Testimonies from the front line of nineteenth-century British abolitionism

Mary Wills is the author of the recent Liverpool Studies in International Slavery publication, Envoys of Abolition, a new study of nineteenth-century British naval officers’ experiences of suppressing the transatlantic slave trade. In this blog post, Mary Wills highlights the wide cast of characters in Britain’s anti-slavery story with testimonies from naval officers which reveal the complexity of British abolitionism.

After Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, a squadron of Royal Navy vessels was sent to the West Coast of Africa tasked with suppressing the still prolific transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans to the Americas. My book Envoys of Abolition examines the personal and cultural experiences of the naval officers at the front line of Britain’s nineteenth-century abolitionist campaign.

Their unique roles in this 60-year operation are revealed in previously unpublished diaries, letters and journals. These personal narratives uncover everyday concerns of sickness and disease, strategy and financial reward, but also more profound questions of national honour, cultural encounters and the true meaning of freedom for the African peoples they were ‘liberating’ from slavery.

By the very nature of their task, naval officers were engaging with ideas, beliefs and motivations at the heart of British abolitionism. Set alongside a darker history of former British dominance in the business of transatlantic slavery before 1807, abolitionism was at various times a popular movement, with the involvement of all classes and both men and women in generating pressure for abolition of the slave trade and later (1833), slavery in British colonies. The Instructions for the Guidance of Her Majesty’s Naval Officers Employed in the Suppression of the Slave Trade, published in 1844 and issued to all serving officers on anti-slave trade patrols, began with the assertion: ‘The Slave Trade has been denounced by all the civilized world as repugnant to every principle of justice and humanity.’ A theme that runs throughout my book investigates how far naval officers serving on the West African coast agreed with and were motivated by this sentiment.

Many testimonies from naval officers offer emotion, insight and conviction regarding the anti-slavery cause, often driven by religious belief, and particularly the rise of evangelicalism, a movement which infiltrated the institutions of Great Britain and dominated the political agenda in the early nineteenth century. The circumstances of their work, detaining slave ships and witnessing the appalling conditions on board, clearly contributed to shaping their views. For military men, this was exposure to a new kind of enemy, of unspeakable cruelty and human suffering.

Sir George Ralph Collier was appointed as the first Commodore (high command) of the West Africa squadron in 1818. He was a passionate abolitionist and deeply committed to the work of the squadron. Declaring that British naval officers worked with ‘commendable zeal in the cause of humanity’, Collier wrote ardently that the slave trade ‘is more horrible than those who have not had the misfortune to witness it can believe, indeed no description I could give would convey a true picture of its baseness & atrocity’. Furthermore, Collier’s understanding of his professional duty as a British naval officer was imbued with humanitarian imperative and a moral responsibility to release the enslaved. His actions against slavers were performed with ‘no view to personal merit, for I did what humanity, and therefore my duty, only required’.

Collier was certainly not alone on the squadron in holding such views. Letters and journals of many others, however, uncover more ambiguous opinions, particularly as attitudes regarding anti-slavery and race evolved and hardened as the nineteenth century progressed. Officers’ views were also shaped by their role in the British abolitionist effort on shore in West African territories, which developed alongside naval intervention at sea. The British anti-slavery campaign was inseparable from developing imperial agendas in West Africa in this period, tied to projections of British national identity, at home and on the international stage. Naval officers were tasked with spreading the message of British abolitionism on shore. As such they invariably supported the mission to eradicate the slave trade from African society by, in the terminology of the time, ‘civilizing’ the continent.

Commander Arthur Parry Eardley-Wilmot’s letter to the Commander-in-Chief of the forces at Abeokuta (in present day Nigeria) in 1852 propounded the elevating example of the Christian faith encapsulated by, in his words, ‘peace, friendship, kindness, charity’. Wilmot’s perception of ‘charity’ took the form of encouraging the African people to ‘do good & endeavour to benefit their fellow creatures’. The English were present in order to ‘make you & all Africa like England & the rest of the civilized world.’ Wilmot stressed the need for continued paternalism, based on a prejudiced vision that only European intervention could save the African people.

Officers’ narratives from the West African coast are therefore revealing of the complexity of British abolitionism in this period, a blend of religion, morality, philanthropy, politics and identity. What is fascinating about this chapter in the history of the British anti-slavery movement is the prominent position of naval men at the operational front line of the campaign. The official obligations of the navy in this period involved protecting and expanding the empire, and in this context humanitarianism and idealism did not always sit well with other professional qualities. Many officers were not self-confirmed abolitionists, but just performing the role for which they were appointed. The existence of anti-slavery beliefs and commitment to the cause of many others, however, is significant, and a reminder of the wide cast of characters in Britain’s multifaceted anti-slavery story.

Mary Wills is an Honorary Fellow of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.
For more information on Envoys of Abolition, visit our website.

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