered across the centre of modern Freetown.

Opponents and critics also suggested that Britain’s attempts to quell the international trade had given rise to a number of unintended and unfortunate consequences, some of which were exacerbating rather than alleviating the suffering of Africans. They suggested that the threat of being caught by British cruisers encouraged slave-traders to transport their captives in conditions even more inhumane and injurious to health than those they might be persuaded to adopt if the trade were legal and regulated, and called for Britain to use her military power to police and regulate the international trade. Another unintended effect was the increase in the price of slaves in the Americas, which of course, in turn, increased the potential profits of slave-trading and encouraged more adventurers to enter into the trade. One of the most bizarre and counterproductive aspects of the system related to the slave ships at Freetown. The treaties demanded that impounded ships be auctioned off – their destruction was explicitly prohibited under some treaties. While this ensured the proceeds were divided between the two relevant states, the ships were sold to the highest bidder, and ships designed for slave-trading or adapted and fitted out for it inevitably attracted foreign slave-traders and their agents. Notorious slave-traders arranged for prize ships to be purchased in Freetown then redeployed on slave-trading expeditions under false flags and papers. The Spanish slave-trader Pedro Blanco, who was based at the Lomboko slave factory at the mouth of the Gallinas River in southern Sierra Leone, openly maintained an agent in Freetown who bought prize ships and transported them to his employer.29 Similar purchases were made by the Florentine slave-trader Theophilus Conneau, who left us a detailed account of his dismal career. In A Slaver’s Log Book: Or 20 Years’ Residence in Africa, he bragged that ‘At Sierra Leone in 1829, prize vessels were publicly sold and fitted out with very little trouble for the coast of Africa. Availing myself of the nonchalance of the Government officer, I fitted my schooner in perfect order to take a cargo of slaves immediately on my leaving port. My crew consisted of prisoners from prizes and men of all nations’.30 Auctioning off seized slave ships eventually stopped: breaking-up clauses were inserted into the treaties and from the mid-1830s onwards they were taken to pieces or burnt. The site, on the northern edge of the Freetown peninsula, is still known as Destruction Bay. Lined with grim favelas, its beach is constantly lined with fishing boats that head out to their fishing grounds over the watery graveyard of the slave fleets of Brazil, Spain and Portugal. Another criticism was that the bounty paid to the captains, officers and crews allowed men to profit from what was generally portrayed, in Britain, as a purely moral and selfless crusade. The payment of bounties was a long naval tradition; as enshrined within the Act of 1807 it meant that money was paid for every captive liberated from a slave ship; the going rates were £40 for a man, £30 for a woman and £10 for a child under fourteen. There were changes to these rates over the years but the financial incentive remained part of the mission to the end, although a slow and opaque bureaucracy that siphoned much of the money off to various intermediaries meant that crews often received little of what was due to them on paper. A further attraction to service in the squadron was the potential for career advancement and there were men who regarded a commission to West Africa as a means of improving their prospects. The lure of prize money and opportunities to rise through the ranks that service in the West Africa Squadron offered were attractions that had to be weighed against a number of powerful disincentives. Service in the slavery suppression ships carried serious risks of disease and death. Crews were ravaged by malaria and yellow fever, which came on top of the long list of maladies to which nineteenth-century sailors were exposed whatever the nature of their duties and wherever they were deployed. Over its sixty-year history more than seventeen thousand British seamen died while serving in the West Africa Squadron, most from disease. Yet the real victims of this practice were of course the enslaved Africans. We know how British crews were expected to behave towards the captives they found on board slave ships. The 1844 Instructions for the Guidance of Her Majesty’s Naval Officers Employed in the Suppression of the Slave Trade stipulated that ‘Every effort’ was to be made ‘to alleviate their sufferings and improve their condition’. This was to be achieved in the immediate term ‘by a careful attention to cleanliness and ventilation, by separating the sickly from those who are in good health, by encouraging the Slaves to feel confidence in Her Majesty’s Officers and men, and promoting amongst them cheerfulness and exercise.’31 The gulf between these earnest instructions and what sometimes occurred is demonstrated in the case of the Brazilian schooner the Umbelina. She was intercepted by HMS Sybille in mid-January 1829, two days out of Lagos with 377 slaves on board. A British officer from the Sybille was appointed prize-master, and he and a crew were sent on board the slaver to sail her to Freetown. But it was not until 13 March, two months later, that the Umbelina arrived in Sierra Leone, by which time, as the relevant Parliamentary papers tell us, ‘194 of the unfortunate creatures’ she had been attempting to liberate had perished. The death toll among the captives was so shocking that the prize-master issued an affidavit, ‘accounting for the immense number of deaths that had occurred on the passage up; he deposed, that those deaths did not ensue through the neglect of himself, or any of his crew’.32 As the centre of slave-trading activity moved further to the east towards the Bights of Benin and Biafra there were calls for the West Africa Squadron to abandon its base at Freetown and relocate on the island of Fernando Po. When that location proved to be every bit as malarial and sickly as Sierra Leone, the plans were abandoned.

Captives who survived their journey to Freetown were kept on board the prize ships until the courts adjudicated on their legality or illegality. As ship’s captains and the agents of the slave-traders were prone to string proceedings out and argue for time, conditions worsened and death tolls increased. It was for this reason that the sufferings of the victims of the Brazilian schooner Umbelina did not end in March 1830, when the ship was anchored in Freetown harbour. They were kept on board awaiting the adjudication of the Mixed Commission Court, which took until 13 May to determine her ‘good and lawful prize to Great Britain and Brazil, and as taken in the illicit traffick in slaves’. During those two months twenty of her captives died, and only after the verdict had been read out were the remaining 163 finally brought ashore.33 In May 1833 a Spanish ship, La Pantica, which had sailed from Havana and been intercepted off the coast of what is now Nigeria, was brought into Freetown. As the ship ‘glanced up the estuary’, she was spotted by lookouts on the hills above the city and preparations for her arrival made. The English writer F. Harrison Rankin was permitted to go on board. He described the scene he encountered in his African memoir.

We easily leaped on board, as she lay low in the water. The first hasty glance around caused a sudden sickness and faintness, followed by an indignation more intense than discreet. Before us, lying in a heap, huddled together at the foot of the foremast, on the bare and filthy deck, lay several human beings in the last stage of emaciation — dying. The ship fore and aft was thronged with men, women, and children, all entirely naked, and disgusting with disease. The stench was nearly insupportable, cleanliness being impossible. I stepped to the hatchway; it was secured by iron bars and cross bars, and pressed against them were the heads of slaves below. It appeared that the crowd on deck formed one-third only of the cargo, two-thirds being stowed in a sitting posture below between-decks; the men forward, the women aft. Two hundred and seventy-four were at this moment in the little schooner. When captured, three hundred and fifteen had been found on board; forty had died during the voyage from the Old Calabar, where she had been captured by [the Royal Navy ship] H. M. Fair Rosamond, and one had drowned himself on arrival . . . It was not, however, until the second visit, on the following day, that the misery which reigns in a slave-ship was fully understood. The rainy season had commenced, and during the night rain had poured heavily down. Nearly a hundred slaves had been exposed to the weather on deck, and amongst them the heap of dying skeletons at the fore-mast. After making my way through the clustered mass of women on the quarter-deck, I discovered the slave-captain, who had also been part-owner, comfortably asleep in his cot, undisturbed by the horrors around him.34

On his second visit to the captured ship the author observed how, even while they were at anchor in harbour at Freetown, the sufferings of the enslaved did not come to an end. He described how, having been registered on board the La Pantica, the slaves were forced back into the slave deck, which was only twenty-two inches from floor to ceiling.

The captives were now counted; their numbers, sex, and age written down, for the information of the Court of Mixed Commission. The task was repulsive. As the hold had been divided for the separation of the men and the women, those on deck were first counted; they were then driven forward, crowded as much as possible, and the women were drawn up through the small hatchway from their hot, dark confinement. A black boatswain seized them one by one, dragging them before us for a moment, when the proper officer in a glance decided the age, whether above or under fourteen; and they were instantly swung again by the arm into their loathsome cell, where another negro boatswain, with a whip or stick, forced them to resume the bent and painful attitude necessary for the storage of so large a number. The unfortunate women and girls, in general, submitted with quiet resignation . . . A month had made their condition familiar to them. One or two were less philosophical, or suffered more acutely than the rest. Their shrieks rose faintly from the hidden prison, as violent compulsion alone squeezed them into their nook against the curve of the ship’s side . . . The agony of the position of the crouching slaves maybe imagined, especially that of the men, whose heads and necks are bent down by the boarding above them. Once so fixed, relief by motion or change of posture is unattainable. The body frequently stiffens into a permanent curve; and in the streets of Freetown I have seen liberated slaves in every conceivable state of distortion . . . Many can never resume the upright posture.35

The most horrific account of the failure of the squadron to protect the lives of the Africans in its care comes from the Reverend Pascoe Hill, who was the chaplain on board HMS Cleopatra. In 1834 the Cleopatra captured a Spanish slave ship and Hill was witness to an incident that is shocking even by the bleak standards of the Atlantic slave trade. His description of what took place, which he published under the title Fifty Days on Board a Slave-Vessel in the Mozambique Channel, tells of how the four hundred and forty-seven captives liberated from the Spanish ship were brought out on deck to regain their strength. The suggestion that a hundred of them should be transferred to the Cleopatra, in order to reduce the overcrowding, was rejected as some of the enslaved were thought to have smallpox, but later, when the British sailors ‘having to shorten sail suddenly . . . found the poor helpless creatures lying about the deck an obstruction to getting at the ropes and doing what was required’, the calamitous decision was made ‘to send them all below’, into a slave hold that was just twelve yards in length and seven in breadth, and only three and a half feet high. The results were horrific yet predictable.

Being thrust back, and striving the more to get out, the after-hatch was forced down on them. Over the other hatchway, in the forepart of the vessel, a wooden grating was fastened. To this, the sole inlet for the air, the suffocating heat of the hold, and, perhaps, panic from the strangeness of their situation, made them press; and thus great part of the space below was rendered useless. They crowded to the grating, and, clinging to it for air, completely barred its entrance. They strove to force their way through apertures, in length fourteen inches, and barely six inches in breadth, and, in some instances, succeeded. The cries, the heat, – I may say, without exaggeration, ‘the smoke of their torment,’ – which ascended, can be compared to nothing earthly. One of the Spaniards gave warning that the consequence would be ‘many deaths.’36

The following day, Holy Thursday, the slave decks were opened.

The Spaniard’s prediction of last night, this morning was fearfully verified. Fifty-four crushed and mangled corpses lifted up from the slave-deck have been brought to the gang-way and thrown overboard. Some were emaciated from disease; many, bruised and bloody . . . some were found strangled, their hands still grasping each other’s throats, and tongues protruding from their mouths. The bowels of one were crushed out. They had been trampled to death for the most part, the weaker under the feet of the stronger, in the madness and torment of suffocation from crowd and heat. It was a horrid sight, as they passed one by one, – the stiff distorted limbs smeared with blood and filth, – to be cast into the sea. Some, still quivering, were laid on the deck to die; salt water thrown on them to revive them, and a little fresh water poured into their mouths.37

The high rates of death among the supposedly liberated slaves shocked the anti-slavery lobby in Britain and accounts like that of the Reverend Pascoe Hill were published in magazines and discussed at public meetings. To opponents of the West Africa Squadron it was the high mortality rates among British sailors rather than African captives that drew their ire. The high death rates of sailors in the squadron and the high costs of treating many who were sent for hospitalization in the healthier Royal Navy bases of St Helena and Ascension Island were seized upon by those who argued that the mission was too dangerous and expensive and who called for the withdrawal of the squadron and the abandonment of the mission.

Despite the dangers and despite disasters like the deaths on board the Umbelina there were officers and men of the squadron who were willing to take risks and endure hardships as they were personally committed to their nation’s crusade against the slave trade. Some were abolitionists by conviction. A few had campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade or were the sons of notable abolitionists. Captain Edward Columbine, who in 1809 became Governor of Sierra Leone, was a personal friend of William Wilberforce. Captain Joseph Denman of HMS Wanderer, who commanded the northern division of the squadron between 1839 and 1841, was the son of the abolitionist Chief Justice Lord Denman and a diligent and tireless pursuer of slave ships. In 1840 Denman took one of the most decisive and controversial actions in the entire history of the squadron. He was asked by the Governor of Sierra Leone to effect the rescue of Fry Norman, a Freetown washerwoman who, along with her baby, had been seized and taken to a cluster of islands in the Gallinas River. This region, south of Freetown on the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, was a favoured point of departure for slave ships and it was presumed that mother and child, both British citizens, were at risk of being transported into slavery. Denman arrived at the Gallinas and found Spanish slavers in possession of a large number of captives. He freed ninety of them, located Fry Norman and her child, and then over the next three days destroyed the Spanish slave stockades. Denman and his men then liberated hundreds of other captives and drove away the slave-traders. Exceeding his orders and acting extra-legally he also persuaded the local king, under the threat of military force, to sign a treaty denouncing the slave trade. Denman returned to Freetown with eight hundred and forty-one liberated Africans. He was soon after promoted, and congratulated by Lord Palmerston. However the Spanish slave-traders sued him for damages in the Court of the Exchequer. The case rumbled on for eight years. Eventually Denman was acquitted and all claims for damages brought by the slave-traders of the Gallinas were rejected.38

The greatest criticism of Britain’s crusade against the Atlantic slave trade has to be that the vast majority of slave ships were not intercepted. When measured in raw statistical terms, the anti-slavery squadron was a failure. It has been estimated that around one in five of the approximately 7,750 slave ships that were engaged in the Atlantic trade between 1808 and 1867 were condemned by the courts; 85 per cent of those interceptions were the work of the Royal Navy.39 In all, around a hundred and sixty thousand African captives were liberated. For those thousands of men, women and children, people whose shackles were broken off and who were guided out of the gloom of the slave decks and landed on King Jimmy’s Wharf in Freetown, their personal liberation was miraculous. But they represented only around 6 per cent of the approximately 2.7 million Africans who were captured and put on slave ships bound for the Americas in the three decades after 1836.40 In its first decades of operation not only did the squadron fail to have a significant impact on the scale of the Atlantic trade, it watched impotently as the trade increased markedly. By the 1820s it reached levels of intensity beyond even those of the 1780s, when the British trade was at its apex. Those statistics can be looked at another way. The frenetic intensity of early-nineteenth-century slave-trading, and the surging demand for enslaved Africans in Cuba and Brazil, could be read as further proof of how remarkable Britain’s decision to abolish the slave trade in 1807 was. The historian of slavery Seymour Drescher has described British abolition as an act of ‘econocide’, a policy that ran counter to British economic interests. However, the decision to abandon the trade somewhere near the apex of its profitability made the task of suppression almost impossible in the 1820s and 1830s, as ruthless new players joined the trade. There were hopes that the coming of peace in 1815 would free ships for service off the African coast, but peace also meant that thousands of mariners who had served on warships and merchantmen during the long wars were suddenly diverted into the slave trade.

Despite its evident inability to turn the tide against the slave-traders, there is evidence to suggest that the efforts of the West Africa Squadron acted as a deterrent, reducing the numbers of ships and captains who were tempted to embark upon slave-trading expeditions and reducing the numbers of Africans carried into bondage.41 Britain’s slave-trade-suppression policy was at its most effective in the 1840s and 1850s, and was at its most impressive when confronting the trades of the states that most determinedly resisted British diplomatic and military pressures. In the 1830s Portugal was the most recalcitrant power, in part because of her own political chaos and the inability of weak governments in Lisbon to stand up to their own slave-traders. By the middle of the nineteenth century it was Brazil that had established herself as the greatest obstacle to ending the Atlantic trade, and it was to her harbours that the majority of the captives shipped from Africa were dispatched. In 1845, after failing repeatedly to secure a long-term and meaningful anti-slave-trading treaty with Brazil, an Act of Parliament unilaterally authorized British ships to intercept and search Brazilian ships on the high seas. This tactic provided the anti-slave-trading ships of the Royal Navy with powers that were normally exercised only against nations with which Britain was at war. Between 1846 and 1850 the majority of ships the squadron targeted were Brazilian or bound for Brazil. In 1850 Britain engaged in what amounted to a blockade of Brazil’s slave ports. That year the West Africa Squadron, under Admiral Sir Barrington Reynolds, launched an attack on the Brazilian port Macaé, to the north of Rio de Janeiro. There they caught four Brazilian slavers at anchor. Two they burned, one was scuttled by her own crew and the fourth was sent back to Africa under escort to face the Mixed Commission Court. This abandonment of diplomatic persuasion in favour of military force represented a flagrant violation of international law and Brazilian sovereignty. But by the end of the 1850s this aggressive policy had paid off and Brazil’s slave trade had been reduced to a trickle.

If the West Africa Squadron was a humanitarian intervention then Freetown in those decades became what today we would call a reception centre for the refugees of the Atlantic slave trade. The city and the peninsula behind it were transformed. Britain’s mission to confront and stifle the Atlantic trade added new demographic strata onto the existing layers of settlement and, in doing so, largely created the unique arrangement of communities, ethnicities, faiths and languages that to some extent characterizes the modern city. The way was cleared for these new influxes in 1807. That year the Sierra Leone Company, having incurred mounting losses, handed its interest in the colony over to the government and Sierra Leone became a Crown Colony, still ruled from London but by civil servants rather than company directors. This transition, as the historian Robin Law has noted, marked the start of Britain’s colonial empire in tropical Africa. Between1808 and the 1860s around ninety thousand Africans from the intercepted slave ships were freed from slavery by the courts in Freetown.42 They were known as the Liberated Africans or the ‘Recaptives’ – as they had been captured by slave-traders and then recaptured by the navy. They were concentrated in Sierra Leone as it was there that the squadron was based and there that the Mixed Commission and Vice Admiralty Courts sat. Most of the Recaptives were settled in and around Freetown because it had been decided in London that attempting to return them to their home regions across West and even Central Africa would be impossible, and would place newly liberated peoples at renewed risk of recapture and re-enslavement as their homelands remained within reach of the inland slave-traders and their business partners on the rivers and at the coast. The reception of the Recaptives in Freetown and their treatment by the British authorities varied somewhat from year to year and through the various stages during which the West Africa Squadron and the courts were operative, but in general Africans, newly liberated from the slave ships, first placed their feet back on African soil at King Jimmy’s Wharf, named after the king who had destroyed Granville Sharp’s Province of Freedom in 1789. The wharf was close to where the Nova Scotian settlers had established themselves in the 1790s and it is believed to have been near where the first Portuguese slave-traders had laid anchor centuries earlier. From the waterfront they were brought to a special compound known as the King’s Yard. One of the two original gateways that led into the King’s Yard has survived the passing of two centuries. It is made from a heavy local stone, which can be seen peeking out from beneath several coats of white and grey paint that have blistered and flaked away under the glare of the West African sun. Above the arched gateway is a small limestone slab on which is written an inscription dating from 1817: ‘Royal Asylum and Hospital for Africans rescued from slavery by British Valour and Philanthropy Erected AD MDCCCXVII – H.E. Lt. Col. McCarthy’. This modest marker belies the significance of the King’s Yard in African history. During the decades of the West Africa Squadron, the King’s Yard was where the liberated Africans were assembled, counted and medically assessed. The sick were admitted to the rudimentary hospital that used to stand on part of the site. The connection between that portion of Freetown and medicine has been retained; there are still a number of medical centres clustered around the site and within what was the King’s Yard is an eye hospital.

We have a first-hand account of the workings of the West Africa Squadron and the King’s Yard from F. Harrison Rankin, who visited Freetown in the mid-1830s. He described his experiences and his observations in his book, The White Man’s Grave: A Visit to Sierra Leone. Although Rankin’s account repeatedly betrays his own racial thinking, he was an important witness to the processes by which the majority of the liberated Africans were – despite enormous logistical difficulties and despite numerous ethical lapses – registered, processed and set on the road to becoming free and independent settlers in the Freetown colony. Rankin described the King’s Yard as a ‘large species of prison, consisting of the central house, within a square yard, surrounded by open sheds; the whole encompassed by high walls, and secured by well-guarded gates’.43 His most powerful account was written in the summer of 1833 when the Spanish slave ship La Pantica was brought into Freetown harbour. The ship sailed from Havana and was intercepted by the Royal Navy with 317 slaves on board off the Old Calabar River, in modern Nigeria. When the ship was transported to Freetown the case was brought before a British and a Spanish judge of the Mixed Commission Court and La Pantica was quickly adjudicated as having been engaged in ‘illicit slave trading’.44 Rankin was there when the 270 slaves who had survived the journey from Calabar to Freetown were landed.

Fifty were conveyed in each canoe; one expired during the transit, and another, a few minutes after landing, died before my eyes . . . The men and children were first brought into the Liberated Yard; and, being ranged in a line, a piece of cotton was given each. Several had no idea of the purpose for which it was intended. Few of the children seemed to approve of the new uncomfortable fashion. Decency had suggested the distribution of the scanty checked chemises to the women, previous to their landing. When clothed, and again counted, the whole were marched across the street, from the Liberated Yard to the King’s Yard, to await their final distribution as soldiers, wives, apprentices, and country gentlemen . . .

The young children soon recovered from their sufferings, and their elastic spirits seemed little injured. The men next rallied; but several died in the shed devoted to the most sickly, chiefly from dysentery: they were wrapped in a coarse grass mat, carried away, and buried without ceremony. Of the women many were dispatched to the hospital at Kissey, victims to raging fever; others had become insane. I was informed that insanity is the frequent fate of the women captives . . . The women sustain their bodily sufferings with more silent fortitude than the men, and seldom destroy themselves; but they brood more over their misfortunes, until the sense of them is lost in madness.45

Rankin also revealed that in the mid-1830s unmarried liberated women in the King’s Yard were ‘made available to Recaptive men as wives’. In a rather judgemental passage he reported that, ‘captive women are eagerly pounced upon’ by Recaptive men as wives.46 He believed that ‘The arbitrary consignment of women to matrimonial discipline might have been an experiment; the practice was mentioned as of recent adoption’, and summarizing his observations on the practice he concluded: ‘Their lot is not, perhaps, an unhappy one to themselves; it seems to violate no custom, it secures the usual comforts of married life where marriage is never the result of sentiment, and a disposal of them in every respect consistent with philanthropy and their own tastes might be difficult to devise . . . On the whole’, Rankin determined, ‘this method is not without its merits’, though he conceded that ‘its introduction would scarcely be popular in England.’47

Another process that took place in the King’s Yard, or at other times on the decks of slave ships in Freetown harbour, was the registration of the Recaptives, and that process has generated a remarkable series of documents. The Registers of Liberated Africans are today held in the Sierra Leone National Archives at the new Fourah Bay College, in the hills above Freetown. A series of heavy, red-leather-bound ledgers, they contain hundreds of yellowing pages on which are recorded, in long columns, the names and identities of thousands of Africans who were landed at Freetown. When a slave ship was condemned and the people brought ashore, attempts were made to determine their origins and ethnicities. Then the call went out for people from the same regions who knew the local languages to come to the King’s Yard and act as translators. The Registers of Liberated Africans are the result of these efforts. They begin in 1808 and run through to 1848 and contain 84,307 names. The name of each Recaptive was spelled out, as best as could be managed, by the registrars, and each Recaptive was assigned a unique number. Across the many pages and multiple volumes a running total was maintained, a figure which plotted the gradual re-population and demographic reordering of Freetown. The very last name in the registers is a girl named Marloryar, who was freed from the slave ship Bela Miquelon on 5 August 1848.48

Alongside the lists of names, in separate columns of the specially pre-printed ledgers, are recorded the age, height and sex of each Recaptive. The most revealing and most telling of the columns is ‘Description’. Here the registrars catalogued the tattoos, scars, tribal marks, old injuries and scarifications of the tens of thousands of men, women and children brought before them. Their entries described ornate lines of long, flowing body tattoos and the raised keloid scarifications, stretching across the chests and stomachs, that indicated ethnic belonging or the attainment of adulthood. When faced with particularly elaborate patterns some of the registrars penned tiny drawings, rather than attempt to fit a complex description into the small space available: crosses and circles, long runs of small lines, or flourishes of dots and dashes. They record arrow-like symbols and extended tattoos that reached from necks and tapered around torsos. Some Recaptives are recorded as having been marked on their faces, cheeks and forehead. Others had black spots – presumably tattoos – under their eyes. One man called Renga, Recaptive number 1,030, was recorded as being five feet two inches tall and distinguishable by a ‘large round scar on back, d[itt]o below right breast’. Under his left armpit there was a mark that was sketched out by the registrar.49 Other entries record the marks impressed upon the bodies of the Recaptives by disease rather than cultural practice. The marks of smallpox were, seemingly, the most common disfigurement. One entry described a young man with no distinguishing marks who was listed as being ‘without name’. In the Description column this was explained; he was ‘deaf and dumb’. Other entries recorded the type of injuries and scars that might be expected to be found on the bodies of people who had been recently captured by slave-traders, marched long distances to the coast and shackled on slave decks. There were open wounds and cuts and one man had a musket wound through his left thigh. Some of the liberated Africans had been branded before their liberation, and carried the permanent stigmata of slavery into their lives as free people in Freetown.

The Atlantic slave trade channelled its victims through a process of deliberate de-individualization. As chattels the enslaved were rendered anonymous – at least in the eyes of the traders and the slave owners. This notion of the victims of the Atlantic trade as a great mass of de-individualized black humanity is suddenly and strikingly overthrown by the Registers of Liberated Africans. They cast a sudden flash of light upon the identities of individual Africans, at the very moment they were liberated from the slave ships of the Atlantic trade. Having somewhat miraculously escaped transport to the plantations in Brazil and Cuba we find them in the registers still with their African names, cultures, personal identities and sometimes their familial connections all intact, not yet obscured, hidden or contaminated by new slave personae that, in the Americas, were imposed from above or adopted from below as part of complex survival strategies. The Registers of Liberated Africans, especially when cross-referenced with other sources and evidence about slave voyages and the activities of the West Africa Squadron, open up possibilities for historians who hope to use the names and descriptions to determine where on the continent they came from and perhaps build up new understandings of which peoples were being caught in the great dragnet of the Atlantic trade during the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century.

The registers contain entries for liberated men who have the letters ‘R.A.C.’ following their names. This indicates that they were recruited directly into the Royal African Corps in the King’s Yard compound itself, going from slave to free man and finally to soldier in days or perhaps even hours. These men served in regiments that operated both in Africa and the West Indies and some of the Recaptives recruited into these units had little choice in the matter. Of the fifty-six thousand male Recaptives landed at Freetown during the period of the West Africa Squadron, more than two thousand ‘Entered his Majesty’s land services as Soldiers’, four hundred of them being enlisted in the Royal African Corps for military service within West Africa.50 The remaining men recruited from the King’s Yard in Freetown were incorporated into the West India Regiment, a force whose duties included suppressing slave revolts on the sugar islands of the Caribbean. For a period recruits to both regiments were trained and garrisoned in the former slave fortress on Bunce Island. There they displaced the last employees of the company Anderson & Anderson, who had stayed on despite the end of the slave trade, the fortress and the once grand agents’ house rotting away under their feet. The army approved of Bunce Island as a barracks as it was almost impossible for reluctant ‘recruits’ to escape. Both the Royal African Corps and the British West India Regiment have long and troubling histories, too complex to be explored here. Other Recaptives were recruited into the navy; some served in the ships of the West Africa Squadron – former slaves becoming crewmen on ships that intercepted slave vessels. During the 1820s and later, soldiers of the regiments recruited from the King’s Yard and trained on Bunce Island were occasionally ordered to fight alongside the ships and men of the West Africa Squadron, confronting the slave-traders and their African trading partners – attacking their slave factories and barracoons on the coast.51

The most shocking aspect of what took place in the King’s Yard in Freetown during the era of the anti-slave-trade mission involved the fates of children. A system of so-called apprenticeship operated in the Freetown colony, with children under fourteen liable to serve terms of three to seven years working for a master without pay. It was a system similar to that imposed upon the slaves of the British West Indies in 1833 and was, from the start, open to serious abuse. F. Harrison Rankin watched the process by which the children were selected as apprentices while being processed in the King’s Yard. He noted that ‘any resident in the colony, of any colour, may enter the King’s Yard, select a girl or boy, and thereupon tie a string or a piece of tape around the neck as a mark of appropriation. He then pays ten shillings; and the passive child becomes his property, under the name of apprentice, for three years’.52 He also noted that while ‘The whites call the child so purchased . . . an apprentice, the blacks uniformly term it a slave’. ‘I cannot conceive’, he wrote, ‘a system better adapted to favour the slave-trade than that of apprenticeship at Sierra Leone’.53 There is incontrovertible evidence that apprentices in Freetown were badly treated and more disturbingly still that some of these infants were sold back into slavery. Having paid only 10 shillings for each apprentice, unscrupulous masters were able to make huge profits by selling them to inland slave-traders. The ten-shilling fee itself was imposed in 1824; before that, child apprentices were distributed free of charge. The fee was introduced in the hope that it would encourage masters to care more for their apprentices.54 As a result of the re-enslavement of apprentices an unknown number of the captives brought into Freetown on slave ships intercepted by the Royal Navy were being liberated for a second time, having been kidnapped and resold. In 1831 three men were hanged for slave-trading in the colony.55 As well as being apprenticed in Freetown, children from the King’s Yard were also sent to work on Ascension Island and some were dispatched to the West Indies, where they found themselves labouring on New World plantations, as their original captors had intended – but as apprentices rather than slaves. A Commission of Inquiry into the state of captured Negroes in the West Indies was established to examine their conditions. Despite these abuses there were many child apprentices in Freetown who were happily drawn into communities made up of people with whom they shared language and culture. Some learned trades from their masters and effectively became part of their extended families. When a group of Recaptives from the Ashanti tribe, from what is now Ghana, arrived in Freetown they were adopted by the Jamaican Maroons, whose ancestors had been Ashanti. The Maroons evidently still regarded themselves as part of that ethnic grouping, despite having crossed the Atlantic and back again as slaves and then as rebels, over several generations.56 Records of home-building and land-ownership held in the Freetown archives demonstrate that some apprentices thrived, built stone houses and established themselves in business. From the King’s Yard those who were not recruited as soldiers, wives or apprentices were resettled in Freetown itself or in one of the villages that were established around the Freetown peninsula, some of them in the hills behind the city. The Recaptives were given a few months’ financial support to enable them to build a home and plant some crops, and it was hoped that from that point onwards they would become independent.57 Rankin noted that in the mid-1830s each liberated African, having just been released from a slave ship with no possessions or clothes, ‘receives an outfit of a piece of cotton; and Government allows him an iron pot for boiling rice, a spoon, and a few additional domestic implements of similar simplicity and usefulness. He rears a hut, with assistance from his neighbours; it is a square shed, supported on a frame-work resting on eight or ten poles . . . Its construction occupies from a few days to a month . . . Round his rude dwelling the newly naturalised British subject obtains a grant of land . . . . Being now established, and having started into civilised life under the same auspices and advantages as others enjoyed before him, he is henceforth left to his own management.’58

There were said to be seventeen ‘nations’ among the Recaptives and after only three years of anti-slave-trade activity one thousand nine hundred and ninety-one Recaptives had been landed in Freetown. By 1811 the new arrivals outnumbered the survivors from the earlier waves of settlement and their children. The combined populations of the Nova Scotians, the Maroons and the descendants of the London black poor of the 1780s, if any had survived until the early years of the nineteenth century, became the minority. By 1850 one hundred different ethnic groups had been jumbled together onto the Freetown peninsula. They came from all along the three thousand miles of coastline patrolled by the squadron. This incredible inflow of tens of thousands of Africans from disparate cultures and of differing religions made Victorian Freetown a unique place, its population growth unpredictable, its demographics unprecedented. At night it was said that the sounds of horns, drums and songs of numerous tribes calling people to feasts and rites resonated through the air, furrowing the brows of the earnest men of the Church Mission Society and their converts who struggled to sweep the city of idols and traditional forms of worship.59 Until Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war in the 1990s, the majority of Freetown’s population was probably descended from men and women who arrived in the city in captured slave ships and passed through the gates of the King’s Yard. A new lingua franca developed, a hybrid, amalgam language known as Krio. It has become one of the national languages of modern Sierra Leone, a nation in which the Krio people – the descendants of the original settlers and liberated Africans – were for so long politically, economically and culturally dominant.

The new arrivals tended to form communities based on their shared languages and ethnicities, and this process of community formation can be read even now on the map of modern Freetown. One district of the city retains the name Congo Cross, as it was near there that a group of Recaptives from the Congo decided to settle. They found a space for their new homes on the waterfront, after having tried and failed to settle in an inland village that had been abandoned by the local Temne people. To the east of Congo Cross is Kissy and the Kissy Road, where it is thought a group of Recaptives from the Kise-Kise River to the north of Sierra Leone built their dwellings and founded a community. Another group of Recaptives from a Portuguese-speaking region of the continent were landed in Freetown; where they settled is the district of Portuguese Town. Other Recaptives who had been imprisoned together on slave ships formed, in some instances, what was known as a ‘Big Company’, a community built on shared experience rather than shared language or kinship. Slaves in Jamaica who had endured the horrors of the Middle Passage were known to express similar bonds, regarding themselves as ‘shipmates’. Decades after Granville Sharp had dreamed of transplanting the Anglo-Saxon Frankpledge onto the Freetown peninsula, the urge for social experimentation lived on. Some of the villages were designed as model communities, the missionaries and the local administrators gripped by a utopian spirit. For once the biggest dreamer was the man with the most power. Governor Charles McCarthy was determined to form the Recaptive villages into idealized Christian settlements. He ordered clocks, weathercocks and brass bells from England and had them installed in newly built stone churches. The schools were equipped with prayer books, quill pens and various textbooks. The missionaries taught the children English and the Bible, and one missionary wife taught the Recaptive women how to sew and make their own clothes. All this was paid for with government money and Church Mission Society donations. When the Foreign Office received the bills they ordered the governor to make savings.60

By the 1820s the majority of the Recaptives arriving in the King’s Yard were people of the Yoruba tribe from what is today Nigeria. Their arrival in Freetown was a reflection of the warfare and anarchy that had consumed that part of Africa. As the Oyo empire collapsed and new nations emerged from its ruins, African kings and Brazilian slave-traders launched slave raids and enslaved prisoners of war. The Nigerian slave ports of Lagos and Badagry became the new centre of the Atlantic trade, competing with the King of Dahomey’s key slave port at Ouidah. It was on those waters that the squadron focused much of its attention.

In Sierra Leone the new arrivals became known as the Aku, a corruption of the common Yoruba greetings – phrases such as ek’abo and ek’ale. The Aku were scattered across the numerous villages built around Freetown – Murray Town, Aberdeen, Campbell Town, Leicester. In their villages they appointed headmen, and in the larger settlements chose oba, minor kings. They maintained their languages and traditions, some of which still survive in Freetown today. In another part of the Freetown peninsula, men who had served their term in the Royal African Corps were settled. These veterans of Britain’s colonial wars named their villages after British military victories and the heroes of the British army – settlements named Hastings, Waterloo and Wellington can all be found on the modern map of the region. The village of Waterloo was founded in 1819, after the Napoleonic Wars, and named after the battle that ended that conflict. One of the streets of Waterloo, where the veterans built their houses and farmed their little plots, gained the name Soja (soldier) street.

Freetown in the middle decades of the nineteenth century became an exceptional settlement, part naval base for the West Africa Squadron and part burgeoning colonial city with an ever-expanding and uniquely disparate African population. The old settlers from Nova Scotia and Jamaica built distinctive homes in North American and West Indian colonial architectural styles. These dwellings had sweeping wooden verandas and stood on firm stone foundations. Liberated Africans who made some money in the city tended to copy the style, which became a feature of the city. A handful of Krio houses survive today, most of them in desperate states of disrepair. The somewhat unreal military economy of the city and the construction of a long list of civic buildings by the dynamic Governor Charles McCarthy led to a property boom. Goods and local agricultural products flowed into the city and like other colonial settlements Freetown became a magnet for European drifters and chancers. Europeans arrived as tailors, hairdressers and cooks, all looking to set up little businesses. Hotels sprang up, a racecourse was constructed and a society was founded to promote the arts and sciences. Both old settlers and Recaptives were drawn to the city, and became traders of various sorts. The more far-sighted and business-savvy bought consignments of trade goods that had been confiscated from the slave ships by the courts, alcohol, tobacco and cotton being common commodities.61 With slave ships condemned on a regular basis, old settlers and liberated Africans jostled for trade. Many struggled to compete with European traders who had the connections and the capital to get the best deals and buy in bulk, among them former officers of the Royal African Corps. Despite these disadvantages there were notable business successes among the Recaptives. A few made enough money to buy and refit former slave-trading vessels and become coastal traders. Other trades and industries flourished. Timber was felled and then worked by sawyers; others traded in valuable dyewoods. As the number of stone buildings increased, people learnt to gather and burn oyster shells for the lime, which was brought to the city and sold to make mortar. Newly liberated Africans raised their first crops and tried to sell the surplus, usually cassava, and from this gather a little capital to invest. Others found work out on the Sierra Leone River as fishermen – the river remains an enormous source of food and sustenance for the people of Freetown.

The greatest problem confronting early Victorian Freetown was the problem that had decimated earlier waves of settlement: disease. Tropical fevers still carried away the lives of large numbers of Recaptives and British officials. The loss of colonial officials and administrators was so common that surviving officials had to hold numerous posts at the same time, while they awaited new arrivals from Britain. Of all the British colonies to which a sailor or colonial administrator could be dispatched, Sierra Leone, in the 1820s, remained the one with the highest rate of death by disease.62Yellow fever, cholera and malaria – often called remittent fever due to its habit of recurring – were common, as were a whole range of conditions that the local doctors struggled to identify. It was commonly believed that the most dangerous period for Europeans was their first few weeks in the country. If they survived their first and inevitable bout of tropical illness, their chances of long-term survival were said to be good. Locals called this period the ‘seasoning’, the term for the process by which newly landed slaves were forced to adjust to the brutal realities of plantation life in the West Indian colonies. The problem of disease was so severe and intractable that the Church Mission Society reduced the term that its missionaries were expected to spend in the colony. Between 1804 and 1824 the society dispatched seventy Europeans to Freetown. Only thirty-two survived their posting, and seven who did make it home were ill on their return.63 This encouraged the CMS and the other missionary groups to rapidly establish schools and other institutions where willing Recaptives could be trained as teachers and missionaries, and left to lead the education and conversion of their fellow Africans. The Anglican Church Mission Society had strong links to Charles McCarthy, Governor of Sierra Leone from 1814 to 1824, and working with the colonial administration it created nine of the villages that sprang up nearby. The colonial government helped the missionaries to build church schools and homes for the superintendents of each of the new parishes created. The very first stone building in the colony was the missionary church in the village of Regent. McCarthy dreamed of a Christian mission in every village and of Sierra Leone as the great centre of Anglican devotion on the West African coast. Although the CMS led the way, harvesting the souls of thousands of heathen Africans as they were disgorged from the slave ships, the Methodists too arrived in Freetown, initially to minister to the old settlers from Nova Scotia, and set up their own schools. The descendants of the Maroons built their little church in 1822, which still stands today and attracts a congregation.

As well as being a patchwork of African identities and ethnicities, Freetown was where new hybrid identities were created. Tens of thousands of people liberated from the holds of slave ships emerged into the light of Freetown disconnected from their indigenous cultures and religions. While many tribes – most successfully the Yoruba of Nigeria – maintained much of their culture, even in Freetown the Recaptives were uniquely susceptible to proselytizing. Dislocated and disorientated, the Recaptives were far more receptive to the Christian message than the tribes found inland. Sierra Leone appeared to offer a unique opportunity and the Church Mission Society, working hand-in-hand with Governor Charles McCarthy, made the colony the focus of its efforts. The new identities forged in Freetown involved the distribution of new names. The society, operating from its Christian Institution at Leicester Mount, offered to name Recaptive children after any Briton willing to donate five pounds towards the cost of their education. As a result the first generations of Sierra Leonean families named after society missionaries and donors and supporters were established. Today there are still families of Venns, Crowthers, Willoughbys, Pratts and Sibthorps in Freetown. Those surnames can be found in London, New York and in all the cities to which the Sierra Leonean diaspora has spread. While the society named children, Governor McCarthy named settlements. In recognition of the society’s unique dedication to the colony, new villages were named after its members. From the society’s schools emerged a new generation with a new hybrid identity. A handful of them lived such extraordinary lives that they are worth getting to know in depth.

The first was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who like so many of the Africans who were landed on King Jimmy’s Wharf in the 1820s came from the Yoruba tribe of southern Nigeria in the modern state of Benin. In 1821 he was captured by slavers from the Muslim Fulani people and then sold on to Portuguese slave-traders. The ship that was to carry him to life on the plantations in Brazil was intercepted by HMS Myrmidon of the West Africa Squadron. Aged just thirteen, he was liberated in Freetown and handed over to the care of the missionaries. They provided him with an education and his new name – given in honour of the London vicar and Church Mission Society pioneer Samuel Crowther. So sincere was his faith and so prodigious his talents, Crowther was sent to Britain to further his education, specializing in languages. He went on to be the first man to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into his native Yoruba. He was the first student at the CMS’s Fourah Bay College when it opened in 1827 and by the end of his studies he could speak English, Latin, Greek, Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo, Nupe and Temne. Later in life he came to regard his initial enslavement as a necessary step in the journey that led him to religious redemption and divine purpose. He wrote that ‘the day of my capture was considered to me a blessed day’.64 Another key figure who led an equally extraordinary life was James Pinson Labulo Davies. The son of Yoruba Recaptives, he was educated at the Church Mission Society’s Sierra Leone Grammar School in Freetown and joined the Royal Navy, serving in the West Africa Squadron that had liberated his parents. We shall hear more of both of them later.

By 1851, Lord Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary, had concluded that after the destruction of the slave barracoons of the Gallinas River, which had been controversially achieved by Captain Joseph Denman of HMS Wanderer in 1840, Britain had ‘nearly rooted out the Slave Trade from the coast north of the [Equator]’. The slave trade of the North Atlantic, he contended, was now dominated by the ‘two persevering offenders the King of Dahomey and the Chief of Lagos’.65 While Abomey, the capital city of Dahomey, where the infamous King Ghezo maintained his vast palace complex, was sixty-five miles inland, the city of Lagos had the distinct disadvantage of being a coastal settlement and therefore subject to British naval power. The motivations for Britain’s eventual annexation of Lagos have been the subject of long disagreement among historians and are too complex to be discussed here. What is clear is that Britain wanted to stabilize the region, increase the flow of palm oil – which, as one of the key ingredients in soap, had joined cotton in the short list of cash crops that had the potential to change Africa’s fortunes – and knock out one of the last great slave-trading ports, thereby reducing the numbers of Yoruba people caught up in the ‘abominable traffic’.66

By the 1850s the Yoruba, known in Freetown as the Aku, were still flooding into the city in the ships intercepted by the West Africa Squadron. There is no question that there was a significant moral component within British policy, and the long-standing belief that the promotion of ‘legitimate’ trades would render the slave trade economically redundant means that the promotion of Britain’s palm-oil trade and the suppression of slavery could be viewed as complementary policies. There were those within government in London and within the Church Mission Society who had long been of the opinion that Britain should ‘acquire’ Lagos as a trading post and trading settlement. As one of the early British visitors to the city, G. A. Robertson, had remarked, ‘Lagos is one of the most desirable places on this coast for an European settlement’.67 British missionaries operating from Badagry to the west of Lagos on the Nigerian coast played their part in encouraging the Foreign Office to consider the possibility of annexing Lagos. Rarely reticent when it came to offering policy advice, the missionaries were particularly keen to see Britain take control as the deposed former Oba (King) of the city, Akitoye, had promised to end the slave trade if he was re-installed. In November 1851 a delegation consisting of a British consul and three naval officers presented Kosoko, the current Oba of Lagos and the nephew of Akitoye, with what amounted to an ultimatum from Lord Palmerston. It demanded that Kosoko accept British ‘friendship’, which would only be extended to him if he abandoned the slave trade. According to a British report of the meeting, Kosoko’s representatives defiantly replied ‘that the friendship of the English was not wanted’.68 As diplomatic efforts had clearly failed, and as no costly inland military expedition through malarial forests was required to reach Lagos, the decision was made to seize the city.

Embarrassingly for British power the first attack on Lagos in late November 1851 failed, and there was loss of British life. But on Christmas Eve a more determined attempt was made, when HMS Bloodhound and HMS Teazer, the latter an advanced modern screw-propeller steamer, crossed the sand bar that defended the city and eased into the shallow waters of Lagos harbour. Behind them followed a flotilla of British ships. On Boxing Day the attack began. Although both the lead British ships ran aground, they were re-floated and able to launch a heavy attack on the palace of the Oba of Lagos. Impressive defensive trenches had been dug and the Oba defended his city with batteries of cannon, around forty in total. The next day the attackers succeeded in hitting the gunpowder magazine in the Oba’s palace with a rocket, causing an enormous explosion.69When the British landed, the battle was all but over and the city had been evacuated. Lagos belonged to the British; they were to stay for the next hundred and nine years.

The bombardment of the city was, like much of British policy on the slave coasts of Africa, motivated by the twin objectives of suppressing the slave trade and opening up the interior of Africa to ‘legitimate trade’, that would be of benefit and advantage to Britain, as the anti-slave-trade mission and colonial expansion increasingly dovetailed. With the Oba having fled north to the lands of the Ijebu people, Akitoye was put on the throne, his only tasks to sign an anti-slave-trade treaty with Britain and maintain order. He succeeded in the first but failed disastrously in the second. Akitoye died in 1853 and in 1861 Lagos was annexed and put under the direct political control of a British governor answerable to London, a move that marked the beginning of the colonization of Nigeria.

One of the officers on board HMS Bloodhound during the bombardment of Lagos was Lieutenant James Pinson Labulo Davies, the son of Recaptives who had attended the Church Mission Society’s Grammar School in Freetown. His arrival in Lagos was, despite coming on a hostile British warship, a form of homecoming. Davies was a man of the Yoruba tribe, his parents having been born in the Nigerian cities of Abeokuta and Ogbomoso, and he settled in the city. He became one of a small elite who were critical of the formation of colonial Lagos. This community could trace its story back to 1839 when two men of the Nigerian Hausa tribe, freed from slavery in Trinidad, arrived in Freetown on their way back to their homeland. Inspired by this epic transatlantic voyage a group of Aku Recaptives in Freetown, reasoning that they were only around a thousand miles away from Nigeria, joined together to purchase a ship, which they named the Queen Victoria. In 1839 sixty-seven of them returned to their former towns and villages. Their first settlement was ironically at the slave-trading port of Badagry; later they moved inland to the city of Abeokuta and then some went on to Lagos. They embarked upon this whole project without any support or financial assistance from the British government. They became some of the few thousand Africans who managed to return to their original homelands after escaping from slavery. In Lagos they lived alongside former Muslim Yoruba slaves who had returned to their homeland from Brazil following the Malê Slave Revolt of the mid-1830s. In the following years further expeditions left Freetown for Nigeria. Aku Recaptives who had grown relatively wealthy through their activities as traders and shopkeepers in Freetown purchased former slave ships, which were still sold as prizes at auction in the harbour at Freetown, and used them to travel back to their lost homelands.70 In Nigeria many of them became both traders and self-energized Christian missionaries, spearheading British efforts to spread Christianity in Nigeria in the years before formal colonization. In Lagos they slipped into the same types of urban trading that had built their fortunes in Freetown. Some invested and most had a hand in the palm-oil trade. By the 1870s there were over a thousand of them in the city. British-educated, deeply Christian and as committed to missionary work as they were to establishing themselves as traders, these returners to their native lands – most of them either former liberated Africans or the children of liberated Africans – became known in Lagos as the Saro, a diminutive corruption of Sierra Leone.71 As well as James Davies, also resident in Lagos by the 1850s was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who became the first ever black bishop in the Anglican Church. Another arrival from Freetown was Thomas Babington Macaulay, a CMS reverend of Recaptive Yoruba parents. Born in the Kissy district of Freetown, he was named after the British politician and educated in the Freetown Grammar School. Macaulay was the driving force behind the creation of a similar CMS Grammar School in Lagos, an institution that still exists.

The Saro were members of the Yoruba tribe, and so were not ethnic outsiders, but culturally and religiously they were a hybrid people. They were Africans but also – despite very few of them ever setting foot in Britain – in a sense black Britons, laying claim to such an identity several decades before the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and a century before the emergence of Britain’s post-war black communities. Their hybrid names – mixtures of Yoruba and English – can still be found on a few remaining gravestones and memorials in the older graveyards and churches of Lagos and Freetown.* The Anglican architecture of those churches further testifies to their long-forgotten story. Despite their hybrid identity and deep commitment to the Anglican religion and British education, the Saro were at the forefront of the emergence of Nigerian nationalism in the middle of the twentieth century.

When James Pinson Labulo Davies established himself in Lagos in the 1850s he was perfectly placed to take advantage of the enormous boom in the palm-oil trade. This son of Nigerian parents who had been shipped along the African coast as human cargo now bought ships of his own. Like other Saro traders he bought former slave ships at auction in Freetown, refitted them and shipped palm oil and cotton from Lagos to Britain.72 Davies’ shipping line ran from the ports of Lokoja, Lagos and Freetown in West Africa to Liverpool, Plymouth and Portsmouth. He and others also bought goods confiscated from condemned slave ships in Freetown, and shipped them for sale in Lagos. He provided Macaulay with the funds to establish the Church Mission Society Grammar School in Lagos. Other members of the Saro community also contributed funds to the new school. Much of the money came from the expansion of the ‘legitimate’ trades in African commodities – palm oil, cotton and ivory. This encouraged British firms to pour capital into Lagos. Better situated for trade with Britain and full of experienced Saro businessmen, Lagos overtook Ouidah as the region’s chief port and the city became known eventually as ‘The Liverpool of West Africa’.73 Davies became a major employer in the city and sought to constantly expand his business through personal connections with members of the Church Mission Society and British business partners in London, Manchester and Liverpool. His links to Britain became critical to his trading activities and in the early 1860s he was wealthy and established enough to travel to Britain.

By the mid-nineteenth century the interception of slave ships on the high seas and in the rivers and the lagoons of West Africa was only one aspect of Britain’s anti-slave-trade strategy. The bombardment of Lagos was a feature of a significant shift in tactics and in late 1849, when Frederick Forbes, a successful anti-slave-trade captain, came ashore in Dahomey, there was a new emphasis on efforts to persuade and pressure local kings and chiefs to abandon the trade. Missions were dispatched to inland kingdoms to cajole regional leaders into signing treaties and encourage them to diversify into what were described at the time as ‘legitimate’ trades. Heading north from the slave port of Ouidah in Dahomey, Captain Forbes marched through West Africa’s forest belt to Abomey, the capital city of Dahomey, and there waited for an audience with King Ghezo.

By 1849 Ghezo was one of the dominant figures in the supply side of the Atlantic slave trade. He had achieved this in virtual partnership with the Brazilian slave-trader Francisco Félix de Sousa. An infamous figure in the history of West Africa, de Sousa based himself and his business in Ouidah, adopted many local customs including aspects of the vodun religion and is reputed to have maintained a harem of slave women with whom he fathered a hundred and three children.74 De Sousa had supported Ghezo’s rise to power during the 1820s. When the Nigerian Oyo empire collapsed in the 1830s, following an internal rebellion – effectively a jihad by its Muslim subjects – Ghezo broke away from his overlords and formed Dahomey into an independent state. With de Sousa as his slave factor at the coast he exploited the regional chaos and through wars and slave-raiding took over the region’s slave trade. In doing so, however, he placed himself and his kingdom in direct conflict with British ambitions and the stated mission of the West Africa Squadron. Ships of the squadron had regularly intercepted slave ships from Ouidah and, after bilateral suppression treaties had been signed with Portugal and Brazil, even seized slave ships lying at anchor there, to Ghezo’s fury.75 In 1849, the year Forbes arrived for his audience with Ghezo, Francisco Félix de Sousa died, but his son Izidoro de Sousa took over his father’s concession, a move which did not indicate any willingness on the part of King Ghezo to abandon the slave trade.

Dahomey in the 1840s was famous in Europe, not only as a slave-trading state but as a highly militarized society – though hardly more militarized in cultural terms than mid-Victorian Britain. The military prowess of Dahomians was a favoured subject of travel writers and journalists, and Dahomey had come to be known as the ‘Black Sparta’. What most fascinated Europeans was the presence of a feared regiment of female soldiers within the Dahomian army. Women from other ethnic groups captured in battle as well as the daughters of Dahomian families were recruited into the King’s army; the indigenous women were drafted through a levy system. Forbes, who wrote and published an account of his time in Dahomey, described various aspects of Dahomian culture, but knowing his audience, he dedicated a whole chapter to what he called the ‘Amazons of Dahomey’.

As Forbes travelled north and while he awaited his audience with King Ghezo, he must have been well aware that previous delegations had arrived in Abomey and attempted to persuade the King to halt the traffic in slaves. Ghezo had received them all, attempted to impress them with his wealth and military power and dismissed their overtures. The same year that Forbes visited the King, William Winniett, Governor of the British Gold Coast colony, was granted an audience. At their meeting the King informed him that Dahomey sold around nine thousand slaves each year, three thousand of which were sold privately by the King himself. The King also imposed a tax on each slave sold. After two decades in which slave ships dispatched from Ouidah had been pursued and intercepted by the ships of the Royal Navy, Ghezo conceded to Winniett that he was willing to adhere to any demand the British government might make of him, ‘except to give up the slave trade’. The trade, he said, ‘has been the ruling principle of my people. It is the source of their glory and wealth. Their songs celebrate their victories and the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery. Can I, by signing . . . a treaty, change the sentiments of the whole people?’76

Forbes was granted his audience with King Ghezo in May 1850. He carried with him letters that outlined Britain’s official opposition to the slave trade and one from Queen Victoria that expressed her personal opposition to the trade.77 Forbes also brought gifts of silks and cloths from Queen Victoria. We only have Forbes’ version of events, gleaned from his published account. In it he describes how, after being presented to crowds of Dahomians, he and his entourage entered the royal palace. They then passed through the ‘palace-square’, where ‘at the foot of the ladder leading to the palaver-house, on each side were three human heads, recently decapitated, the blood still oozing’, while ‘about the yard were many flags, of all colours . . . amongst which . . . were several union-jacks’.78 When presented before the King, Forbes recounts how he made the then all too familiar anti-slave-trade case, suggesting that if Ghezo ‘retained the slaves and made them cultivate the soil, Dahomey . . . would become a great nation, and himself a great king’.79 In truth Forbes was well aware of the futility of attempting to cajole African monarchs to abandon the slave trade. In his previous book, Six Months’ Service in the African Blockade, published in 1849, he had admitted that, ‘To expect an African king to keep a treaty, and offer him nothing but a dazzling present – to do this is idle. It is only placing him under the mercies of his subjects, who, assisted by the Slave-Merchants, would assuredly murder him’.80

By the 1850s Ghezo had in fact already established a flourishing and ‘legitimate’ trade in palm oil, a key ingredient of soap. For two decades the trade had existed alongside the slave trade in Dahomey, very slowly becoming a major source of the King’s income.81 In the 1840s he had passed laws making it illegal for his subjects to cut down any palm trees that he declared sacred, and most tellingly he had introduced taxes on the sale of private palm oil. While this policy was – in the long term – to offer the rulers of Dahomey an alternative to the international slave trade, it was not without its own moral problems, as palm oil was produced by slaves on plantations in Africa rather than in the New World. But at the time of Forbes’ visit, Ghezo remained unwilling to countenance abandoning the slave trade or yielding to British diplomatic pressure. He also reminded his guests that, as his own father had informed him, while it had been the French who had first established the trade in slaves with Dahomey, the British had later come to dominate that trade, becoming ‘the first of white men’. This uncomfortable historical fact added a complicating tone of hypocrisy to British condemnations of Dahomey as a barbarous, slave-trading, rogue state.82 The extent to which the King was committed to trade in 1850 was emphasized, perhaps unintentionally, by the fact that among the gifts he presented to Forbes was ‘a captive girl’. The child was a slave. She had been captured around two years earlier during the Okeadon War of 1848, fought between Ghezo’s armies and a people from the Egbado clan of the Yoruba ethnic group, known today as the Yewa.83 Her parents had been killed in the conflict and she had been taken prisoner. She had not been sold to the slave-traders, which led Forbes to believe that she was of a high-class family, and he believed that to have refused to accept the child ‘would have been to have signed her death-warrant, which, probably, would have been carried into execution forthwith.’84 This was a supposition by Forbes but Dahomey – along with other kingdoms such as the Ashanti and Benin – did engage in human sacrifice to mark the passing of kings and other events.85 Previous visitors to Abomey had witnessed the ritual killings of slaves and prisoners of war by the King’s female corps of bodyguards. King Ghezo, whose commitment to the slave trade was never broken by any British delegation or any offer of subsidies or inducements, had previously offered enslaved slave children as gifts to earlier delegations. Just one year before the arrival of Forbes, Brodie Cruickshank, the Chief Justice of the Cape Coast, had visited the court of Abomey. Cruickshank’s report of his visit is, as the historian Philip D. Curtin noted, ‘unusually free of cultural bias’. In it Cruickshank reported that the King presented him with two slave girls as a gift, which Ghezo apparently hoped might be offered to Queen Victoria, to do her washing.86 The historian Joan Amin Addo has speculated as to whether King Ghezo imagined the children to be an appropriate gift to present to the Queen because he presumed that wealthy British households still maintained black child servants as novelties or pets, as they of course had done throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If this was Ghezo’s line of thinking then it was not an unreasonable one.

For Forbes, a highly respected officer of the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy and a diplomatic envoy, the gift of the child meant that he, having been tasked with suppressing the Dahomey slave trade, found himself setting sail for Britain from the port of Ouidah with a freed slave child on board his ship. A punctilious record-keeper and chronicler of events, Forbes listed the child among the presents he had received on behalf of the Queen from King Ghezo, ‘two magnificent cloths (to me) to present to Her Majesty . . . a rich country cloth, a captive girl, a caboocer’s stool, and footstool, ten heads of cowries, and one keg of rum’.87 Because Forbes had been acting in the service of the state he suspected, or at least speculated, that this might affect the legal status of the child as it was possible that ‘the government would consider her as the property of the Crown’.88 The girl, who was probably seven or eight, was given the name Sarah, but dubbed Sally by the crew who, according to Forbes, grew fond of her on their journey home.

It was upon their return to England that this little girl’s life took a quite incredible turn. ‘Immediately on arriving’, Forbes tells us, ‘I applied through the Secretary of the Admiralty, and received for answer that Her Majesty was graciously pleased to arrange for the education and subsequent fate of the child’. Queen Victoria requested that Sally be brought to Windsor Castle and so, on 9 November 1850, the little girl from Abomey, now named Sarah Forbes Bonetta, after Captain Forbes and HMS Bonetta, made her first appearance at court, and her first entry in the Queen’s journal. Victoria wrote:

We came home, found Albert still there, waiting for Capt. Forbes & a poor little negro, girl, whom he brought back from the King of Dahomé, her parents & all her relatives having been sacrificed. Capt. Forbes saved her life, by asking for her as a present . . . She is 7 years old, sharp & intelligent, & speaks English. She was dressed as any other girl. When her bonnet was taken off, her little black woolly head & big earrings gave her the true negro type.89

Queen Victoria may well have also decided that the circumstances that had brought this young girl to Britain meant that responsibility for her welfare rested with her. The Queen was, after all, the intended recipient of King Ghezo’s gift. Whatever Victoria’s motivations and sentiments, Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life was transformed by the Queen’s willingness to draw her into the extended circle of her court and provide her with an excellent education. But as a black child, a former slave thrust into the heart of Victorian Britain’s elite, her life story was also buffeted and shaped by the profound contradictions and confusion about race that the Queen and most of her subjects shared in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Queen Victoria was both symbol and woman, monarch and mother. Out on the colonial frontiers, agents of the empire and British merchants invoked her name, image and titles when seeking to legitimize and expand British influence, and in doing so created what has been called the construct of the Great White Queen – a symbolic Victoria who was often little more than a cipher for British power. At home in her palaces, surrounded by her frenetic court and enormous family, Victoria the woman was a very different figure. There is much evidence to support the contention that at a personal and intellectual level the Queen was generally opposed to the racism of the mid-nineteenth century. She had close, interpersonal relationships with the non-white members of her court – her Indian attendant Abdul Karim being perhaps the most significant and controversial – and from the very start of her reign was linked to Britain’s anti-slavery mission. This was partly due to her gender – abolitionism had long been regarded as a political issue in which it was appropriate for women to play an important role – and partly because her accession coincided with the final manumission of the slaves in the West Indies. But her husband Prince Albert’s vocal denouncement of slavery and support for the doomed Niger expedition of 1840 was taken as a reflection of views held by both the prince and his wife. The Queen also held several audiences over her long reign with people of African descent, many of them African kings, chiefs and missionaries, others former slaves turned abolitionists from the United States and the British Empire. In 1851, the year after Sarah Forbes Bonetta came into her life, the Queen discussed the struggle against the slave trade with Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who met her at Windsor, and did not at first realize that the lady with whom he was in conversation was the Great White Queen herself. As noted earlier Victoria was also said to have been emotionally affected by her reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and went out of her way, even contravening diplomatic protocol, to meet the book’s author. Yet Victoria ruled over an empire that in the latter decades of the nineteenth century was increasingly influenced by racial thinking and new ‘scientific’ racial theories and Victoria, like most Victorians, thought in terms of racial ‘types’, and may well have believed, to some extent, that the races of mankind possessed innate, inner characteristics.

The life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, like that of so many of the black people who became caught up in Britain’s imperial project, is one that can only be told through the words of others. Her own voice is largely silent. We do not know how she understood or rationalized the strange journey she underwent, from being a victim of the slave trade to a ward of the queen of the most powerful nation on earth. Being so young and having already been orphaned in war and held as a slave in the court of Abomey, she must have been traumatized by her experiences, but there is nothing to allow us to do more than speculate as to her emotional well-being. Frederick Forbes tells us that, ‘Of her own history she has only a confused idea. Her parents were decapitated; her brothers and sisters, she knows not what their fate might have been.’90

Mid-Victorian ideas about race were to combine with the Queen’s own wishes and ideas that emerged from Britain’s anti-slavery and ‘civilizing’ missions to give shape to the strange life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, for while she was placed under the protection of the Queen the question as to where she might best be cared for arose. There was in the mid-nineteenth century a common belief in Britain that the European climate was injurious to the health of Africans and other non-European peoples. The damp as much as the cold, it was thought, could prove fatal and in the interests of her health it was decided that the infant Sarah should be returned to Africa as quickly as possible. In January 1851, just two months after she had first met the Queen, the Keeper of the Queen’s Privy Purse, Charles Phipps, wrote to the Rev. Henry Venn asking him to assist the palace in finding a location in coastal Africa where Sarah might be educated and cared for. The optimal location was obvious to Henry Venn. In 1851 he was secretary of the Church Mission Society, a post he held for thirty-two years. Sarah’s future he judged could be secured in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Seventy years of British missionary work and waves of settlement, each more unlikely than last, had by 1851 turned the pestilential peninsula that had snuffed out the lives of the ‘Black Poor’ of late Georgian London into a bustling African town surrounded by villages. The efforts of the West Africa Squadron had populated Freetown and the Church Mission Society had built, within its environs, a whole network of educational and religious institutions; a boys’ school, a girls’ school, a number of churches, hospitals and a prestigious grammar school – the oldest in Africa. Many of the African teachers and missionaries who manned those institutions had been trained in Britain, and sent back to Freetown to spread the twin virtues of education and Christianity. The ill-health that had afflicted some of them had helped perpetuate the myth that Africans could never thrive in European climates.

The long-term hope was that from Freetown these black missionaries and teachers would move eastwards establishing new missions, churches and schools along the coast of West Africa, transforming a region that anti-slavery campaigners hoped would soon no longer be known as the Slave Coast. Freetown was to become the base camp for the continental civilizing mission, but civilization was not all that the missionaries from Freetown would bring to their fellow Africans. These British-educated, Christianized Africans, some of whom had been liberated from slave ships by the West Africa Squadron, or were the children of Recaptives, would open up the region to British trade and British culture. Transplanting Sarah to Freetown would, it was said, protect her health from the cold of England, while at the same time placing her on the path towards a future as a black missionary. Sarah’s intelligence, which had been noted by Forbes and by the Queen herself, made this future vocation seem both probable and appropriate.

While arrangements for her return to Africa were reaching a conclusion she came again to visit her benefactor. The Queen’s journal entry for 11 January 1851 describes her thoughts on the child she was now calling by the less formal Sally. ‘After luncheon, Sally Bonita [sic], the little African girl came with Mrs. Phipps & showed me some of her work. This is the 4th time I have seen the poor child, who is really an intelligent little thing . . . ’91 That year Sarah Forbes Bonetta became known to the Victorian public when Forbes published Dahomey and the Dahomans, which told some of her back story and informed the public that she was under the care and protection of the Queen. Forbes wrote effusively about Sarah’s talents, describing her as ‘a perfect genius’ who ‘now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music . . . She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection’. Being what Forbes described as ‘an excellent specimen of the negro race’ he speculated as to whether her talents and later development might be used to test the ‘capability of the intellect of the Black: it being generally and erroneously supposed that after a certain age the intellect becomes impaired, and the pursuit of knowledge impossible –– that though the negro child may be clever, the adult will be dull and stupid.’92

Sarah’s education in Freetown at the Church Mission Society’s girls’ school did not become a test case in the dubious study for the intellect of the human races. It is not known exactly how long she remained in Sierra Leone but by the mid-1850s she had returned to England, seemingly unconcerned about any imagined risks to her health. In December 1855 she appears again in Queen Victoria’s journal. Sarah, whom Queen Victoria almost always referred to using the more informal name ‘Sally’, had come to visit her benefactor at Windsor Castle. Victoria’s journal entry for the day reads, ‘Saw Sally Forbes, the negro girl whom I have had educated: she is immensely grown and has a nice slim figure’.93 Three years later Sarah was again in attendance at court, as a guest at the wedding of the Queen’s eldest daughter, Victoria the Princess Royal. Historians have suggested that her presence at this event, both highly public and acutely personal to the Queen and the royal family, demonstrates the Queen’s high regard and personal affection for the child she had by then known and provided for almost a decade.

By the late 1850s Sarah had settled in the seaside town of Brighton, then a highly fashionable resort, popular with the expanding middle classes and the aristocracy and royalty of Europe. One of the few crowned heads who disliked the town was Queen Victoria herself, who had abandoned the Royal Pavilion as it was unable to provide her growing family with the privacy she demanded for them. Queen Victoria selected Miss Sophia Welsh, an elderly lady with experience of life in India, to care for Sarah in Brighton and assist with her introduction into polite society.94 Sarah lived at 17 Clifton Hill, with Miss Welsh and her sister Mary. Well known in the town, she was an accomplished, educated and eligible young woman. Some time in 1862 it appears that she became known to James Pinson Labulo Davies, who, having built up his wealth from shipping and the palm-oil business in Lagos, was visiting Britain. Davies sought an introduction to her and the two were engaged to be married, the match apparently approved of by Queen Victoria.

The wedding of two wealthy, highly educated and well-connected British Africans, one of whom had strong links to the Queen, was of huge interest to the press and the public. Hundreds of people – some reports say thousands – turned out on the streets of Brighton on the day to cheer the couple. Months afterwards reports of the event were still appearing in the colonial press, which reproduced the reports from the British newspapers. Two days after the wedding the Leeds Mercury ran one under the headline, ‘Interesting Marriage in Brighton’ describing the bride and groom as ‘a lady and gentleman of colour, whose previous history gives to the ceremony a peculiar interest, chiefly to those who have been so long and so deeply interested in the African race and who have watched the progress of civilisation caused by the influence of Christianity on the negro’. In an unsubtle attack on the racial attitudes of the United States, in the midst of the American Civil War, the paper also proudly pronounced that ‘the ceremony will also tell our brethren on the other side of the Atlantic that British ladies and gentlemen consider it a pleasure and a privilege to do honour to those of the African race who will prove themselves capable of appreciating the advantages of a Liberal education’.95 The Brighton Herald agreed that the wedding demonstrated the liberal and enlightened attitudes that it suggested prevailed in Britain, among the educated and religiously minded. The newspaper described ‘the spectacle of the natives of a distant Continent, separated from us by strong natural barriers, assembled under the wing of the Church of England, partaking of its rites, and recognised to all its privileges by a large party of fellow-subjects and fellow-Christians, differing indeed in the colour of their skin, but asserting no social, religious, or natural superiority on that account’.96 The same publication concluded that the wedding was testimony to ‘the labours of the philanthropists and the missionary over prejudices of pride and blood which [even the] most sanguine followers of Wilberforce could scarcely have looked forward to!’ The Brighton Gazette similarly delighted in reporting that the wedding party that entered St Nicholas’ Church consisted of ‘white ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with white gentlemen until all the space was filled’.97 That the same report repeatedly fixated on the contrasts in skin colour between the white and black guests amply demonstrated that Britain in 1862 was not the colour-blind and relaxed nation they claimed it had become.

As a few of the newspaper reports from 1862 reveal, somewhere along the line Forbes’ belief that Sarah had been spared being sold into the Atlantic trade because ‘she was of a good family’ had become inflated and exaggerated.98 She was described as the daughter of an African chief and ultimately as an orphaned ‘African Princess’. At their wedding reception Henry Venn gave a speech honouring the newly married couple and expressing his delight that Sarah ‘had received such an education as was calculated to be of the greatest benefit to the African natives, amongst whom she was so shortly to reside’.99 To Venn, Sarah’s short life – she was still only nineteen – had been spent in preparation not for her wedding but for her return to Africa, where she could begin her work as a black missionary. Venn expressed his earnest hope that Sarah’s marriage would help cement links between England and Africa, ‘which latter country has been so much civilized, chiefly with her connection with England’.100

The couple’s marriage certificate told a more sombre story, cataloguing the broken family backgrounds and atomized families of a woman who had been a child slave and a man whose parents had been liberated from a slave ship. The certificate notes Sarah’s parents as ‘unknown’ and in place of their names it describes Sarah as ‘a Negress of Dahomey, West Africa’. James Davies is listed as the son of Labulo, ‘a Negro of Sierra Leone’. His occupation is recorded as African merchant. The document also gives Sarah’s full name, for the first time, as Ina Sarah Forbes Bonetta. The historian Caroline Bressey has suggested that ‘Ina’ might have been Sarah’s lost African name, which, standing on the threshold of a new phase in her life, she perhaps felt able to reclaim.101

On 15 September the couple attended the studio of Camille Silvy, portrait photographer to the rich and famous. This precocious Frenchman of aristocratic lineage, still in his twenties, had photographed much of the British aristocracy and all the royal family, with the exception of the Queen herself, and a Silvy portrait was a real statement of wealth and position in mid-Victorian Britain.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta is next recorded in Britain in 1867. She came with her eldest daughter, Victoria, to whom the Queen was godmother. On 9 December mother and daughter visited the Queen, who recorded the meeting in her voluminous diary. ‘Saw Sally, now Mrs Davis, & her dear little child, far blacker than herself, called Victoria & aged 4 a lively intelligent child, with big melancholy eyes’.102 When Sarah’s daughter was christened the Queen sent her new goddaughter a gold cup, salver, knife, fork and spoon as gifts. The inscription on the cup and salver read ‘To Victoria Davies, from her godmother, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863’.103 By the late 1860s Sarah was seriously unwell, her health having been damaged by tuberculosis. Her husband’s finances were similarly ailing. His shipping company was in trouble and his debts were mounting. By 1873 he owed his European trading partners around £11,000.104 Four years later his debts had risen to £20,500. Sarah moved to Madeira; like those who had sought to care for her in the 1850s, she concluded that a gentler climate would allow her to recover her health, but in 1880, aged thirty-seven, she died. On the day Queen Victoria received the news she was expecting a visit from Sarah’s daughter Victoria. The Queen later decided to ensure that her goddaughter, like her mother before her, would be protected and provided for: ‘I shall give her an annuity’, she wrote in her journal.105 Victoria Davies was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College with all fees paid by the palace.

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